Investigation caseload is a never-ending battle. Whether crime is up or down, cases never wait for your investigative unit to have more bandwidth. In this post, we’ll cover three important considerations for balancing caseload more effectively.
Investigator caseload is a major pain point for law enforcement agencies and has a direct negative impact on clearance rates.
But solving the issue is not as simple as hiring more detectives. Investigators with the skills to solve cases aren’t simply hired. Instead, they’re cultivated from seasoned members of the patrol ranks, and that takes time. You must first become a police officer, complete training, gain field experience investigating crimes and then, after you’ve put in the effort, get promoted. It would be unusual to gain the level of experience necessary in less than 5 years. Factor in the already thin patrol ranks due to the police recruitment struggle in the U.S. and you can understand why many investigative units are stretched thin and detectives are overloaded.
That’s why it’s important to consider ways to balance investigator caseload, other than increasing the number of detectives in your unit. Let’s first take a look at the process agencies typically follow to assign cases.
Investigator Caseload: Traditional Methods of Assigning Cases
In most agencies, policy dictates that all serious crimes have to be assigned to someone to investigate, even if the team is already juggling a full plate. Agencies typically accomplish this in three ways, each having its inherent limitations:
- Assign to the individual who specializes in that case type.
Some departments have investigators who specialize in specific types of cases. So, one individual or group will always investigate homicides, another will always investigate special victims, and so on. This method is theoretically effective because the best person for the case is handling it, improving the potential to solve the case. But it also may create an imbalanced caseload, and it can be tough to deviate. For example, if there’s an uptick in special victims, the investigator who specializes in them has to take more on. But if there’s a lull, they will have bandwidth, while the rest of the team won’t.
- Assign the case to whoever is on duty.
Other departments will assign cases simply by luck of the draw. If a case comes in while an investigator is on shift, it’s theirs. At first glance, this makes sense because the on-duty investigator is likely to be first on the scene and can get to work quickly. But again, this creates an imbalanced caseload. You can’t control the timing of crime – so five cases could come in on one shift and zero on another. It also doesn’t align with any particular individual investigator’s strengths and experience. The best person for the job may not be on duty when it comes in and an otherwise solvable case may go unsolved.
- Assign the case according to a rotation schedule.
Another common method of assigning cases is to work on a rotation basis. While this is an effective way to maintain caseload balance, it’s also true that the best person for a particular case may not be next in line to take it, causing the case to suffer. It also creates information gaps since the assigned investigator may not be available to respond to the scene but instead is handed the case when they come in for their next shift. Then, they’re forced to play catch up while trying to discover what has, or has not, been done so far.
While each of these methods offers a process to distribute caseloads, they don’t always work out and they don’t necessarily put the agency in the best position to improve clearance rates.
An Analytic Approach to Caseload Management
In the long run, you need a system that helps you optimize your investigative resources while also balancing the load.
Here’s what to consider.
#1. Caseload Per Investigator & Case Status
What is the caseload per investigator, and what are the facts of those cases?
The caseload number alone doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, newer investigators may have a higher caseload to build their experience. But their cases are often low-level crimes and maybe more straightforward. Experienced investigators may catch the tougher cases, which are more likely to generate a higher volume of leads and require long hours to resolve. That’s the reality of working in law enforcement, and it’s a fact that most top-notch detectives readily acknowledge.
No two cases are alike. So, it’s absolutely critical that supervisors who make case assignments keep abreast of not only how many cases their investigators are carrying but also the details of those cases. Many teams track this using a grid on whiteboards in the squad room. However, in today’s age, it may also be done in an online case management system that makes information readily available to the supervisor in a mobile environment and proactively keeps the whole team informed.
Supervisors should consider the classification, case age, volume of leads needing to be worked, potential solvability and the level of effort of each investigator’s caseload before making new case assignments.
Even if an investigator only has a few cases on their plate, those could be in-depth, time-consuming cases that the investigator is diligently progressing towards solving. Assigning them another case could divert their attention and cause otherwise solvable cases to go cold.
So, for an investigative unit to be truly successful, the supervisor needs to know more than just caseload numbers. They need to know the big picture of each case that’s being worked.
#2. Investigator Skillset & Training
Who is properly equipped to handle this case?
It’s important to assess skillsets so you can assign investigators to the right type of case. Some cases may require a tough interrogator to solve, while another may require someone with strong technical knowledge of computer systems. Knowing your team’s skills and taking them into consideration can help improve clearance rates while also providing a more rewarding experience for investigators who are catching cases that they have a knack for.
In a smaller agency with just a few investigators, this is relatively simple – you know who is good at what. In agencies where there’s a larger number of investigators, you may need to rely on a more formal process for tracking skills and training. Having a formal system in place helps ensure that the process is carried out fairly with the goal being to ensure the best results – rather than to slight someone or show favoritism.
You’re almost always limited by resources, so investigator skillset won’t be the only factor when making case assignments, but it certainly should be considered.
#3. Case Details
Is this case solvable?
Implementing an intake screening process is another important way to better manage limited resources by identifying the unsolvable cases early. However, it’s only applicable to certain types of crimes. For example, homicides are always investigated and never subjected to being summarily closed.
Sometimes, it’s clear that there just isn’t enough evidence to solve a case. No matter who is on it or how much effort they put into it, absent some new developments, there will simply be no way to clear the case.
For some crime types where the probability of solving the case is very low, and the unit’s caseloads are very high, the best course of action may be to administratively close the case on intake and not invest manpower, unless actionable leads develop.
How do you figure this out – and justify not taking a case? Establish an objective screening process that can be applied and documented, while measuring the evidence against a series of solvability factors for applicable crime types. If the case scores below a solvable threshold and your investigators are overloaded, then a supervisor can administratively close it. This doesn’t clear the case – it’s just an interim status indicating it’s not currently being actively investigated.
When implementing this type of policy, be sure you can justify that a high caseload actually exists and make sure the policy has a clearly identified trigger point in place. If cases fall to more manageable levels, you can suspend the policy. It’s also important to inform complainants of why their case is not being actively investigated and remind them that if actionable information develops, you’re willing to reactivate the case.
While it may seem that this type of policy could harm clearance rates, in reality when executed properly, it actually frees up investigative time to pursue cases that truly can be solved, which, in turn, produces improvements.
Finding a balance between investigator bandwidth, investigator skillset and case solvability will help your department better manage caseload and produce more successful outcomes. It won’t always work out perfectly– especially in high crime environments that have fewer resources. But keeping a conscious eye on these considerations when assigning cases will help you get a handle on things in the long run.
Plus, the right case management software will help you with the case screening process and allow you to take a deeper dive into investigators’ active caseloads, examining not only the number of cases per investigator but also the status and progress of those cases.
ShotSpotter Investigate helps agencies track and manage caseloads with easy to use tools. Contact our team to learn more.
About the Author: Michael Cunningham has more than 27 years of experience with the New York City Police Department and achieved the rank of Detective First Grade. He is now part of the ShotSpotter Investigate case management team and stays active in the industry instructing courses in forensics and response to terrorist incidents.