How many times has a big case been made at a location that law enforcement has been to several times for minor calls? In smaller communities we have the ability to be as proactive as we want to, so why not do it? Go the extra step (or steps), even when you think the call or the traffic stop could be over. Don’t just worry about clearing the calls and getting on your way, turn every contact into an investigation, and work it until you can’t go any further.
For example, in suburban America you may sometimes have three officers handling a call — a two-officer car and a one-officer car arriving on scene as backup. The contact officer is doing the talking and gathering information, the cover officer is vigilantly watching his partner and the surroundings for unpleasant surprises, but that backup officer is basically standing alongside doing nothing. If the contact and cover officers are taking care of business, and you are the backup, think outside the box and make the most of that call or make that traffic stop. Try one of these things (add your own ideas below):
• Staying close, take a look around
• Talk with others at the scene
• Identify everyone, ask lots of questions
• Conduct a consent search
• Do a records check or criminal history
• Call a neighboring agency for a records check
Just like you watch those houses which always seem to be unoccupied, knowing they might turn into a major grow operation, you can find important information on people (whether they are your subjects or their associates) simply by actively paying attention on a call or a stop.
Lots of information can be gathered when you take ten minutes to look around and chat with people. Be creative, your sudden interest in cars, antiques, computers, home improvement, gardening, or cooking, may get you to the next area you want to see. The indicators of criminal activity are endless, so we need to train, read, and study them. This way we can be aware of what to looking for, but most importantly, we need to be looking in the first place.
Practice Your Interviewing Skills
If you make a burned out headlight stop on a resident who you may have no intention of citing or arresting, why not tell them to get the light fixed and then ask them about any possible illegal activity they may have seen lately? Just like any good interviewer, keep the conversation going and encourage them to talk — they may know a lot or they may know nothing but you won’t know if you don’t ask. Let them know you’re interested in what they might have observed in their own neighborhood. Many times this initial contact won’t net you the big case, but you may get a future call because you showed some interest.
On top of that benefit, by simply asking the right questions and actively listening to the answers of this ordinary, decent person you’ve stopped over the broken headlight, you’re subtly practicing your interviewing skills for when a bad guy is in the hot seat.
Don’t Sit Back
Instead of showing up for work, sitting in the squad and waiting for calls to come in, plan your activities with the other officers you work with, even if it is a neighboring agency up the road. If there are only a couple of you on the night shift and calls are slow, plan to work drug interdiction together, take turns watching a suspected drug house, grab some license plates at a couple of your targets and gather whatever information you can on the owners.
You will be surprised at what you find with some effort. Want another example? When was the last time you did a trash pick? Sure, it’s a messy job but lots of good cases started with a night shift cop getting a tip and going through a bag of trash.
Don’t Forget the Paperwork
Okay, now for the not so fun part (as if going through someone’s trash is fun?!). One necessary part of these investigations is organization. Information needs to be recorded confidentially and every officer needs to take a role in adding intelligence to the file. Something as simple as license plates at a residence, or people associated with a target, can turn out to be important information.
I have kept records of this stuff using everything from note cards in a plastic box to highly sophisticated computer databases. Apologies to the computer nuts out there, but those note cards worked fine for what I was doing. You need a system that allows you to document the activity of an address or person and won’t end up in an open records request. Most calls for service databases don’t fit the bill so you need to improvise and find a system that fits your needs.
Since every person has a different way of organizing information, find an officer in your department who is motivated and organized and put them in charge of the intelligence files. When an officer sees anything noteworthy to put in the file it, goes to the guy in charge of the data entry. This allows things to be organized, secure, and easily recalled by the officer who organized the file.
Want to take that one step further? If you’re a naturally organized person, volunteer to take on this role. Sounds like a lot of work, but you’ll have a better handle on this stuff than anybody in your department. You can bet that if nobody is responsible for this information, it will likely become a big, worthless mess.
Think “Task Force”
If you can motivate the agencies surrounding your own to get on board and document their info on whatever targets they have, you have now created a larger department out of several small ones. You can create a formal task force by following some of the guidance in Chuck Joyner’s recent article on the topic, or like I see happen so often in rural America, you can simply make this a monthly coffee meeting.
When you get members of nearby departments together to share information, you will inevitably see some of the same names and lots of the same problems throughout the wider geographical area. Names you track will help your neighbors, their names will add to your list of people, and things will come together. Naturally, there are legal issues at stake, particularly to not divulge sensitive or protected information, but you get the idea.
An added benefit to this type cooperation is that good relationships with neighboring agencies, if you take that one step further, can help in the future if you’re able to share equipment costs on things like surveillance cameras and other gear. If several small agencies can collaborate on a single grant application, you can get equipment that will increase your chances of making good cases and keep department budgets in the black.
The task of catching bad guys and keeping good people safe is what we all took this job for, and there is no mind-blowing information contained in this article. However, occasionally we need to remind ourselves, both patrol officers and administrators, that it takes aggressive, proactive police work to catch the real bad guys, and even then, results can be slow in coming.
It is too easy to wait for the calls to come in and get stuck in the rut of dealing with the same problems, patrolling the same areas, and doing whatever the radio speaker tells us to do. Instead of just showing up for work and occupying the seat, waiting for the next call, take a proactive approach, work together with other officers, and have a plan. It makes things much more fun for the beat cop, keeps us tactically sound, and polishes our skills, preparing us for that potential “big one” that we might uncover. Good cops are willing to put in hundreds of hours of “work” so we could have 15 minutes of “fun” someday when we knock the door off its hinges and cuff the bad guy. No matter how peaceful your community looks, the criminals are out there, and until they decide to start turning themselves in, we need to work with our communities — and each other to bring them to justice.