Detective Rotation: An Enigma

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD

©1998 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
LAW and ORDER Magazine, Vol. 46, No. 10, October 1998, pp. 194-6

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Related Material:  Anti-Rotation Paper by Lt. Robert Stachnik, Schaumburg, IL PD

"Detective Rotation" is the process in which patrol officers are brought into an investigative unit and are advised at the time of their assignment to this position that they will be rotated from that assignment after a specified period, (usually two years) back to patrol.

Detective Rotation was first introduced as a process to augment the capabilities of investigative divisions by providing cross training to all members of the department. The premise was that there would be a cadre of potential investigative resources to replace detectives who were promoted or soon to be retired. The engineers of this counterproductive subterfuge tried to justify their attack on traditional detective operations by stating that they were creating opportunities for patrol officers to expand their careers. These officials conveniently disregarded the careers of veteran and seasoned detectives, who had dedicated their lives to the investigative career path. Rotation undermined investigative strength of experience and knowledge, which evidently was a threat to certain police administrators. It soon became apparent that rotation was blatantly punitive as these administrators used "rotation" as an excuse to remove senior detectives and reassign them back to patrol. The folks responsible for this debacle are police officials with personal agendas, who absolutely have no understanding, nor appreciation, of the investigative mission. And, they continue to be outspoken critics of the Detective Concept. These liberal police administrators, whom the author refers to as "The Police Intelligentsia", are folks like Patrick Murphy, Lee Brown, Joseph McNamara, Ray Kelly and a host of other alleged experts. Interestingly, none of them had ever been qualified as, promoted to, or performed as detectives.

In fact, it was Patrick Murphy who was the catalyst behind the infamous Rand Studies of the 1980's. The study was designed to show how Patrol could perform the investigative functions, thereby eliminating the need for a large investigative division. The Rand study was a failure then and Rotation is a failure now.

Originally the "Rotation Concept" was designed for the hotel industry. It is a service industry concept, which provides for the cross training of employees. Rotation allows for the effective staffing by hotel management in day-to-day operations. Employees in various capacities are trained to assume different positions to allow for uninterrupted and continuos service.

Criminal investigation is not a service industry. It is an essential and highly specialized function. Practically speaking, it takes at least one year for an officer to become somewhat familiar with investigation procedures and approximately two years before the officer effectively contributes to the operation.

Criminal investigation requires specialized skills and training. In addition to proficiently operating special pieces of equipment, the detectives are required to learn effective interview and interrogation techniques, crime scene processing, evidence handling, report writing, documentation as well as proper court presentation of findings.

Needless to say, periodically transferring these experienced investigators back to patrol is not only demoralizing to the members of the agency but is counterproductive to the professional investigative process. Time and experience are the best resources for the continuing education necessary in developing a proficient investigator.

The skills that are eventually developed by an investigator need to be constantly applied in order for the agency to benefit from permanent assignment. For instance, sending a member to an Interview and Interrogation school and then not having that member utilize and practice the learned skills is not cost effective. Rotation does not allow for career growth and actually frustrates professional ambition. Officers who are to be rotated out become disheartened and don't want to leave their investigative assignment. Another point: "Why bother to learn all of this information if I'm going to be leaving soon?" They feel they are being demoted. It doesn't matter that their performance was superior while they were assigned to investigations because NOW it's time to be rotated. Eventually they will lose any skills they developed because when they go back to Patrol they don't get an opportunity to utilize them.

From an administrative perspective, I would be concerned about the costs of training newly assigned officers only to have to retrain their replacements? This certainly isn't cost effective.

More importantly, the community, which depends upon their police department to solve crime, is done a disservice. Officers who are transferred out of investigative assignment leave behind active cases. Investigatively speaking, this creates additional work as the newly assigned investigator has to become familiar with someone else's case and reintroduce him or herself to the original complainants, re-interview people and attempt to pick-up where his or her predecessor left off. Not only are investigations disrupted but also oftentimes the cases remain unresolved.

It is interesting to note that most of the police chiefs who support detective rotation are somehow associated with "The Police Intelligentsia" club. This small cadre of chiefs of police, obtain appointments in various cities across the United States. They flitter from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, like butterflies, as they attempt to lengthen their respective resumes and "pollinate" their agendas into several departments. The appointments are usually based on recommendations from their mentors.

