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What is a Vice Squad?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A vice squad is a police division which focuses on moral crimes like gambling, narcotics, pornography, the sex trade, and illegal sales of alcohol, in contrast with crimes like fraud, murder, and so forth. Vice squads can be found in many urban areas, where a high incidence of such crimes makes a dedicated squad necessary, and sometimes smaller police departments will form temporary vice task forces to deal with rising rates of such crimes. The size of these squads can vary widely, depending on the size of the department and the amount of coverage required.

Things like gambling, pornography, and alcohol are not necessarily inherently illegal, but they are closely regulated. Vice squads are charged with investigating situations in which the line into illegality may be crossed, such as pornography with underaged performers, illegal gambling operations, and the sale of alcohol to minors. In some cases, an officer may be sent undercover to investigate the situation, as these moral crimes are notoriously difficult to track down and prosecute; undercover officers may work for weeks, months, or even years to build a case.

Strict laws prohibit the sale of narcotics and participation in the sex trade in many regions of the world, making it easier to identify criminals. In some regions, both of these crimes are extremely common, and vice squads may feel like they are repeating themselves with series of raids, arrests, and prosecutions. The use of undercover officers is also common, with members posing as prostitutes or drug buyers to ensnare people who participate in these illegal activities.

Sometimes, the members of a vice unit work largely without supervision, with precinct administrators allowing the vice squad to have free rein. This can be dangerous at times, as vice squads may be vulnerable to corruption, especially when less experienced officers are involved. A great deal of money changes hands in the course of the commission of the vice crimes, and many criminals are happy to send some of that money in the direction of the vice squad with the understanding that the officers will look the other way.

The operations of the vice squad are also of great interest to some ordinary citizens. Television shows like Miami Vice have popularized the activities of these officers, making it seem like they are out on the streets undercover every night. In fact, as in other police divisions, members of the vice squad spend a lot of time in the office doing paperwork, waiting around for informants, or lying in wait fruitlessly at various criminal hot spots.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Feb 23, 2013

@Fa5t3r - You know, I bet there are plenty of people on the vice squad who feel the same about some issues. But, since prostitution is illegal it's rarely happening without other crimes alongside it. And I guess those police just have to decide that upholding the law is more important than their personal inclinations.

I guess, to me, breaking the law for profit, even if it's a bad law, is still a bad thing to do. I'm not against civil disobedience, which is breaking the law to point out injustice, but I don't think people should break laws just because they can.

By Fa5t3r — On Feb 22, 2013

@irontoenail - Well, it depends of course, as it does in everything. I'm sure homicide seems like it might be more exciting, but I think I would find it very satisfying to do something like shut down a child porn ring, which is something that people on the vice squad often do.

For me, the problem would be more to do with ambiguity. Not with stuff like that kind of porn which is obviously, disgustingly wrong. But, prostitution, for example, I don't really have a problem with. It's legal in a lot of places and often people are safer in the places that it is legal, because if something happens they feel like they can go to the police without risk to themselves.

Same thing with marijuana. I think it would really bother me to be spending half my day chasing people who just want to smoke a bit of pot. Hardcore drug dealers, yeah, I'd be happy to take them out, but it seems like a lot of vice squad activities are in a moral grey area and that doesn't sit right with me.

By irontoenail — On Feb 21, 2013

On TV, depending on the show of course, it seems like being put on the vice squad is considered to be a "lesser" line of work than being involved in homicide. I can definitely see why that might be the case if they have to work undercover with the kind of scum that are dealing in drugs and pornography and so forth. I know I wouldn't want to do it and I appreciate the people who do.

By icecream17 — On Feb 11, 2011

Sunshine31- Wow what a tragic story. I know that there is a Vice Squad TV reality series that shows how some of these stings taking place.

It is really fascinating and I am always at the edge of my seat to see what happens. This is very similar to the “Cops” television series that shows police officers arresting people for drunk driving or possession of illegal substances.

Vice Squad is much more riveting because its subject matter is even more dangerous.

By sunshine31 — On Feb 10, 2011

I think that anytime a vice squad is called out to a suspect’s home it can be potentially dangerous. There was a recent case of two vice squad officers that were going to a suspect’s house to arrest him.

When he came to the door and the officers told the man that he was under arrest for a murder charge and his involvement in drug trafficking,

the suspect told the officers that he had to get his jacket and will be right back to the door. Well the suspect got a gun instead and shot both officers. One died immediately and the other died at the hospital.

Both were veterans on the force and probably allowing the suspect to get something cost them their lives. This is such a dangerous field that I take my hat off to anyone that serves.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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