Learning from my poorest police work

The error I shared with my partner that night was one of mindset — as soon as we got the call, I labeled the event as a false alarm


All of us in the training and curriculum business are guilty of discovering the lowest common denominator. It’s a necessary evil to accept that 70 percent may be a passing score for whatever skill or subject, or to sign off on a project that’s “good enough for government work.”

Let me suggest a way for trainers and supervisors to focus on results and raise the standard of expectation in real life. 

I’ll start by sharing one of the poorest pieces of police work I ever did.

A “False Alarm” Call
John and I were working midnights when we got a call of an alarm at a discount store in a small strip mall. During the 20 minutes or so that it took for the manager to show up, John and I swapped war stories while parked out in front of the building. 

The manager — frustrated with these false alarms — had brought his seven-year-old son along for the adventure. We all walked into the building and made a straight path toward the alarm panel. I fanned to one side and John went off to the other and we walked the aisles. I heard the metal swinging door to the stock room and shouted to John, asking if that was him. 

From another part of the store John said “What?”

That’s how I knew that there were five of us in the building. 

Now a frantic and earnest search commenced that ended with me arresting a recently released inmate who just couldn’t wait to get back into the burglary business. He had made it to the sporting goods section, where he was trying to figure out how to get the cable lock off of the shotgun.

He had already found the ammo. 

Following the Script
The error I shared with my partner that night was one of mindset — as soon as I got the call I found myself labeling the event as a false alarm call. 

It was already scripted from the dozen other times I’d done the same thing. I was just checking the box, done and done. In fact I was responding to a burglary in progress and should have had that as my mental picture from the start. 

How often do officers do a building search instead of a search for a suspect? Or go to an alarm call rather than a crime in progress call? 

How often do we simply respond when we should be gathering intel and staging for the call? Do we merely secure a suspect or do we manage and restrain the suspect to prevent escape and assault?

Reflection, Not Reflexes
Of course we use the short phrases that have a universal meaning. But try this on your officers when supervising in the field — describe the purpose and intent of the action rather than just naming the action. 

It may shake up some routines and help officers focus a little better. 

For example, instead of asking if an officer searched a prisoner, ask “Are you totally certain that this person doesn’t have anything that can hurt me?”

Or before leaving a scene, ask “Do you want to review the facts now so that you can testify about this incident in court six months from now?”

While one could make that sound insulting, don’t use the same tone that you would use asking your five-year-old kid if they need to go potty before they leave the house. Rephrasing is a powerful cognitive tool to overcome a “checking the box” mentality. 

Another way to reinforce basic skills and attitudes as a supervisor — or peer — on the street is to ask officers who were on the call with you if they would suggest whether you could have or should have done anything differently. 

That takes the burden of self-incrimination off of them and helps them see the operation more objectively. It also models a learning and reflection process that makes every call a teachable moment. 

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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