Criminal Investigation: An Introduction to Principles and Practice

Robin Fletcher (Department of Criminology, Middlesex University, London, UK)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 23 August 2011



Fletcher, R. (2011), "Criminal Investigation: An Introduction to Principles and Practice", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 34 No. 3, pp. 557-559.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Much of the literature written about the police returns to a quote made in 1829 by Sir Richard Mayne, the first Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, in which the “prevention of crime” is quoted as the primary objective of the police. What is often forgotten is the next line which reads “the next that of detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed. To these ends all the efforts of police must be directed.” In the opening chapter Stelfox makes an interesting observation concerning academic literature and criminal investigations, pointing out that very little has been written about the process of investigation or how it is practised by individuals. He takes us on a journey that begins with the notion of the “omni‐competent” constable and leads us toward a model of professional practice that is allegedly more able to deal with the complexities of today's society. Through this journey he debates and discusses the various influences that have altered the process of criminal investigations. Whilst this book is centred on the experiences of the UK police, many of the concepts are recognisable in other criminal jurisdictions and open a number of areas for debate, particularly in establishing whether policing is an “art” or a “science.”

In the first chapter Stelfox establishes the themes of the book, identifying the changes that have taken place in the last three decades, noting that the remit of the investigator now goes far beyond mere law enforcement and prosecution. Political influences, social change and a more knowledgeable and demanding public have altered the priorities of the police, requiring them to encompass such issues as community reassurance; crime disruption; crime prevention; risk management; public accountability; performance targets; victim support and post investigative asset inquiries, to name but a few. Crime investigation has become a complex activity that is constantly under review and it is within this framework that individuals are expected to develop personal skills, knowledge, and most importantly, understanding of what is expected of them. Each chapter examines one of the major themes in depth using the numerous policy documents created by various government departments, policing agencies, police forces and other stakeholders. These are generally descriptive accounts that occasionally raise critical issues worthy of future debate. At the end of each chapter there is a resume of useful academic literature that could help the reader develop a wider knowledge of the subjects in hand.

The second chapter begins with a short history of British policing from the eighteenth century onward, but quickly gets to grip with the latter half of the twentieth century, which is identified as a period of rapid change. It is here that he questions early academic research which suggested crime solving did not require specialist skills, accusing it of delaying the development of the new breed of investigators who have to operate in a complex arena as they adapt to changes in legislation, forensic science techniques, procedural changes and a deeper public scrutiny of their actions. The notion of “professional” status is briefly discussed here, raising questions as to whether policing could ever be considered a “true” profession. These are the key themes of this book and will require far more critical debate.

The next chapter expands on the common law approach to investigations which, due to an absence of “legal barriers,” allowed a number of lawful practises to operate which some considered to be unethical and disruptive to a diverse society. Stelfox explains how recent legislation introduced strict codes of conduct and an investigatory framework that has been interpreted by policy makers who operate in a “loose hierarchy” at local, regional and national level, producing a series of objectives that impact the manner in which crime is prioritised and investigated. It is argued that police officers can no longer act in isolation using their discretionary powers of arrest and prosecution to carry out their trade; they now have to understand policy implications within the criminal justice system. This is especially so as legislation now requires them to act as impartial investigators, providing all of their investigation material to both the prosecution and the defence. The need to provide access to all data gathered in an investigation requires rethinking in the handling, storage and analysis of information and intelligence, and this is discussed at length in chapter four. The intelligence‐led policing model has been around for sometime but rarely has it been examined in such depth as an investigative tool. Much of the discussion surrounds the fact that advances in computer technology have enabled vast quantities of data to be gathered and analysed, much of which is used as a management tool. This chapter provides a comprehensive list of where and how information can be gathered and it becomes clear that merely gathering data is a waste of time unless investigators are able to communicate their needs to the analysts and other information gatherers.

It is in chapter five that the evidence and intelligence gathering skills and techniques of investigators are examined. Interrogation remains a key skill of the investigator and this chapter sets out in detail the various methods of gathering the necessary data that can be used during the interviews with suspects, as well as witnesses. The issue here is not so much the gathering and collating of information but the skills that are necessary to determine the correct strategy and process that can utilise relevant facts. In his conclusion Stelfox points out that interrogation is a skill that can be developed through experience but must be built on solid foundation practice that is developed by appropriate training. Part of the skill of a good investigator is the ability to make correct decisions during the inquiry. It is recognised that a wrong decision can result in a serious miscarriage of justice. In chapter six, criminal investigation models are presented as a system process that takes an investigator along a tried and tested route of inquiry and decision making. The methods used are remarkably similar to those used by social scientists, but unlike academic researchers, traditionally the police would use the final result (arrest/prosecution) as a means to justify the end. This is no longer an acceptable practice and investigators are now expected to rationalise every decision they make to show why certain courses of action were taken, or not taken. This chapter suggests a number of influences that may affect an investigator's decision making process and argues that a systemic approach is ordinarily the best route to take, although it is unclear if this is to ensure transparency of the investigation, justification for the decision making, prove the integrity of the investigator, or merely a develop protectionist strategy if things go wrong. As Stelfox notes “While it is easier to hold investigators to account for what they do, there has been little research aimed at helping them to make better decisions.”

The nature of supervising criminal investigations has steadily become a complex multi‐layered process that tries to ensure high standards of investigative performance are achieved and maintained. Chapter seven examines the nature of crime governance, performance management and the bureaucratic processes that determine investigative priorities and whilst supervision and management processes are seen as an important part of that process. Having established the various layers of management the chapter concludes with the revelation that many supervisors lack the investigative skills of those they purport to manage. The penultimate chapter provides a resume of how detection rates are achieved and some of the factors that ultimately prevent crimes from being “cleared up” before concluding that there is no clear understanding as to why some crimes are resolved, whilst others are not.

By examining the various influences that have affected the process of crime investigation, this book has identified a gap in academic literature. It shows how the practice of criminal investigation, arrest and prosecution has become a more complex process as investigators are required to take into consideration policy implications; changes in legislation; Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidelines; government priorities; and community impact. It also shows how the language of success is no longer measured solely by detection rates, but now includes asset confiscation, criminal disruption, and victim satisfaction as measures of effectiveness. The overall theme of this book is the “professionalisation” of the police through the continuous development of individual skills, organisational efficiency and managerial transparency, within an ethical framework. This is a must read for all practitioners, students and those who may be seeking a career as a criminal investigator.

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