Lessons in Leadership: Why cops need to be chameleons

The success of law enforcement operations depends on our ability to adapt to the spectrum of humanity on a daily basis


This article is part of a 10-part Lessons in Leadership series by Rich Emberlin. Click here to access all of Rich’s leadership lessons.

Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.

Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

Adaptability is defined as the ability to change in order to fit or work better in some situation or for some purpose. Police officers interact with the spectrum of humanity on a daily basis. We meet people from all walks of life who represent different ethnicities, cultures, upbringings, professions, socioeconomic status and points of view. The success of law enforcement operations depends on our ability to adapt to all these individuals within an environment that can change at any given moment. 

Do your homework, be meticulous and learn everything you can about the people you’re going to interact with. (Photo/Pixabay)
Do your homework, be meticulous and learn everything you can about the people you’re going to interact with. (Photo/Pixabay)

My three-year stint as an undercover detective in the narcotics unit was one of the most dangerous assignments of my career. I was assigned to the mid- and upper-level drug investigation section. Most of the dealers were violent, ruthless criminals who knew their craft and could smell cops from a mile away. While working the strip club circuit, I arrested and interrogated a small-time dealer with the hope he’d give up his supplier. My plan worked. He did what most criminals do when they’re hemmed up and desperate to reduce the time they’re about to serve in the Department of Corrections; he ratted out a North Dallas man named Jeff.

The operation that followed was the ultimate exercise in adaptability and relied heavily on several strategies.

Know your target

In the corporate world, businesses require a deep understanding of their customers, markets and competition to be successful. Officers do the same thing in the law enforcement world, except our “clients” are the criminals we’re trying to arrest or the people we’re trying to help. We rely on intelligence gathering – the police equivalent of intensive consumer research – as the foundation of our operations.

Do your homework, be meticulous and learn everything you can about the people you’re going to interact with.

Jeff was higher up the food chain, dealing marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Through background checks, I discovered where he lived and worked. I pressed my arrestee for additional intel about Jeff’s daily routine, likes and dislikes. He apparently loved music, especially the guitar, and spent evenings playing in a garage band. He also had a weakness for pretty women.

I asked about Jeff’s personal habits. Did he carry a gun? Did he like to fight? If you don’t gather enough intelligence on your suspects when working undercover narcotics, you put your life – and that of your partners – at risk. Avoid the “zeal to deal” or the “lust to bust.” Doing your homework will also strengthen your investigation, as well as keep you safer.

Armed with all the intel I could gather, I called Jeff and pretended we’d met at one of his gigs. We made small talk about music and eventually got around to scheduling a buy. I started prepping, tuning up my guitar skills so I’d be believable as a music fan. I scoped out the warehouse where Jeff’s band played so I knew what it looked like, and drove by his apartment to make sure there was no counter-surveillance. Knowing that Jeff had an affinity for attractive women, I enlisted an undercover female officer to accompany me and play the role of my girlfriend. My goal was to be relatable and have Jeff think, man, this guy’s just like me.

A few days later, we drove to his apartment for the buy. Walking in, I saw a guitar sitting in the corner. “Mind if I grab your guitar?”

“You enjoy music?” Jeff looked pleased.

“Hell, yeah,” I said as I picked up the guitar and strummed a few notes.

Personalize your interactions

Adaptability means using the intelligence you’ve gathered to personalize your interactions with every individual. You have to identify with people if you want them to let you into their world. It’s easy to see how this applies in the world of guarded drug dealers and undercover narcotics, but being invested is important in every aspect of police work, whether you’re responding to a domestic disturbance call or leading a SWAT team into a raid.

I glanced down at the line of cocaine laid out on the coffee table. Jeff looked expectantly at me. “I gotta be sure man. Can you do just one line for me?”

Fortunately, I had done my homework and knew that Jeff asked all of his buyers to prove they weren’t cops by doing dope. I was wearing an American Airlines baggage handler uniform that I bought at the local Salvation Army store two days ago. It was a pair of blue shorts and a white shirt with the name “Rich” sewn above the pocket. Since the chances of that were 0.0%, I had thanked my lucky stars.

I motioned for Jeff to follow me into the kitchen, away from my “girlfriend.”

“Dude, I can’t,” I said. “I’ll lose my job. I have to do UAs all the time. I’m on my way to work right now!”

I was referring to a urinary analysis, the standard employee drug screening.

Jeff narrowed his eyes. “What do you want it for then?”

“It’s for my girl,” I pleaded, ever the dutiful boyfriend. “If I don’t get an eight ball out of you, she’s going to be pissed!”

He nodded slowly, apparently convinced by my performance. He sold me an eight ball of cocaine that day and continued to deal with me for the next month. Each time, I increased the weight to build my case, show a pattern and eventually put him away on heavier charges.

I went back to Jeff’s apartment with two SWAT officers on the day we planned to arrest him and wrap up the investigation. As he walked me out to the parking lot, the officers rolled up and knocked us both down to the ground, handcuffed us and put us in the backseat of a squad car together. The SWAT guys had just ensured my cover wouldn’t get blown.

Still in character, I turned to a shell-shocked Jeff and said, “If you’re a snitch, I’ll find you and deal with you when I get out!”

I didn’t see him again until his court date; he pled guilty shortly after he and his attorney saw me being sworn in as a police detective.

Adaptability is a prerequisite of effective policing and officer safety. No other profession in the world has to shift gears as often, as quickly and with as much at stake as we do. It’s no surprise that officers are often expected to be everything to everyone. While that may be an unrealistic expectation, there will never be a day where this job doesn’t revolve around people. When we leverage chameleon-like abilities in adjusting to our targets and environments, we contribute to our success and our survival.

Author’s note: The Lessons in Leadership series contains stories about real people and actual events that are portrayed to the best of my memory. Dialogue has been reconstructed from my recollections, which means it may not be a word-for-word transcript, but the essence of what was said is accurate. 

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