Friday, August 6, 2010

Q&A: Historical Police Investigations

Investigating Police History

Writing about the past—particularly historical police investigations—can be challenging research. One of our readers is digging into old police techniques to help her write more accurately about the police investigations. Where do you go to find these nuggets of information?

PAMILA asks … What's the best source for accurate historical police procedure? I'm interested specifically in 1940 through 1960.

MARK: Challenging research. It is not like you can go the county library and get this kind of information to write with authenticity. Pamila, let me give part of the answer to your question that was published in an earlier blog. Then, I’ll expand on it based upon research this week.

Police work was handled quite differently in the 1940s, any may vary depending what part the United States your writing about. Even though investigative techniques had been standardized to meet court mandates today, getting the job still varies from agency to agency. Several factors come into play—available personnel, level of expertise, jurisdictional constraints—and each of these considerations may change the dynamics of an investigation. New York City tackles their investigations different than Los Angeles, who varies from San Francisco. This holds true for investigations in the mid 1900s as well as modern-day law enforcement.

One source of information that might give you a flavor of that 1930-1950 eras is information about the life and times of August Vollmer, former police chief of Berkeley, Ca. (1905-1932). He is one of those credited with modernizing police work and was active in this endeavor almost until his death in the 1950s. After leaving Berkley PD, he taught at the UC, Berkeley, and founded the American Society of Criminology. I believe he was chief at LAPD for a couple years, but left due to the level of corruption in that agency. I located Berkeley PD’s historical site which lists Sergeant Michael Holland as a contact person regarding Berkeley police history and police procedures. He can be reached at (510) 981-5802. Here is an e-mail contact: for more information.

Many police departments, particularly the larger ones, have individuals or even whole units interested in preserving police history of their department. I’d suggest you search whatever geographical area you’re writing about, list those police agencies, then make calls to those agencies or check them out online for information.

Never overlook local universities, particularly those offering criminology studies. They’ll have a treasure trove of information you’re looking for.

Pamila further asks … I am specifically interested in police and FBI procedures in New York City, and West Texas from 1939-1950 for my current project, The Bella Vista Motel. I’m researching vice related stuff, organized crime and homicide investigations. The Los Angeles research is for an upcoming project, police and possibly FBI, too. I’ve had some luck researching homicide investigations. But I really need to know the details of how rape victims were handled and processed in 1950 in Los Angeles.

MARK:  One key component is how that particular agency created and managed their investigative services, and to what level patrol services were used to investigate crime. 

Today, sex crimes investigations may vary drastically. In one agency, the crime may be almost investigated exclusively by a Sexual Assault Unit, while another agency may lean on their patrol services to handle a lot of the initial information. You will need to do an historic search of records to get this kind of information. I would imagine these felonies were handed over to the detective bureau as quick as patrol could pass it on. And, considering the all-male police force and other cultural issues in the mid-1900s, these sort of crimes were not investigated to the extent they are today.

First, start with a direct source about either the New York or the Los Angeles police departments. Contact representatives within each agency or their media relations officers. I might start with media contacts with each department or links to police history for each agency. On the NYPD web site, for example, I found a link to the New York Police Department Police Museum with the following contact information:

NYPD's First Precinct 

The NYPD Museum
100 Old Slip
New York, NY 10005
Telephone: (212) 480-3100

These contacts might lead you elsewhere in your search of historical data. Often times, I’ve found these contacts are very helpful and willing to give of their time. They have a passion for history, and they appreciate it when someone takes the time to get the record straight.

Here is how to begin contact to gain historical information about the Los Angeles Police Department:

The Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS)
6045 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA
Telephone: 1-(877) 804-1523
Telephone: (323) 344-9445

To locate information on West Texas, select the law enforcement jurisdiction where your story takes place, identify the law enforcement agency that handles that area, then try to make direct contact. Just remember, there might be overlapping jurisdictions. For example, the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francesco Sheriff’s Office have overlapping jurisdiction because the county and the city cover the same ground. Agencies generally tend to work out these jurisdictional conflicts, particularly on the local level. However, interesting battles can occur when local, state and federal agencies have conflicting interests. Makes for a good story.
FBI Headquarters, Washington, DC.
Finally—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Editor's note: remember there is no S at the end of the FBI). There is a more information about the FBI and its history than any other federal law enforcement agency. Again, start with the source. The FBI main web page has a link to FBI history.  In the lower left corner is a line For Researchers. Click on this link and a page titled Research FBI Records & Information pops up. There are a number of great source links on this page, including one titled FBI History webpage. They even maintain an electronic reading room for their most popular FBI records, which you can call up from the comfort of your own home. There is a direct contact link on the same site for information that may not be online, but still releasable without too much trouble. And, if you can travel to the nation's capitol, there is information about where and how to access information from the FBI's library, located at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C.

Again, never underestimate the wealth of information universities and colleges hold on this subject—particularly those institutions with criminal justice programs or related disciples. They can often give you a candid view of a subject, where the affected law enforcement agency—at least the media contacts—might sugar-coat sensitive issues. Your interest in historical rape investigation procedures, for example, would definitely be one of those hot potatoes.

Q: Anyone have other sources on this subject to help Pamila out?


  1. Fantastic, Mark. I've been mining the FBI website for some time now, it really is a good source. As well as individual sites for police history in specific regions, there's also various tribute sites that can sometimes give up a detail or two that feels more candid. Anecdotal accounts can provide more flavor, though they may not be bang on procedure wise. I found a number of these sites through genealogy research sites that people have posted to and allowed the articles to be publicly viewed. It hadn't occurred to me to try to talk to people at universities or police departments, though. That's what comes of being too focused on the web and forgetting about the phone. Thanks so much for answering my question with such useful resources - sometimes all it takes is to be pointed in the right direction. I'll be following your blog faithfully - Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Pamila. It appears you are well on the way to getting the information you need. Have a good writing day.

  3. Excellent article Mark. I'm writing a crime scene right now Dec 1946/Jan 1947. I have the detectives picking up things gently they want looked at for finger prints with a handkerchief and storing them either in a paper bag or manilla envelope.

  4. Thanks, Nike. Look forward to what you create.

  5. Police is everyday hard working than provide safety for every people. Police investigators are also use new trick and research latest find than done cases.