Tag Archive for: patrol officers

The transition from working the streets as a patrol officer to the coat and tie sleuthing of a police detective can be somewhat of an eye-opener. While definitely closely related, the two jobs differ.

Patrol officers are typically responsible for responding to crimes that have either recently occurred or are in progress. Detectives are usually called upon to investigate crimes and crime scenes, those encountered by patrol officers, and sometimes medical examiners or coroners. Of course, it’s not at all unusual for cases to arise from reports by citizens, or as the result of information gained while investigating an altogether different crime.

For example, while collecting evidence at the murder scene of a low level drug dealer, detectives discover a large stash of stolen guns, and cash stained with the red dye used by banks to help track bank robbers. Fingerprints on many of the guns belong to four known criminals, two of which have served time for bank robberies. As a result, detectives are able to solve a couple of major cases in addition to the homicide, the original case.

As a patrol officer, much of the initial work is conducted in a rush due to the immediate need to focus on and react to action-based events as they unfold—the then and now. Detectives, on the other hand, examine a much broader perspective once the “heat of the moment” has cooled to a slower pace. Ordinarily, investigators have the time to map out a solid plan of action and to organize that process.

This, the sudden shift from patrol to investigations, can sometimes be a bit difficult. It’s tough to slow your pace when all you’ve known is to work at a rapid, adrenaline-fueled clip day-in and day-out. It’s lights and sirens and speed and struggling with combative suspects, car chases, and shootouts, to an immediate slowdown. It’s a shock to the mind and body.

No more rushing to he-said she-said calls. No more traffic summons to write. No more barking dogs or loud music complaints. And No More Graveyard Shifts!

Even the paperwork involved in the two duties differs. Patrol officers complete many simple “fill in the blanks” forms—speeding tickets, breath tests, incident reports, etc.—and perhaps anywhere from a brief paragraph to a page or two of narrative explaining the details of the calls to which they’ve responded during their shifts. And, of course, the notes they’ll use for court testimony and to brief detectives who’ll further investigate major crimes.

In contrast, the amount of paperwork required of detectives can sometimes involve case notes chronicling criminal activity and evidence for periods of a year or more. Detectives are also responsible for composing affidavits and search warrants.

A savvy detective examines ALL pertinent evidence. They’ll brainstorm with other detectives. They’ll question everyone who may be able to shed even a sliver of light on the case. And they document EVERYTHING, and then check and double-check to be sure that no stone is left unturned.

Little by little detectives chisel and whittle away at a case until all the unnecessary and irrelevant bits are out of the way. Then, all that remains is the name of the perpetrator. It’s sort of like pouring all evidence into a large funnel where it swirls and twirls around until it reaches the bottom where out pops your suspect, ready for handcuffing. Obviously crime-solving is not that simple, but the analogy sort of fits.



My publisher once posted an excerpt from my book about police procedure. The segment is about my thoughts on becoming an investigator, the intro to the chapter devoted to detectives.

I thought it might be fun to share it with those of you who haven’t read the book. Those of you who have read the book, well, we can chat about something else while the others are reading.

From Chapter Four:

Detectives usually begin their careers as uniformed police officers who work their way up the chain of command, striving to obtain either the position of a uniformed supervisor or move into what some officers think of as the ultimate police job – a detective.

How an officer becomes a detective varies with each individual department. Some departments offer the position as a promotion. These departments post the vacant position and officers apply and test for the job, and the most qualified person receives the advancement. Promotions, or assignments to a detective division, aren’t normally awarded to officers until they’ve completed at least five years of service. Other departments take the rivalry between uniformed officers and the plainclothes detectives into account and simply assign officers to a detective’s position on a rotating basis, which allows every officer a turn as an investigator.

