How is criminal investigation in the police doing? 

Minna Ketola Published Date 16.3.2022 8.28 Blog

One of the tasks of the police is to prevent, uncover and investigate crimes. Criminal investigation is only one sector in the operations of the police. 

Criminal investigation is largely regulated by law. The provisions laid down in the law regulate, for example

  • the principles to be followed in pre-trial investigation, 
  • the process of pre-trial investigation, 
  • the rights of the suspect and 
  • the use of intelligence gathering methods in criminal investigation.  

Recently, public debate has focussed on the state of criminal investigation, including its quality and the duration of pre-trial investigations, partly in light of cases that are several years old. However, on the basis of these, it is not possible to form an overall view of the current state of criminal investigation and the factors that influence it. The police investigates hundreds of thousands of crimes every year – errors must be found and addressed, but on the basis of them, the excellent, high-quality work that the police carries out on a daily basis to ensure safety, security and crime prevention, should not be watered down.

About changes in the operating environment

The recent changes in our society and the global security environment have made crimes more complex, diversified and international, and their investigation more challenging, long-term and costly than before. New, more complex cases appear on a continuous basis (such as cybercrime). The Internet and digitalisation are cross-cutting themes in criminal investigation. The competence requirements in crime prevention increase constantly. 

About the starting points of criminal investigation

According to law, a pre-trial investigation must be conducted when there is reason to suspect a crime in the case. The threshold for initiating a pre-trial investigation is quite low, but on the other hand, the law gives the pre-trial investigation authority a certain degree of discretionary power in its assessment. This means that reporting a crime to the police will not automatically mean that a pre-trial investigation will be initiated, because concrete evidence is needed in support of the claims. If there is no reason to suspect that a crime has been committed in the case, the pre-trial investigation authority cannot conduct a pre-trial investigation. 

The law also requires that the pre-trial investigation must be conducted without undue delay. In this respect, too, the pre-trial investigation authority has a certain degree of leeway in prioritising pre-trial investigations. The police must have the possibility to prioritise tasks based on urgency, both as regards criminal investigation and field operations. The prioritisation of pre-trial investigations may lead to postponing the initiation of pre-trial investigation, or continuing of the investigation, but not in the pre-trial investigation not being conducted at all.  

In individual cases, the appropriate duration of pre-trial investigation depends on the specifics of the matter investigated. For example, cases where the suspect is arrested or remanded for trial, must be processed within the quite short time limits specified by law. This is why these cases must often be given priority over other investigations. It is clear that the injured party in, for example a minor property offence, is not comforted by the fact that his or her case cannot be processed immediately due to the aforementioned reasons. It is only natural that one’s own case is the most important for everyone, but the police is forced to choose its priorities. When limited resources cannot be stretched to cover everything, the police must make the strategic choice to focus on the most serious crimes that have the highest significance in society. However, sisnce all cases that qualify for pre-trial investigation must be processed, it means that minor offences suffer in many cases as the investigations are prolonged. The situation gives cause for concern, as the daily investigation of crimes in particular, and everyday safety, are closest to citizens and play a key role in both building and maintaining trust in the police. The situation is frustrating not only for the injured parties, but for the police as well. 

The cases reported for investigation are not commensurate in terms of the measures required in the course of the investigation. In some cases, one or two interrogations are enough to clarify the case, but sometimes it can take years of work. In statistics, however, both cases appear as equals. When assessing the results of criminal investigations on the basis of statistics, it must be remembered that mere numbers do not reveal how much work the investigation has in fact required. It is also essential to realise that because the police is obligated by law to record all cases reported for investigation, various preliminary investigative measures and decisions are made even in cases that do not, due to their nature, proceed to the actual pre-trial investigation. 

Constant legislative reforms are an everyday phenomenon in criminal investigation. The principle of a fair trial is in many cases the underlying goal of the reform. In practice, however, the reforms have resulted in a continuous increase in the formal requirements that apply to pre-trial investigations. Such changes have a considerable impact on the allocation of working hours. Rarely, if ever, the reforms have been triggered by the idea of making the pre-trial investigation process more streamlined and efficient. Furthermore, the reforms have regrettably been very limited in scope, and fragmented. 

About criminal investigation in practice

Today, the work of crime investigators and head investigators includes many elements that people do not necessarily realise that are involved. This is partly due to the fact that criminal investigation is a fairly invisible sector of police operations for a number of reasons, including privacy protection, the presumption of innocence, and the need to keep the tactical and technical methods of the police secret. For similar reasons, the activity may be quite invisible even within the police administration.  

In addition to the basic tasks of a pre-trial investigation (interviews, preparing the pre-trial investigation record), the duties of an individual head investigator and investigator also include tasks relating to the use of information gathering methods, legal aid and executive assistance and forensic investigation (incl. IT investigation). Moreover, time must be allocated to crime prevention, analysis and intelligence operations, police inquiry, asylum investigations, development, preparation of statements and replying to requests for documents. At the same time, international cooperation and stakeholder cooperation are part of the everyday duties, as is the fact that one head investigator can be responsible for hundreds, even a couple of thousand cases every year.

The requirement to perform the investigation without delay, and with high quality, applies to all of these. This is why it should not be surprising that under such pressure, job satisfaction and motivation begin to suffer and control of one’s work seems to be lost. 

If the workload is excessive, it is only human that mistakes happen for these reasons. The conditions are already visible in decreasing well-being at work among police personnel. It would be inhuman if no mistakes happened in an operating environment like the one described above. 

It has become increasingly challenging to maintain the level of crimes investigated pursuant to the Criminal Code at the current levels. In such circumstances, it is important to examine who could have the possibility to improve the situation and at which direction criticism of operations should be targeted. Does an individual official, the police administration or someone outside the administrative branch hold the keys to resolve the situation? 

