Rules Limit Detectives on Residential Burglaries under $25,000 in Philadelphia

Philadelphia detectives will no longer respond promptly to reports of residential burglaries unless more than $25,000 was stolen - or the victim was at home when the burglary was committed.

Under an order issued by police brass and obtained by the Daily News, the "processing" of the vast majority of home burglary scenes now is to be handled by uniformed officers, instead of detectives.

When a detective processes a scene, it includes everything from interviewing the victim about the crime to dusting for fingerprints and examining the inside and outside of the burglary scene.

Chief of Detectives Joseph Fox said the processing done by patrol officers will be limited to dusting for fingerprints, a task he described as "not rocket science." Other aspects of processing, when necessary, can be done by the Crime Lab or by the detectives eventually assigned to the matter, he said.

But three law enforcement sources said this would interrupt the natural flow of burglary investigations. "This is going to be a disaster," said a veteran detective, who asked not to be identified. "I can just see the reaction of a victim when I show up two or three days later and explain that I couldn't get there earlier because not enough money was stolen."

This detective said that good scene-processing involves more than dusting for fingerprints. "The uniformed guy's not going to be able to recognize a burglary that fits a pattern because he doesn't have any context," the detective said. "And who's going to look for trace evidence, a thread caught on a window frame? Who's going to take the pictures or determine what kind of tool was used to get entry?"

Assigning processing duties to uniformed officers breaks with the practice of detectives processing scenes that dates back to at least 1951, when the modern Detective Bureau was formed.

The order, dated Sept. 16 and signed by Fox and Chief of Patrol William Blackburn, directs detectives to continue processing the scenes of non-residential, or business, burglaries. It also states that detectives retain "responsibility" for the overall investigation of all burglaries, even if they don't ever see the burglary scene.

The order states that the change was designed "to improve both the efficiency and responsibility for processing burglary crime scenes."

Fox said the change was not an attempt to save money. Detectives are paid about 10 percent more than the $47,000 that fully experienced patrol officers make, but they can double their salaries through overtime if their caseloads are heavy enough.

A longtime law enforcement commander said burglary investigations traditionally have been carried out from start to finish by detectives assigned to the six regional detective divisions. Each division generally has two two-member teams that concentrate on burglaries, he said.

More than 10,000 burglaries and attempted burglaries are reported annually in the city, crime statistics show, with very few claiming more than $25,000 was taken. The statewide average claim for property stolen in burglaries is $1,458, according to the state police.

For all practical purposes, the longtime commander said, the $25,000 threshold means detectives will not be in on the start of investigations in almost all residential burglaries.

In three decades as a cop, he said, he never handled a residential burglary in which the take exceeded $25,000.

Asked how the $25,000 figure was reached, Fox said the number was "arbitrary."

The longtime commander said the order tended to downgrade burglaries in which items like guns are taken, which alarmed him. Guns, no matter their cost, can lead to other, more serious crimes, he said.

Asked what would happen if a burglary involved the theft of a dozen firearms worth just $5,000, Fox said a uniformed officer would be dispatched as outlined in the order.

But he stressed that detectives bore the ultimate responsibility for investigating and, if possible, solving the crime.

If necessary, said Fox, a "clarification" would be issued to make it clear that the Detective Bureau remains primarily responsible for burglaries.

Statistics supplied by the city to the FBI show that the clearance rate for burglary is the lowest for any major crime, with fewer than 15 percent of the cases being cleared.

"The investigation begins at the scene, and if I'm not at the scene, I can't tell what's happening," said a veteran detective.

"If they're going to make me responsible for clearing a case, I need to be there from the start.

"I don't want to have to clean up after a uniformed guy goes in there with his Sirchie fingerprint kit."