A detective is responsible for the investigation of both misdemeanor and felony crimes. How each department carries out these investigations depends upon the size of the department. Some departments are large enough to have detectives who specialize in certain areas such as credit card fraud, homicide, juvenile crime, arson, narcotics, rape, vice, etc. (We’ll look at some of these areas in greater detail later in the chapter.) Detectives sometimes work in several specialized areas before finding one they like. Once they do, they usually make that area their permanent assignment.

Other departments have only a couple of detectives for the entire agency – if any. In some rural departments where manpower is limited, patrol officers serve as first responders, evidence technicians, and investigators. There are advantages to each situation. The specialized detective becomes very skilled at his particular craft, whereas a detective or patrol officer in a smaller department has the opportunity, out of necessity, to work all kinds of cases.

No matter what the assignment, the duties are the same. Detectives are investigators who gather facts and collect evidence in criminal cases. They conduct interviews and interrogations, examine records and documents, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in and conduct raids or arrests. A detective is usually charged with applying for and obtaining search warrants. To accomplish these tasks effectively, detectives are trained with a more diverse approach than patrol officers.

Both detectives and patrol officers are required to attend, at minimum, semiannual in-service training to stay abreast of new laws and procedures. In addition to the in-service training, a detective’s education must be endlessly updated, and his base of knowledge must be constantly expanded. Criminals are continually developing new ideas and methods to get around the law, and the detective has to make every effort to stay one step ahead of them.

Modern criminals are more highly educated than offenders of the past, and today’s crooks rehearse and practice every aspect of their craft, like actors studying for a Broadway production. The thugs even hone their shooting skills. I was once searching the trunk of a drug dealer’s vehicle and found an automatic weapon, several rounds of ammunition, and a police silhouette target. The center of the target was filled with bullet holes, and Lee Lofland was written above the head. That was an eye-opener.

There are many new ways to fight crime in today’s computer and technology age, but nothing can compare to the old-fashioned method of the detective getting out and beating the streets for information and clues.

The image of the detective has changed as well. It has evolved from the trench-coat-wearing sleuth to a more stylishly dressed investigator. That image possibly reflects a larger clothing allowance than was once provided by departments. I think, years ago, I wore the long coat not because I was cold, but to cover my outdated cheap suits. All my sport coats had torn linings from years of friction caused by my gun’s hammer constantly rubbing against the fabric. When I began my career, the pay was around 8,400 dollars annually, with no clothing allowance. Also in those days, we had to buy our own guns, handcuffs, flashlights, raincoats, ticket books, and shoes. Oh yeah, and bullets. If we thought we might need them, we purchased a handful of those as well.

Today, all expenses are paid by the officer’s department, including clothing allowances for undercover officers who sometimes must wear really unusual clothing in order to blend in with their working environment.

A case begins with the commission of a crime. Uniformed patrol officers are often the first officers on the scene, and they gather the pertinent information-the who, what, where, why, when, and how, if available. It’s the duty of the uniformed patrol officer to secure the scene until a detective or the officer in charge relieves him. The officer who gathers the information later passes it on to the detective assigned to the case. Cases are usually assigned on a rotating basis, or a detective can be assigned to a particular case based on her particular knowledge and skills that relate to the offense. Once assigned to a case, a detective will follow it through until the case has been solved and the suspect is tried and convicted. The detective may use other officers to assist in the investigation, but the case will remain in her charge.

Fact gathering is a must in police work. Detectives can only relate specific details in a court of law and may not offer opinion, as a rule, for testimony. However, during the investigation, gut feelings and instinct play a large role in the detective’s search for information. Years of experience can be, and often are, the most formidable tool in the detective’s arsenal.


Note: These In The Line Of Duty headings appear a few times throughout the book. They’re my real-life reflections of something that actually happened to me while I was on the job.

