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.