By Miharu Sugie
It could be 3 a.m. or 10 p.m. The detective could be at his or her child’s birthday party, enjoying a day off. All of that no longer matters when a homicide detective gets a call. Within minutes, detectives are at the crime scene, working behind the yellow caution tape, keeping their ears to the ground and eyes wide open for any evidence that could lead to a suspect.
Until a few decades ago, it was normal to see homicide detectives at the crime scene writing reports by hand, identifying suspects with blood typing and typing out the reports on a typewriter. Now, typewriters and blood typing are replaced by technologically advanced and efficient tools. DNA testing is a standard method of identification. Even something simple as a video footage has been revolutionary in homicide investigations, according to sergeant detective Paul Donovan of the Boston Police Department’s Homicide Unit.
Being a homicide detective requires interpersonal skills and a high level of integrity, said Donovan, a seasoned Boston Police officer who joined the unit as a supervising sergeant detective from 2005 to 2009. Last year, he rejoined the unit as an administrative sergeant.
Police departments look for homicide detectives who know court personnel and court procedures and who can interact well with witnesses, the accused, victims, and the district attorney’s office. A high school diploma and professional training have always been the minimum requirement. Recently, however, that has changed.
“The level of technological skill goes well beyond the old days of just speaking to people and taking notes,” said James Alan Fox, a criminology, public policy and law professor at Northeastern University. “Now, this still happens, people take notes, but let me also say that police generally should be educated … and they trend towards more and more departments requiring a minimum of a college degree.”
In fact, there already exists a program called the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, also known as the Quinn Bill, that gives incentives to police officers to be educated. The state legislature passed the bill in 1970, around the time the Johnson Crime Commission called for more education of law enforcement officials for a better criminal justice system, inspiring more funding for related programs in colleges and universities, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Northeastern University was one of the many colleges that was a part of this reform, and the university opened its School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, originally the College of Criminal Justice, in 1967 through the Ford Foundation Grant.
The bill promises police officers a salary increase of up to 30 percent depending on the level of education they complete, and the Commonwealth will reimburse 50 percent of the costs. According to the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Detectives Unit of the Boston Police Detectives’ Benevolent Society, the annual salary of a detective who has been on the job for three years was $66,142.58 in 2006 and that number grew to $74,468.13 in 2009. These numbers easily surpass $45,500, the median annual earnings of people of ages 25 to 32 in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
In March 2012, though, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that towns and cities are not required to cover the state’s payment. The Boston Globe reported soon after that the cost of providing the education benefits increased rapidly in recent years, creating a tense financial situation for the state.
“We lost half of our education incentives when the state cut it. The city after the last contract picked up a portion of that but hasn’t reinstated fully … The city and the detectives haven’t agreed on a contract yet,” Donovan said. “They replaced four or five years ago when the state cut their share of funding out. So we went without it for several years and the city in the last contract they partially restored it.”
Donovan said that his own contract is partially restored. He hopes the bill will be fully restored, but that will be decided in the next contract negotiation in the future.
Completing a bachelor’s degree in justice studies at Curry College in 2000 certainly did help Donovan advance his career, he said. And just as a college education has benefited his colleagues at the personal and professional level, Donovan said that a criminal justice degree can help a homicide detective, but it doesn’t have to be a requirement.
“I would recount that a number of homicide investigators and other detectives over the years that they have a high school diploma and they’re excellent detectives, they’re excellent investigators, they’re very good at what they do,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of other things that go along with it other than a college degree that make you qualified to be that. Again, if you have all those other traits and qualities, the higher level degree, surely can’t hurt you, it can only help you but I don’t think it’s necessarily a requirement for the job.”
So far, going to college has worked in favor for Aaron Smith, who majored in criminal justice at Northeastern University. As an undergraduate, Smith gained experience working as a police dispatcher and a 911 operator for six months at Dover Police Department, and after completing his part-time term at Reserve/Intermittent Police Academy, he is now eligible to work as a part-time officer. In his studies, Smith has taken courses on topics ranging from sociology, due process, criminal law, etc.
Smith, who graduated in 2015, said that one of the inspiring classes he took was a course on community policing. Through the course, Smith said he became aware of the importance of a police officer who is not afraid of venturing out of a police cruiser, is present in the community and shares an identity with the people of the community.
“We study a lot of sociological concepts, I think it really helps because especially in a city like Boston. It’s a melting pot, there’s a million different diversities,” Smith said. “You get a better understanding of who you’re working with and how to deal with people of different cultural heritages, different backgrounds. You have a better understanding of how to interact with people you might not have been exposed to, coming right out of high school.”
“They have to understand the law, they have to communicate … they have to make wise decisions … they have a tremendous amount of power, and they’re armed,” Fox said. “We should expect at least a college degree from those whom we invest that kind of power … The better educated they are, the more assistive they are to critical needs.”
According to Fox, Massachusetts is an interesting case, as it is one of the most well-educated states. And the growing population of young people with college education has made it more difficult to find a job in law enforcement for young graduating students like Smith.
Sergeant Adam Keeling, supervisor of Northeastern University Police Department’s Special Services Unit, agreed with Fox that police officers in general, especially those working on campuses, need specialized knowledge.
As an officer at a university, Keeling said that it’s essential that officers understand laws and policies specific to universities, like how Title IX applies to on-campus policies and affects students and universities. The department has been moving towards problem-oriented policing and that requires skills like analyzing data sets of crime, Keeling said. Collecting data and finding trends in data sets give officers information that helps them be “more proactive than reactive,” Keeling said.
Keeling, who is one of 24 instructors of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said that being a detective requires empathy and interpersonal skills that not everyone has.
“I think a detective can patrol and do very well, but I don’t think every patrolmen can be a good detective,” Keeling said.
Unlike many patrolmen, detectives have to commit to a case for several months, sometimes years. And often times, after working with families of those affected by the cases for several months, detectives inevitably form a bond with them — a rewarding but also bitter experience. This amount of commitment requires endurance, according to Donovan, who once worked a record number of 39 days in a row, without a single day off.
Working such intense work hours on an irregular schedule can take detectives away from their families and personal lives and “it can take over your life to some degree,” Donovan said.
When Donovan watched his first trial at Suffolk Superior Court in 2006 since he joined the Homicide Unit, he said he was overtaken by mixed feelings. Before walking into the courtroom, he thought he’d feel so good about the conviction. But after hearing the verdict and seeing the tears streaming down the family members’ faces, he didn’t expect to have a sorrowful, empty feeling. He realized that the mother and father of the victim could never see their son again, and the mother of the defendant would have to live with the truth that her son would be in jail for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think there’s a more difficult job to do in the police department,” Donovan said. “Someone’s life has been taken and you try to find answers for the family, bring them some closure and justice.”