Traditionally, it is the detective division, which poses their greatest threat. When these newly appointed chiefs come into the department with their community policing, rotation and decentralization agendas, the detective division presents the most compelling and logical arguments against these concepts.

Detectives have a wealth of information about people, systems, and politics. Ultimately, it will be the detective function which exposes these administrators for the "phonies" they are as they flit off for the next target.

If there ever was an argument against Detective Rotation, Boulder City, Colorado certainly has made a compelling case in their handling of the Jon Benet Ramsey investigation. Chief Kolby, who stated on national television that his claim to fame, ironically, was being "Lee Brown Trained," is a staunch proponent of "rotation." In fact, he mandated that every two years Boulder police personnel assigned to investigations were to be routinely transferred back to patrol. And, furthermore, the City of Boulder did not even have a full-time Crime Scene Technician within their department. This case remains unresolved. Needless to say, "Rotation" didn't work.

I have 34 years of practical police experience. Most of my career was spent in investigative assignment as a supervisor and commander of investigations, specifically homicide. Presently, I am a homicide and forensic consultant. I have personally investigated, supervised and consulted on over eight thousand death investigations. And, I am still learning. My corporation provides state of the art instruction as well as consultation in homicide and forensic cases throughout the United States and Canada for a number of law enforcement agencies. Over 30,000 members from 3900 police agencies have attended my PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION® seminars. Every case that I consult on or review provides me with new insight in criminal investigation. And, I am still learning. Based on my experience and these professional affiliations I can state unequivocally: "Agencies that have rotated their personnel or decentralized their homicide units have lost their most valuable commodities; experience, knowledge, and continuity."

Many major case investigations are successfully completed by a combination of brainstorming, intuition and educated guesswork. The expertise developed by detectives is based upon extensive experience in the field and a familiarity with a large number of cases. Experienced detectives, who have recognized a particular modus operandi from a case in the past or a perpetrator's distinctive signature, have solved innumerable cases. It's this experience coupled with knowledge and continuity within the detective division, which assures successful investigations and that crimes will be solved. And, consequently instills the confidence of the community in their police.

In my opinion, specialization for homicide assignment is the ideal situation if the agency can justify specialists for the workload. Even in agencies where the workload is not sufficient for full-time homicide specialists, a select few are generally chosen to investigate the homicide cases.

Medical professionals specialize due to the enormous amount of knowledge and information required for practicing specific medical techniques. Likewise, in homicide investigation the practitioner is required to be knowledgeable in law enforcement, medicolegal procedures and wound structures, human behavior, evidence collection and preservation, interview and interrogation techniques, crime scene processing, management of resources, photography, court testimony, interagency cooperation, and a number of other more subtle considerations. One can readily understand the need for specialization and continuing education in this type assignment.

Generalization is certainly acceptable for smaller departments that do not have a substantial caseload. However, specialized training in homicide investigation should be implemented within the investigative division to assure that members are provided with the necessary skills to perform their inquiries.

As a former police commander, I feel that it is the responsibility of the commanding officer of detectives to assure that only the most qualified and experienced detectives perform within the investigative unit.

In order for personnel to attain this level of expertise they must have years and years of practical experience coupled with formal education, training schools and seminars. It is a very fine blend of theory and practice that enables investigators to function as professionals.

All efforts have to be made to assure the community that the police can protect them and that crime will be solved. In order to accomplish this Chiefs of Police should require an efficient and effective investigative division within their department. Most police chiefs realize the need for an experienced detective division and support this concept. Most State Attorneys want experienced detectives to have investigated the case to assure that the evidence presented in court is competent and relevant and had been properly retrieved. The prosecutors rely on detectives whose credibility with a jury is enhanced with an accomplished and extensive background. The only folks who seem to be at odds with common sense and logic are "The Police Intelligentsia," who obviously have a different agenda.

What is the primary mission of a Department's Investigative Division? Is it the identification and apprehension of the offender and solving the crime? Or, "Is it rotating police personnel to create career opportunities for patrol officers?

You be the judge.

Related Material:  Anti-Rotation Paper by Lt. Robert Stachnik, Schaumburg, IL PD

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