When I raised my right hand to take the oath to serve my state and my country, I felt a lump rise in my throat. It was such an honor and a thrill to finally be sworn in as a police officer. The feeling of putting on a uniform and pinning a shiny, silver badge to my chest was one of the greatest moments of my life. When the day finally arrived, though, to transition from a uniformed officer to a plainclothes detective, I couldn’t wait to trade the uniform for a new suit and to hook a new, gold badge on my belt. After all, my childhood dream was to become an investigator, and I could finally wear cotton again instead of double-knit polyester shirts with fake buttons that zipped up the front and pants that retained enough heat to bake bread. (Of course, that cool stripe down the leg offset all negatives!)

I turned in my marked patrol vehicle and received my first department-issued, unmarked car. It was an old, beat-up Chevrolet Caprice, a car I write about fondly in my books and stories. The car was midnight blue, several years old, and would reach its top speed of eighty-five miles per hour only after going downhill for about three miles. I didn’t care. It was mine. I washed it, cleaned the tires and wheels, and put my things-a fishing-tackle box filled with fingerprint equipment, a shotgun with an eighteen-inch barrel, extra ammo, hand cleaner, paper towels, and a roll of crime scene tape-into the trunk. I’d get more tools later as I figured out what I needed. For now, I was ready for my first case.

In my early days as a patrol officer, I looked on with envy as the detectives came in and took over my cases after I’d done the dirty work. They were the guys getting their pictures in the newspapers and getting all the glory for doing nothing … or so I thought. It took just a few months of being a detective to dream of an eight-hour shift, like the old days, instead of a twenty-hour day, and of not being called out in the middle of the night, every night! The thought had never occurred to me that it would be irritating to have newspaper reporters snapping photos of me while I struggled to hold in my lunch at a gruesome homicide scene, or that reporters would write things in the paper I didn’t say or leave out the important things I did say.

Nobody teaches you how alienated you become from your old co-workers, the boys in blue, once you become a detective. Uniformed officers sometimes feel a bit of jealousy toward detectives, and detectives sometimes experience a bit of an unjustified superiority complex toward uniformed officers. It’s a rivalry that’s always been in place and probably always will be.

Nobody explains the many hours you’ll spend sitting in the woods, or in the bushes, with hungry mosquitoes and spiders and snakes, or in the rain or snow, watching suspects in your attempts to build cases. Nobody tells you how it feels to work undercover and to walk into the middle of a drug deal, unarmed and without a radio. Nobody describes how it feels to be shot at, spit on, beat up, kicked, scratched, stabbed, cut, knocked down, punched, and pepper sprayed (with your own pepper
spray), all the while wearing a suit.

Yes, I was finally a detective and it was absolutely … glorious!

Police officers in large cities become highly specialized in their areas of expertise. Patrol officers there are often assigned to section of the city, a precinct, and they know that area like the back of their hand.  They’re on a first name basis with every drug dealer, hooker, and numbers runner. Detectives in those areas are normally assigned to a particular duty, such as homicide investigations, narcotics cases, and cyber crimes. There are full-time units in place to handle CSI, cold cases, SWAT, canines, bicycle patrol, and community policing, to name just a few.

However, in less-populated jurisdictions—mid-size to small—where manpower and funding are precious commodities, officers sometimes have to serve double, or even triple duty. They wear many hats.

Patrol officers everywhere are the front line defense against crime. They’re the men and women who answer the never-ending stream of calls, ranging from homicides to people who think aliens have just landed in their back yard.

In small agencies, though, a patrol officer may also be a member of the SWAT team. That officer would probably keep his/her SWAT gear in the trunk of their patrol car, ready to suit-up in a flash. They may also serve as a member of the high-risk entry team, or as a bike patrol officer, swapping a cruiser for a bicycle to finish out the remainder of their shift.

Some detectives also serve as members of scuba dive teams. Many do their own evidence collection and crime scene photography. There are no CSI units in many, many departments across the country. In fact, many departments don’t have detectives. Patrol officers in those departments investigate criminal cases from beginning to end. Needless to say, this stretches manpower to the breaking point.

In even smaller police departments, where there are three or four officers (maybe the chief is the only officer) duties may branch out further still. For example, a tiny town of a few hundred citizens may expect their officer(s) to read the town water meters as part of their regular patrol. Yes, I do know of a town where this system was and may still be in place.

