Criminal Investigation
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Criminal Investigation

A Method for Reconstructing the Past

James W. Osterburg, Richard H. Ward, Larry S. Miller

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eBook - ePub

Criminal Investigation

A Method for Reconstructing the Past

James W. Osterburg, Richard H. Ward, Larry S. Miller

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About This Book

A classic in the field, Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing the Past, Eighth Edition, presents the fundamentals of criminal investigation and provides a sound method for reconstructing a crime based on three major sources of information: people, physical evidence, and records. By breaking information sources into these three major components, the book provides a logical approach that helps students remember and achieve mastery of these essentials. More than a simplistic introductory text, yet written in an easy-to-read, user-friendly format, it offers a broad treatment of criminal investigation.

Updated and streamlined since the prior edition, the text covers the foundations and principles of criminal investigation, analysis of specific crimes, and explores special topics including enterprise crime, arson and explosives, computers and technological crime, increasing threats and emerging crime, and terrorism and urban disorder. This discussion of contemporary and future criminal activity teaches students facts about the present as well as the skills to stay current in a rapidly changing field.

This book is indispensable for core courses in criminal investigation. Chapters include a variety of helpful charts, tables, and illustrations, as well as discussion questions that provide focus on the most important points. A glossary provides definitions for terms that have specialized meanings, and an online companion site offers an array of resources for both students and instructors.

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Conceptually, it is often difficult to know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Like most disciplines, criminal investigation is based on a foundation of knowledge gathered over time. This historical body of knowledge also provides the framework for understanding where mistakes have been made and how new ideas and innovative advances contribute to success, and to some degree for helping to chart future directions. In this regard, the evolutionary aspects of crime investigation borrow from the past as a means of adapting to change, whether it is in tradecraft, legal decisions, or technology. This section on criminal investigation comprises three parts: the first emphasizes the uses that can be made of the basic sources of information; the second is concerned with the role of the investigator and problems associated with obtaining information; and the third focuses on the kinds of follow-through activities necessary for capitalizing on the efforts described in the first two parts. Considered together, these three parts form the foundation and principles of criminal investigation.
Part A begins with a discussion of the detective’s role and responsibilities and the personal attributes that are required for success. A brief history of criminal investigation follows (touching on a sometimes less-than-honorable past). Part A concludes with a review of the trends and future developments that are likely to occur.
The three principal sources of information in criminal investigation (physical evidence, people, and records) are studied first from the standpoint of what information may be obtained and why it can be of help. Then, because understanding physical evidence—its development, interpretation, and investigative use—is fundamental, some familiarity with criminalistics is recommended. The crime scene—its limits, the purpose for a search, legal constraints on the discovery of physical evidence—is presented next. Finally, the other appropriate sources of information are considered: people (criminals, victims, witnesses, and friends), records (public and private), and forms of social media (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and Twitter).
Given the impact of a rapidly changing society in such areas as technology, transportation, communication, and globalization, the task of the criminal investigator has become more complex. In addition to terrorism and urban violence, there has been a greater focus on corporate crime, serial murder, and technological crime. The result has been a greater need for investigators who are not only familiar with basics but who have the ability to “think outside the box.”


The role and responsibilities of the criminal investigator have changed dramatically over the past 25 years, largely as a result of changes in social perceptions, culture, technology, the law, the media, and new forms of communication—such as the Internet, cellular telephones, imaging, and social media. Perhaps most important has been the changing role of the investigator as a specialist who is educated and trained to be knowledgeable about complex systems, societal differences, and organizational theory.
This chapter addresses the general framework associated with being a criminal investigator: the functional aspects of the job, necessary skills, tools of the trade, and the criteria necessary for success in what can be a challenging and rewarding career. A brief description of the history of investigating crime is included in this chapter.

Criminal Investigation Defined

This book focuses on a definition of the investigation of crime based on the words of Professor Ralph Turner, a pioneer in the field: “the reconstruction of a past event.”1 In essence, the responsibilities of the investigator include the following:
1.Determine whether a crime has been committed.
2.Decide if the crime was committed within the investigator’s jurisdiction.
3.Discover all facts pertaining to the complaint.
a.Gather and preserve physical evidence.
b.Develop and follow up all clues.
4.Recover stolen property.
5.Identify the perpetrator or eliminate a suspect as the perpetrator.
6.Locate and apprehend the perpetrator.
7.Aid in the prosecution of the offender by providing evidence of guilt that is admissible in court.
8.Testify effectively as a witness in court.

