By Tom Joyce, NYPD Retired Lieutenant Commander of Detectives, Vigilant Solutions VP of Business Development
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” Most of us are familiar with this quote from Aristotle and have found it to ring true in our personal lives. But let’s consider the life of a typical police officer at a busy agency, a day in the life, if you will.
Ask any officer about a “typical day” and they will tell you that often the only thing typical in their day is suiting up and the daily pre-shift briefing. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what happens next. So, when you contemplate the idea that excellence in anything comes from repetition, it’s often hard to apply that to what can often be a chaotic and random day on the job. I get it, I’ve been there. At the same time, I have seen the unfortunate and sometimes tragic results of that lack of repetition when it comes to training on tools that can, and do help police save lives.
Consider the case of a man that murdered someone in his home. Police have a license plate number for the suspect’s car but fail to enter that plate number onto a license plate recognition (LPR) system hotlist. Three days later, the man is suspected of killing again. During the subsequent investigation, they find that the suspect’s license plate had been scanned on day two, after the first murder. Had that plate been on a hotlist, the suspect would have been apprehended before killing again.
Lives and Money Lost
Or what about the case of a shooting in the northeast, where several people were shot and one was killed. Detectives focused their investigation on tracking the suspect’s cell phone whereabouts to a location in the northeast. They never considered the suspect’s vehicle, and did not enter the license plate in a hotlist. The suspect’s plates were scanned in a southern state, hundreds of miles away, while the investigation continued to focus on the cell phone location in the northeast. As it turns out, the suspect had abandoned the cell phone, and was indeed in the south, and was later apprehended.
These two cases demonstrate that had the license plates been put on a hotlist immediately, the suspects would have been apprehended sooner, and in one case, two people could still be alive. This raises the flag that there is a training issue. Agencies require mandatory refreshers on policy and procedures and firearm use, but technology training often falls behind. As new recruits come on board or officers change roles, technology features and capabilities of important systems can be lost if agencies fail to train and retrain. What’s the worst that could happen? Lives could be lost. But even if lives are not on the line, which they often are, think of the time and money that could have been saved by locating and apprehending suspects sooner. Think of the agency’s investment in technology, and how it is important to wring every benefit out of that investment.
Just a Minor Crime – Not Worth Using All Systems
In my conversations with officers, I often hear them claim that it’s not worth their time to enter license plates for minor crimes or it’s not worth leveraging other available technology. Let’s consider this scenario. A bicycle was stolen and a witness sees the perpetrator and gets a license plate number. They look up the plate number and find the perpetrator’s address, and go to the location and make the arrest and pick up the bicycle. Good policing or did they just get lucky? What if they looked up the plate and went to that address and the perpetrator was not found there? How do they know if that is the best location to start the search? They don’t. This time they got lucky, but more importantly, they are forming an investigative habit, a habit that may save them down the line.
I talk a lot about best practices in policing and here is one that stuck with me: Treat every case as if it’s the most serious case. Run all of the systems, perform every check, put that license plate on a hotlist, track the cell phone – do it all. Analyze more. Because here’s the deal, when you do that you are fine tuning your investigative skills every single time. You are retraining yourself every single time. A wise and older detective once told me, “I work hard on every case, because they are all practice for the big one.”
Play the Way You Practice
Have you ever coached a little league team? If you have, you know that you can tell those kids a million times that if you have a runner on second, you throw to home and come game time, the kids won’t remember it. But if you practice the action of throwing home with a runner on second, and you get them to repeat that behavior, in a game situation it will become automatic, and they will indeed throw to home. They will play the way they practice.
Agencies need to train and retrain on every system. They need to have the “muscle memory” to repeat behaviors and actions that will help solve cases faster and save lives. To serve and protect, they need to adopt the best practice of training and retraining on all systems, and never forget that, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
Author Bio: Tom is a retired member of the NYPD in the rank of Lieutenant Commander of Detectives. He commanded the NYPD Cold Case Squad upon his retirement and additionally held many other roles within the detective and organized crime bureaus. Prior to working with Vigilant Solutions, Tom was the Director of Law Enforcement Market Planning for LexisNexis Government Services. Tom often lectures on various subject matters relating to Homicide Investigations and has published numerous articles on criminal investigations. Tom is currently a member of the International Homicide Investigators Association’s Advisory Board.