Another town police chief has an office inside a country store. His “office” is actually nothing more than a metal desk positioned in the corner near the lottery ticket machine, and the town’s highest ranking law enforcement officer only has access to his work space during the store’s normal business hours. He is also required to handle the town’s animal control duties. Once each week, this town’s top and only cop swaps his patrol car for a pickup truck and utility trailer so that he can collect the garbage set out on the curbs by the town’s residents.

So if you’re ever worried that your story seems a little off where police procedures are concerned, well, fear not because the truth about law enforcement is much more farfetched. In fact, the only thing consistent about police work is its inconsistencies.

To Preserve and Collect

To Protect and Collect

The investigation of criminal cases is often a time-consuming process that involves numerous hours of leg work, interviewing potential witnesses and/or suspects, evidence collection and, well, you know the drill. It’s intensive. However, there are also the cases that practically solve themselves with little or no investigative skills needed.

For example …

It was a dark and non-stormy, but bitterly cold night.

I was on call and, as my luck goes, my pager sounded off, beeping and buzzing on the nightstand next to my head. Hoping it was an informant I could ignore until morning, I reached for the device and saw the number for dispatch on the tiny screen.

My next wish was for it to be something I could handle by phone. After dialing the number, a perky female voice answered and told me that I was needed at a structure fire, one that a patrol sergeant had reason to believe was arson. Great. Just great, I thought. Not only was it 3 a.m. and as cold outside as a well digger’s hind parts, but the freakin’ case was an arson, and I absolutely despised working arson cases. They’re dirty and stinky and I despised getting dirty and stinky, especially at 3 a.m. when the outside temperature is hovering at one notch below “Brrr and Shiver.” Give me a good old murder to solve, any day. At least there was a good chance the body would’ve been indoors.

I rolled out of bed, apprehensively, and slipped on some clothes I wouldn’t mind tossing in the garbage a few hours later, and headed outside where the frigid air slapped my cheeks and launched an instant assault on my eyes nose, ears, and lungs. Even my unmarked Crown Vic seemed pissed off and protested by withholding heat for at least ten very long minutes.

I arrived at the scene, an agricultural-based business, where fire crews were still hard at it, spraying water at yellowish-orange flames that reached heights well above nearby trees and telephone poles. As horrific as all fires are, the heat from this one was not at all offensive. My toes were cold, cold, cold.

The patrol sergeant who’d requested my assistance waved me over to where he was engaged in an arm and hand-waving, finger-pointing conversation with the fire chief and a couple of shivering bystanders.

The Evidence

On my way, I saw something on the ground that reflected the brilliant colors of the dancing flames. You’d never guess, in a million years, what it was, so I’ll tell you (yes, crooks are often as dumb as a rock).

The reflective object was a driver’s license. So I picked it up, told the sergeant and fire chief that I was pretty sure I knew who’d started the fire and that I’d give them a call in a little while. I turned around and walked back to my car. I’d been at the fire scene all of two minutes.

It wasn’t that I was some sort of super-detective, or anything close. Not at all. You see, the drivers license I’d found belonged to a man who’d served time in prison for setting a couple of previous fires. I drove to the man’s house where I promptly told him I had solid evidence that placed him at the scene. Then I bluntly asked if he’d set the fire.

He first patted his pants pockets as if feeling for something that “should’ve” been there (a driver’s license), and then slowly looked down at his muddy shoes and nodded his head (a classic sign that a confession is about to spill from the lips).

I told him he’d need to do better than that. He looked up until his gaze met mine, and said, “Yeah, it was me. I set it.”

On the way to book the arsonist I called the patrol sergeant to tell him that I had the firebug in custody. It was not quite two hours after I’d received the page from the dispatcher. All without getting dirty, or stinky.

By the way, my car still refused to put forth any heat on the ride home. My toes were still cold.