Determine if a Crime Has Been Committed

Determining whether a crime has been committed necessitates an understanding of the criminal law and the elements of each criminal act. For this reason, the investigator should have in his or her possession copies of the penal and case law of the state or jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of federal investigators may be broader in some cases, but it is limited by legislation, and state and local investigators should be familiar with the crimes over which federal statutes may apply.
In more complex cases, such as cybercrime or fraud, the investigator may contact the state prosecutor, district attorney, or U.S. attorney.

Verify Jurisdiction

If a crime is not within the investigator’s jurisdiction, there is no responsibility for its investigation, but the complainant may need to be referred to the proper authority. Occasionally a crime is committed on the border of two jurisdictions or involves more than one jurisdiction. If a case has the potential for publicity, affords the chance to make a “good arrest,” or is inherently interesting or important, an investigator may seek to retain authority over it and remain involved; otherwise, he or she may convince the other jurisdiction to accept it.
When two investigators have concurrent jurisdiction, the issue of who will handle the case can become complicated. Cases involving cross-border fraud, Internet crime, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, terrorism, and other multiple-jurisdiction criminal activity may involve joint investigative activities, and may require clarification by legal authority (such as a U.S. attorney or local prosecuting authority—district, city, or county attorney). In other cases, such as serial murder involving multiple jurisdictions, the place where the suspect is apprehended (for the crime in that jurisdiction) will usually have the right to prosecute. In those cases in which there may be federal as well as state jurisdiction (such as bank robbery), the U.S. attorney has the first right of refusal, and relatively minor cases may be prosecuted at a local level.

Discover All Facts and Collect Physical Evidence

The facts available to the first officer to arrive at a crime scene are provided by observation, and by the victim or complainant and any eyewitness(es). Except in departments with programs in place for managing criminal investigations (see Chapter 4), they will be communicated to the detective dispatched to investigate the crime. He or she may decide to verify and pursue all of them, or to home in on specific details. At the outset, the investigator should develop a preliminary record that addresses the following points:
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • What?
  • How?
  • Why?
In addition, the detective will collect any physical evidence, or arrange for its collection (preferably by an evidence technician) and examination in the appropriate crime laboratory. Of particular importance are observation and a mental image of the scene, the victim or witnesses, or suspect if on the scene. Depending on the kind of information provided, immediate follow-up might be required or the investigator may have to await laboratory results. In either event, it is essential at this point to follow through on any clue that holds promise for the identification of the perpetrator, and promptly exploit it (see Figure 1.1).
A crime scene presents many questions.
The investigator must take care to prepare a comprehensive record of the crime scene, using notes, photographs, sketches, and in some cases, video and voice recording. Care must be taken not to rely on memory, which has shown to be notoriously unreliable in many cases. Statements of victims, witnesses, and suspects should be recorded accurately and verbatim where possible.
In longer investigations, the use of records or other forms of information is more likely to contribute to the solution. If the victim furnishes the suspect’s name to the detective, the case may be solved promptly. Then the chief problem is proving that the particular individual did in fact commit the crime. If the identity of the perpetrator must be developed, the effort required is much greater and, for certain crimes, often not successful. When it is, there comes a point not unlike that reached in solving a jigsaw puzzle: when the crucial piece is found, the remaining pieces quickly fall into place.

Recover Stolen Property

The description and identification of stolen property are important aspects of an investigation, and may later be critical in establishing ownership. Stolen property may tu...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Criminal Investigation
APA 6 Citation
Osterburg, J., Ward, R., & Miller, L. (2019). Criminal Investigation (8th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Osterburg, James, Richard Ward, and Larry Miller. (2019) 2019. Criminal Investigation. 8th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Osterburg, J., Ward, R. and Miller, L. (2019) Criminal Investigation. 8th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Osterburg, James, Richard Ward, and Larry Miller. Criminal Investigation. 8th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.