In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Criminal Investigation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Crime Scene Processing
  • Historical Foundations
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Forensic Nursing
  • Forensic Science
  • Forensic Art and Photography
  • Interviewing and Interrogation
  • Forensic Psychology and Profiling
  • True Crime
  • Victimology

Criminology Criminal Investigation
Richard H. Ward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0079


Criminal investigation as a discipline within the fields of law enforcement (criminal justice) that focuses on the solution of crime at the local, state, and federal levels of government, within defined jurisdictional areas that may overlap. A crime is based on a legal definition prescribed by a governmental entity, such as a state legislature or the US Congress. The field of criminal investigation encompasses a number of cognate areas that begin with the report or suspicion that a crime has occurred, an initial or preliminary evaluation to determine that a crime has occurred, and generally an assignment to an investigator, who may be a police officer, a detective, a special agent, or other investigator, depending on jurisdictional entity: police department, prosecutor, or federal agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Secret Service, or one of more than a hundred federal agencies with some form of jurisdictional responsibility for conducting criminal investigations. Rapid advances in science and technology have changed the role of the criminal investigator dramatically, leading to much higher degrees of specialization than in the past, including but not limited to such areas as forensic accounting and fraud; cyber-crime, Internet stalking and child pornography; human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children; homeland security, terrorism, and international organized crime; and theft of art and cultural objects. These types of crime have also resulted in changes to the organizational structure of larger law enforcement agencies as new units have emerged. In the past, criminal investigation units normally assigned detectives to crimes against property (e.g., burglary and robbery) and violent crimes (e.g., homicide, sexual assault). Today, specialized units frequently utilize investigators who have a much narrower perspective and particular expertise. Closely related to these areas has been the role of the private sector in criminal investigations. Most large corporations now have investigative arms that focus on criminal activity within and against the organization. Additionally, the tools, both human and scientific, have placed greater emphasis on the role of the crime laboratory (forensic science) and the utilization of technology in support of the investigative function. Perhaps the best example has been the use of DNA analysis. Advances in crime analysis using sophisticated software—such as relational databases and geospatial programs—have contributed to developing patterns, identifying suspects, and linking common elements of criminal activity. Other advances in technology, such as social media, the use of drones, and digital photography and imaging are examples. Many of these techniques are under judicial examination, particularly in the areas of surveillance, interviewing and interrogation, and analytics. Court decisions and changes in procedural aspects of criminal investigation and forensic science have also led to criticism of many past practices in such areas as interagency cooperation, evidence collection and analysis, interviewing and interrogation, electronic surveillance, and political and media influence.

General Overviews

In addition to general introductory criminal investigation texts, there are, within the field of criminal investigation, a number of areas involving investigative support and specialized types of investigations. Public interest, the media, and high-profile cases have contributed to a growing literature, and the expansion of investigative studies in criminal justice educational programs, as well as training programs for new and specialized areas of investigation. Several areas have produced more specific publications and are covered as subsections within this bibliographic compilation. Additionally, research on various types of crime has contributed to changes in process and procedures, as well as dispelling many long-held views on criminality and crime investigation, such as the modus operandi (method of operation) of criminals, psychological profiling, interviewing and interrogation, and the use of physical evidence. An increasing number of publications of general interest provide an overview of procedural techniques and failures in the investigative process, and a growing body of knowledge on specific types of crime and investigation has produced a rich source of literature available to researchers and criminal investigators. Introductory texts focus largely on a broad description of basic criminal investigation written almost exclusively for undergraduate courses. Each of the books below provides perceptions of the investigative function over time. O’Hara 2003 was used extensively in courses in the 1960s and offers a basic view of the way in which detectives work, and in more recent times as technical and forensics have improved, Becker 2009; Osterburg and Ward 2014; and Swanson, et al. 2008 have gained greater acceptance in the field as introductory texts. Lee and O’Neill 2002 and Saferstein 2006 emphasize forensics and the methodology involved in solving a case, whereas LaFave, et al. 2009 emphasizes the basic components of case preparation. Douglas and several others have expanded the use of forensic psychology. Rossmo 2008 makes an important contribution in illustrating the mistakes that investigators have made in various cases. The journals cited here provide an overview of the research literature available to scholars and practitioners. Increasing emphasis on the criminal intelligence function has emphasized research into techniques and policies, as well as more focused studies related to national security and terrorism.

  • Becker, Ronald. 2009. Criminal investigation. 3d ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

    Emphasizes the role of the investigator in the investigative process, and the relationship between actors in various aspects of a case. Includes sections on underwater investigations and terrorism.

  • Brandl, Steven G. 2014. Criminal investigation. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Introductory text covering the key aspects of a criminal investigation and many of the drawbacks to a successful investigation. Includes a capstone case designed for students to apply what they have learned.

  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, Nancy J. King, and Orin S. Kerr. 2009. Principles of criminal procedure: Investigation. 2d ed. Concise Hornbook series. St. Paul, MN: West.

    This classic text in the field presents the elements and processes of criminal procedure in detail, which range from initial investigations through trial. The book focuses largely on what is necessary to prepare a criminal case for the courts.

  • Lee, Henry, and Thomas W. O’Neill. 2002. Cracking cases: The science of solving crimes. Amherst, NY: Promethus.

    Dr. Henry Lee, a noted forensic scientist, who has consulted on hundreds of high-profile murder cases, and his coauthor provide detailed information on numerous investigations and on the importance of science and observation (deduction) in reviewing criminal cases.

  • O’Hara, Charles E., and Gregory L. O’Hara. 2003. Fundamentals of criminal investigation. Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.

    One of the earlier basic texts on criminal investigation; the role of the investigator is explained in detail, from the crime scene search to preparing a case for prosecution.

  • Osterburg, James W., and Richard H. Ward. 2014. Criminal investigation: A method for reconstructing the past. 6th ed. Albany, NY: LexisNexis-Anderson.

    A comprehensive examination of basic and advanced aspects of criminal investigation, this text includes a broader selection of different types of crime investigation, and a lengthy description of forensic science applications and investigative techniques.

  • Rossmo, Kim. 2008. Criminal investigative failures. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis.

    DOI: 10.1201/9781420047523

    The author develops case studies of errors, mistakes, and false judgments associated with many aspects of the investigative process.

  • Saferstein, Richard. 2006. Criminalistics: An introduction to forensic science. 9th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

    One of the more comprehensive texts on forensic science methods and applications, designed largely for the novice or new student interested in a career as a forensic scientist.

  • Swanson, Charles, Neil Chamelin, Leonard Territo, and Robert Taylor. 2008. Criminal investigation. 10th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

    A popular introductory text written by authors with years of field experience, this book encompasses many of the techniques and tactics involved in general criminal investigations. A basic text of particular interest to those unfamiliar with the investigative process.

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