If the excessive workload of an individual official is the underlying and actgual cause of errors, this official should not be assessed. However, this is the case regrettably often. For example, the supreme overseers of legality have in many decisions stated that the scarcity of resources in relation to the amount of tasks does not justify the non-performance of a statutory duty. If an individual case is in the background of for example criticism relating to legality control, it often results in criticism of the official active in that case, for example the head investigator. From the viewpoint of the official in question, such criticism is unreasonable, because the reasons for the error are such that one has minimal, or non-existent possibilities to influence them. 

On the other hand, it has also been realised in legality control that issues relating to workload cannot be overlooked completely. The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s special theme is sufficient resources for authorities to ensure fundamental rights. In the 2020 Annual Report, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has stated that “Sufficient resources for official activities have a direct impact on the appropriateness of the authorities’ activities and thus on how reliable, credible and high-quality the authorities’ activities are perceived to be. In principle, the Ombudsman’s task is not to monitor the sufficiency of the authorities’ resources. However, if a lack of resources leads to a failure to observe fundamental rights, for example by making it more difficult or even impossible to fulfil the statutory obligations imposed on the authority due to a lack of resources, the oversight of legality cannot override issues related to resourcing. However, it is not appropriate or reasonable to focus the assessment and evaluation of legal oversight solely on an individual public servant in situations where shortcomings in the activities of the authorities have been caused by resource-related matters that the civil servant has not been able to influence. In some cases, even an individual authority or administrative branch has limited opportunities to influence the correction of problems caused by resource issues. For example, the reorganisation of operations does not necessarily solve problems caused by the lack of human resources if the resources had already been limited from the beginning.

What has been done?

The operating environment, legislation, human resources and financal resources influence the operations of the police and all other public authorities. Quantitative and qualitative changes in the operations can, in many cases, be accomplished by examining the structures of operations and by making organisational changes. The introduction of new working methods and procedures can also enhance the fluency of work. The possibilities of the authority to flexibly reallocate resources to the tasks prioritised at any given time enhance the authority’s ability to manage in changing situations. 

The police has undertaken various measures in order to improve the situation of criminal investigation. So-called pre-processing units have been established in police units for the purpose of seeking to ensure that the appropriate cases are allocated to pre-trial investigation and the criminal process at large.  The aim of such pre-processing is to eliminate from the criminal process cases that by nature are for example civil cases or otherwise cases that the person reporting the offence finds unresolved. The aim is to target the investigation resources at cases of appropriate quality. 

In addition, the units have developed a so-called rapid investigation model, which means that the case is processed either in full or as far as possible in one go. Moreover, several reforms relating to operational processes have been implemented and cooperation between the units developed. Police units have also invested in the developemtn of competence and leadership.  

What more can be done?

There is a clear need to develop criminal investigation. Criminal investigation, like any other operations of the authorities, cannot stagnate and ignore changes in the operating environment. It is not enough to examine the changes in the operating environment outwards from the operations of the authorities. Instead, the impacts must be examined also with regard to how the operations of the authorities must change to meet the requirements of each situation and period in time. This task is ongoing. 

A realistic starting point for all development is to consider the possibilities that are really available. It seems that criminal investigation by the police cannot be saved by a significant increase in the human resources available. The number of people carrying out investigations will continue to be too low and the status of criminal investigation cannot be improved this way.

But what can and must be done, is to continue the development of operational processes that influence the efficiency and quality of operations, particularly at the national level.  For example, as regards the pre-processing operations, the appropriate development of the process, based on best practices, can still be examined. Development of leadership plays a crucial role as well. An integral part of leadership and supervisory work is to acknowledge problems and address them, whether concerning a backlog of work or shortcomings detected in the workplace. The possibilities of cooperation between police units, that is, co-working, must also be examined without prejudice. The National Police Board is responsible for nationwide development. 

Development of competencies is also a continuous process. The administration must identify competence needs and target training and education accordingly. The provision of training and education must be continuous and time must be allocated for it. The Police University College that educates competent individuals for challenging duties within the police administration plays a key role in ensuring competence. In addition, police units, too, must monitor the educational needs of personnel and organise the necessary opportunities for training and education. 

In addition to the measures internal to the administrative branch, implemented in the short term, the development needs of legislation that governs criminal investigation must be advanced. In this respect, the focus must be placed on improving the quality and promptness of pre-trial investigations. 

For example, enhancing the possibility to use electronic methods in pre-trial investigations, and more broad-based utilisation of technical storage methods, are already topical. In addition, there is reason to examine, without prejudice, how all parties concerned could be committed to the pre-trial investigation so that the investigation of the case would not need to start again for example during the final statement procedure or even during the court proceedings. Moreover, it must be taken into account that the criminal investigation process includes not only the pre-trial investigation but also the consideration of charges and the court process, and thus updating of regulation concerning the pre-trial investigation stage alone will not necessarily be sufficient to expedite the entire process of handling the criminal case, nor shorten its duration. 

One significant legislative issue to be addressed is what type of cases the pre-trial investigation process and the criminal investigation process at large should be used for. At present, it seems that there are attempts to include even cases not falling within the sphere of criminal law in the pre-trial investigation process, because the police is viewed as a kind of public investigation authority. There is reason for a broad-based review of whether the society offers other adequate, more appropriate and less arduous methods for processing issues. This is closely linked to the question of alleviating the obligation to conduct a pre-trial investigation. 

The fundamental starting point for development of the authorities’ operations is the core task of the authority and understanding of what the target of development is. The core task of the police in the criminal investigation field is very clear. The police itself understands its needs and methods of development. 

Minna Ketola
Assistant Police Commissioner, Crime Prevention Unit
National Police Board

Minna Ketola National Police Board Offences and criminal investigation Police operations and development en