Trending Topics

Making the transition from patrol to investigations

New detectives can find success and experience the rewards of the job by relying on patience, mastering new skills


Investigative work has its own challenges, requiring officers to learn new skills and look at the job from a new perspective.

Getty Images

Patrol is often referred to as the backbone of policing and for good reason. Not only is patrol typically first on scene, but patrol officers also act as gatekeepers for the criminal justice system determining what incidents need further follow-up and what incidents can be handled informally. Almost all of us begin our careers in patrol where we first learn the ins and outs of law enforcement

That being said, many officers in the course of their career get the itch to try something different, which often means transferring to the detective bureau. For some departments, this is a promotion, while other departments treat it as a lateral transfer. Either way, investigative work has its own challenges, requiring officers to learn new skills and look at the job from a new perspective.

Having made the transition from patrol to the detective bureau myself along with having trained several new detectives, here are a few tips to help you be successful in your mission to become a detective.

Slow down

As a detective, it is important that you start to take the long view on your cases, avoiding any rush to a conclusion until you have all the facts. A good detective is always playing devil’s advocate, questioning conclusions and looking for more evidence that something is true or not. This is helpful for the investigator in a couple of ways.

One, if your case eventually goes to court for prosecution, you can feel confident knowing you have considered every possible scenario. Defense attorneys will often attack you for what you didn’t do in hopes of convincing the jury that you were out to get their client for some reason or other. Their argument to the jury will be that if you the detective had taken this one more step, their client’s innocence would be obvious. This argument goes away if you can show the jury that you’ve taken the time to disprove any other possible scenarios and have followed up on every lead.

The second way that taking the long view helps is that patiently examining everything helps you avoid missing clues or other evidence as to what actually happened rather than what appears to have happened. Criminals will sometimes try to avoid prosecution by staging the crime scene to throw off investigators. Attempting to make a homicide appear to be a suicide or attempting to make the death appear to be accidental (especially in child abuse cases) are common examples.

In one homicide case I worked, the offender wanted us to believe that his 1-year-old daughter had died from a terrible stair fall as the result of him suffering a seizure while carrying her up the stairs. He took several elaborate steps to help sell his story. However, our attention to detail ultimately showed that she had died from abusive head trauma from him slamming her head on the floor multiple times. It would have been simpler to take his story at face value and believe his daughter’s death was a tragic accident, but it wouldn’t have been the truth and it certainly wouldn’t have been justice.

New detectives should slow down and remember that patience will serve you well. Patience in interviewing people, patience in working the crime scene and patience in putting your case together will help you be successful in your new role.

Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork

If you thought there was a lot of paperwork in patrol, you haven’t seen anything yet. As a detective, you will be responsible for documenting your entire investigation. In patrol that could be a one- to five-page report documenting a single day of activity, whereas in the detective bureau that can mean a one-page report to a who-knows-how-long report documenting weeks, months and sometimes years’ worth of investigative activities.

Investigating a major case can sometimes feel like you are putting a puzzle together in the dark without the picture on the box to use as a reference. It’s important that you document those pieces as you go for when one of them inevitably becomes the key piece later on. I personally found it useful to keep a separate notebook for each case to avoid getting any two cases mixed together, especially for the times when the files on my desk started to pile up.

In the case of a homicide investigation that goes cold, you may be documenting the case for the next detective, not even knowing what new investigative techniques will be available in the future. Part of taking the long view for your cases is recognizing that what’s unsolvable today may be solvable in the future as forensic science continues to advance. The recent arrest and conviction of the Golden State Killer serves as a perfect example.

Another element of the paperwork is that you need to learn any new forms as quickly as possible. The sooner you’re up to speed on everything, the sooner you can be an asset to your squad. Start by focusing on what would be needed from you on the next major case call out. For me, that was learning to draft affidavits for search warrants.

While working patrol, I only executed search warrants for blood draws for operating while intoxicated and operating under the influence of drugs arrests. These were done on a standardized form that mostly just required you to fill in the blanks. The process of drafting a search warrant for more complex crimes took some getting used to for me because I had to justify and explain my probable cause in-depth. My advice would be to reach out to another detective known for writing good search warrants and ask for examples you can use as templates going forward.

As a new detective, you probably won’t be asked to lead the next major case investigation (though you never know depending on your agency size or how busy your fellow squad members are). But you should be able to perform some basic functions in order to carry your own load. Being able to competently complete search warrants or other needed paperwork with little oversight will go a long way in earning the respect of the veteran detectives who will be busy handling their own tasks.

The officer in charge

One of the best parts of being a detective is that you get to be the officer in charge (OIC). For the most part, you can handle your case the way you see fit. This can be a welcome change since every patrol officer has experienced a situation where you felt the detective didn’t put enough effort into the case or just didn’t do what you thought needed to be done to solve the case. As the OIC, you have more control over how the case is ultimately handled, which I found especially rewarding as I got further along in my career.

On the other hand, the worst part about being the detective, or at least the most stressful part, is also being the OIC. As a patrol officer, it was common to end a report with “notified the OIC,” “held scene until OIC arrived” or “transported subject for OIC.” As the OIC, the pressure is now on you to take it from there. Pressure from the community and/or bosses to resolve the case or handle it a certain way, any negative media attention, and demands from the prosecutor’s office and the courts all now fall on you as the lead detective.

Solving high-profile violent crimes, particularly those involving helpless victims like children and the elderly, can be some of the most rewarding experiences of your career. But with that comes the pressure to solve the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. Often these cases will consume your life while you struggle to sleep or concentrate on anything that isn’t related to the case.

Until it’s solved, you’ll constantly be wondering what it is you’re missing or what else you should be doing. The longer the case drags on, the greater the toll on your health and family life can be as the pressure mounts. As a patrol officer, it was rare to think much about a case after the shift ended, but as a detective, it can be hard to stop thinking about them, especially the tough ones that are still open.

If you’re able to make an arrest in the case, the resulting satisfaction can help you to recover and move back to normalcy, but the sad reality is that not every case will be solved. Accepting that reality can be difficult as it challenges our hope that justice will always prevail. You can drive yourself crazy wondering if the case was truly unsolvable or was it your failings as a detective that led to the case going cold.

The other tough part of being the OIC, at least for me, was getting to know your victims on a more personal level. As a patrol officer, it was rare for me to deal with a victim for very long beyond the initial call. As a detective, you get to know your victims on a more personal level through follow-up interviews, court dates and other duties throughout the case. Seeing up close the trauma and suffering they experience can take its toll on even the toughest of officers. The other side to that, though, is that when you are able to solve their case, the thankfulness they express to you is that much more satisfying.

Remember to trust yourself

Moving to the detective bureau will require you to learn new skills and take on a new perspective toward the job, both of which help to keep your career moving forward. One final piece of advice is to not overthink it and forget the skills you learned as a patrol officer.

Patrol officers encounter a variety of situations and interact with a variety of people from different racial and social-economic backgrounds. That experience will be invaluable to you as an investigator.

NEXT: Criminal investigations: An overview for new detectives

Detective Corporal Jim Twardesky has been in law enforcement since 1999, currently serving as a detective for the City of Warren Police Department in Michigan. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration, both from Wayne State University. Additionally, he teaches as an adjunct instructor for the Macomb Public Service Institute and regularly lectures on the subjects of child homicide, sex crimes and interviewing child molesters through his company Twardesky Consulting.