Detectives have a long list of must-dos that come with every case that crosses their desk.
Laying the groundwork for an investigation might mean canvassing neighborhoods to find witnesses, reviewing hours and hours of surveillance video footage or collecting and preserving supplemental evidence.
All important, but time-consuming tasks.
When Westminster PD’s 13 investigators are balancing between 30 and 50 cases at a time, they need the help.
Enter civilian investigators.
Westminster PD, over the last year, has hired four part-time civilians to aid in investigations and free up detectives so they can more efficiently work their cases.
Janice Esparza and Travis Masad are assigned to the crimes against persons bureau, helping on cases including domestic violence, robbery and assault.
Nadia Alvarez and Mari Maciel are assigned to the property crimes bureau, handling burglaries, thefts and the like.
They come from different backgrounds, but share a common thread in their passion to serve in law enforcement.
“A good civilian investigator is a detail-oriented person with tenacity to follow through on things, and they have a service-oriented mentality” said Westminster Cmdr. Al Panella. “Those are really important characteristics for us.”
The department’s four investigators encompass these qualities and also each have unique ties to the law enforcement profession.
Esparza is a former cop, while Masad is looking to possibly join the academy as a Westminster PD recruit.
Alvarez is a former Westminster PD Explorer, while Maciel currently works as a forensic technician for Downey PD.
Together, they help the investigations bureau run more smoothly, Panella said.
“Civilianization is something that has been talked about for a long time in law enforcement, and it’s proven to be very efficient and effective for police departments,” Panella said. “That’s no different in the investigations division.”
On the bigger cases, such as a homicide or severe domestic violence, civilian investigators supplement detectives’ work, but they are available to take on less-severe cases on their own, as well.
Esparza said she most often takes on domestic violence cases — a subject she specialized in as a patrol cop in Kern County.
She and Masad help crime victims or at-risk members in the community get services they need through the Strategic Home Intervention and Early Leadership Development (SHIELD) program.
The program is targeted to minors and families that have directly been a victim of a crime or experienced crime in their home.
“These are mostly domestic violence cases,” Esparza said. “Some people take advantage of the resources out there and some don’t, but it’s nice when we get an update and hear about someone who is getting the help they need.”
Esparza said she one day hopes to continue to help these victims as a detective for Westminster PD.
The competitive long-distance runner was a cop for two years before leaving the profession to work as a stay-at-home mom. Now that her son is 3, Esparza said she wants to again serve as a sworn employee.
“I love being here and I love everything about law enforcement,” she said. “I want to help people, especially domestic violence victims who think they don’t have an out.”
Alvarez also hopes to one day be an officer with Westminster.
She served in the Westminster PD Explorer post for three years before being hired in April 2015 as a civilian investigator.
The Marina High School graduate and current Goldenwest College student is working toward earning her psychology degree before enrolling in the police academy, she said.
Alvarez takes on property crimes and most often posts up at her computer reviewing hours and hours of surveillance tape.
Her resolve pays off.
In one case, she watched more than 100 video clips to help identify a suspect in a commercial burglary case.
She also identified a suspect in a residential burglary case who was caught on tape at a local convenience store.
Alvarez found the suspect by scanning the tape for items detectives told her were charged to a stole credit card, which included a Slurpee and an NFL T-shirt.
“The T-shirt really stood out,” she said. “I was able to find him on tape and it matched the detectives’ description.
“We are just another set of eyes the detectives can rely on.”
The longer the investigators are around the bureau, the more responsibility they take on, and the detectives they work with are grateful, Panella said.
“At first, the detectives weren’t sure what (the civilian investigators) might be capable of working on, but the more you get to know their capabilities and the more you build confidence in them, the more they are utilized,” he said.
As it turns out, the investigators’ impact reaches beyond lessening detectives’ work load.
“Sometimes victims of the crimes I work on just need someone to talk to,” Esparza said. “I try to really give them my time. If you build a rapport with someone, they learn to really trust you.”
Added Alvarez: “It lets them know that someone here cares and is working on their case; that they weren’t forgotten.”