Many thousands of officers in America are out on patrol in patrolling suburban communities — subdivisions full of lookalike houses, filled with morning joggers and evening walkers with their iPods and dogs on leashes. These cul-de-sacs and grids of endless intersections are governed as much by neighborhood associations as they are by the local town councils. All in all, these are fairly upstanding citizens who enjoy a relatively low crime rate. But ironically, criminals prefer living in these communities as well — in fact, the higher up on the criminal hierarchy, the more likely they will be found in these well-heeled communities.
Turns out, even a criminal can blend in with these cookie-cutter communities and still run an illegal business virtually undetected. There are countless examples of organized illegal activities that go on in suburban America — marijuana grows, organized crime and gang activity, identity theft rings, mail fraud shops, counterfeiting operations, and even dormant terrorist cells. Criminals in these communities bank on the fact that the local police are understaffed, undertrained, uninterested, or some combination of the three.
Sometimes it’s just too easy for officers in these communities to stick with the basics, run radar, rattle doors, and respond to calls — leaving the major crimes relatively untouched. Many departments lack of detective bureaus or major crime task forces. For the proactive, enthusiastic, patrol officer, you can (and you must) do some investigating of your own to try to take down these criminals using good old fashioned police work.
Shaking the Bushes
We’ve all worked enough to know that information and intelligence is what makes our hunches develop into cases. How do we gather this information? There are already people or businesses that we suspect are into some sort of illegal activity. If we’re trying to develop more, what can we do? Well, as much as I complained and stomped around in the 90s because I was ordered to attend yet another community policing training session, it turns out it does work. We cannot do this job alone, get out and shake some hands, show some interest. If you have a target in a neighborhood, why not stop to chat with the people who live there once and a while?
All it takes is one citizen’s statement, “Sure was a lot of traffic here last night” or “there are a bunch of people staying at X’s house this week” to help us look deeper into that hunch. There is however, a fine line to this community-oriented response that we need to keep in mind,: many times the bad guys we have on our radar screen are recognized as good guys in our community. There are countless examples of criminals working as realtors, teachers, and small business owners that have strong ties and a good reputation in the community. Be careful how you “investigate” these subjects — move slowly until you figure out the “family tree” of the criminal you are investigating.
A body shop owner may say, “Something’s fishy” and set off a case that ends up being a combination of auto theft, insurance fraud, and money laundering encompassing several states. Then there’s the repo man who has a real knack for finding wanted persons living under assumed identities and usually conducting crime in new communities. As officers, we don’t know where the next big tip will come from but we do know the information is out there — and that we increase our odds of hearing it by getting out of that squad and talking to the folks you are sworn to protect.
Good Capers in the Papers
I’ve found that once a department gets that good tip and makes the big, felony, “front page” case, the public realizes that its cops are not just interested in fighting crime, but effective at it! With that in mind, many more people may be willing to provide good tips in the future. If the best case your department makes is traffic tickets, don’t expect any information other than traffic violations to be called into your tip line. This is not to belittle the traffic cop by any means, but cops and chiefs sometimes need to see the bigger picture and strive to be a true crime fighting agency.
The trust and respect the public puts in our abilities earned. Show interest in your community, make a good case, and others will follow.
The ‘burbs — those idyllic old towns and the brand new planned communities — with populations ranging from a couple thousand all the way up to a hundred thousand residents, are near-perfect places to conduct illegal activity.
They’re also excellent places to be a cop.