Friday, March 18, 2011

The Right to be Left Alone

Justice Brandeis made a famous dissent in the 1928 case Omstead v. United States in which he stated :
“The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. “

Cops – Frenemies of the Constitution?
I am an armed government agent. The specter of the Revolutionaries’ hated Redcoats walks with me. I am the very image against which the Bill of Rights was argued. I walk the streets a living and visible threat to freedom. I solemnly swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States but the reality of my work seems quite the opposite. Life? Liberty? Pursuit of happiness? I have the power to immediately bring an end to any or all of those to each person I pass. Of course I am in a noble profession. I help, I save, I uphold the law. But look at me! - a gun, pepper spray, handcuffs, a baton – hardly equipment one might imagine of a person whom the statute labels a “peace” officer. The police officer holds the power to restrain, and criminals have the power to bring fear and disorder to our world. The balance of leaving people alone to conduct their lives, and the power to stop, question, search, and detain rests on that officer. Therefore, one theory of policing would hold that officers should tread as lightly as possible with discretion favoring self-restraint. The other says that since the courts and legislatures allow encroachments on liberty we should push those to the limits for the greater good of finding criminal activity. In other words, the great question of freedom is whether our ability to discover criminal activity at the risk of liberty is the greater good over our ability to give citizens the greatest latitude in going about their day without our intrusion therefore inevitably allowing evil to go undiscovered.

The True Guardians of Liberty
Although the citizen in the glare of a police officer’s spotlight might well consider that we are their greatest threat to liberty, I would argue that this title belongs more accurately with our elected leaders. Our limits as police officers are defined by them. What they demand is what we do and what they allow is what we do. When we get orders to write more tickets, knowing full well that it is revenue driven rather than public safety driven, our Constitution suffers. When more and more personal responsibility laws are passed and pressed onto the shoulders of law enforcement (yes I know that lives are saved by helmets, seat belts, and no-smoking regulations) freedom suffers. When our armed government agents begin to be seen less as crime fighters and more as nannies and tax collectors our credibility suffers.
Those of us carrying the badge must be vigilant of our own understanding of the element of freedom Justice Brandies recognized. But for the larger goal of the kinds of freedoms that were sought by our Founders the answer is not for the police to shirk their lawful responsibilities, nor is it on the courts to arbitrarily nitpick at our honest efforts at interdicting crime. It is in the power of the people to hold their legislators accountable and stop allowing the law to replace our God-given common sense as America’s moral absolute.

Panic in the Streets!

A few years ago I served on a panel of judges reviewing essays written by 8th graders. The subject was school bus safety. More than one of these young media consumers was willing to exclaim that MILLIONS of children are injured every year in bus accidents! Hyperboles of disaster attempt to boggle our senses every day and we indulge it like chocolate. Our sense of shared stress goes beyond the shared national grief of the September 11th terrorist attacks; we look around nervously at shopping malls since Omaha, and wince at the latest school violence news story. A good friend of mine proudly shared that he had taught his children to run and scream any time they were approached by a stranger. I couldn’t help but imagine the poor kid’s first job interview.

Are your children safe? Perspective is often a matter of mathematics. Let’s take school bus safety for example. The headlines flashed “17,000 School Bus Injuries Yearly: Number of Kids Hurt 3 Times Higher Than Previously Thought” ( After sucking frightened parents into reading the article, the writer goes on to cite that 97% of the youngsters sent to the ER were treated and released. Let’s face it, in today’s lawyered-up world, what decision maker would look at a busload of kids involved in a fender bender and not send everybody to the ER for a check? Even given that some of those 97% were scary hurts and cuts let’s look at raw numbers provided in that same article. The 17,000 students sent to ERs represent a tiny fraction of the 23,500,000 kids transported 4,300,000,000 miles every year. A truer headline would be “School Bus Transportation Amazingly Safe!”

I was a police chief in Colorado many miles away from Boulder when the 1996 JonBenet Ramsey murder mystery invaded the holidays. The six year old’s death in her comfortable home created another wave of our shared American anxiety. The first of many calls to my office was from a parent I knew who asked how she could protect her child from being snatched away. My first question to her was whether she always kept her children in seat belts and child restraints when in the car. Her answer was a timid and quizzical “Well… no.” I explained that the two highest injury causes to children were child abuse and car crashes ( Child abductions do occur, but at a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of public perception. Child abuse is almost always perpetrated by those entrusted with the child, not by strangers.

Based on the scary stories you hear about kidnappings, what would be your guess as the total number of children murdered every year in stranger abductions? According to a 2002 U.S. Department of Justice report cited by the highly regarded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ( nearly 800,000 reports of missing children were filed in the year studied. A distillation of these events shows that 115 children were victims of stereotypical kidnapping. While I would not minimize the hazards of familial abductions, custody disputes, or the angst generated by a teenager staying with a friend without permission – all of which comprise the vast majority of missing children reports - finding that two of these grisly events occur every week is a much different perspective than believing that thousands occur every day.

At heart, I am a cop. That means I know that tragedy is always lurking a heartbeat away for any of us. But the reality – the hard, statistical reality – is that your child can be raised with some common sense care and supervision and very likely live through the day. Relax.

Seven Habits of Highly Defective Police Departments

A recent comment on Chuck Remsberg's article in's newsletter on 7 habits of successful departments suggested an article on unsuccessful departments. I thought that was a good idea. Here are seven characteristics of weak police agencies.

Serving the wrong customer - The first customer of a police leader is the officer in the patrol car. If officers treated citizens the way some supervisors treat officers there would be complaints rolling in on a daily basis. Compassion, communication, respect within a department creates the same attitudes on the street. If you want cops who care about the citizens you need leaders who care for their cops.

Pretending to do community policing - Chiefs are forced to claim they are doing community policing and will attach that label to the slenderest thread of something that resembles it. Genuine community policing involves bringing diverse interests into a discussion of community problems. Line level officers are critical to the success of collaborative efforts and must be empowered with discretion and resources. Public relations, crime prevention, and community meetings don't amount to community policing but often are substituted for the hard work of communicating and collaborating.

Assuming integrity -Some departments over-assume police delinquency and have no trust in the professionalism of their officers. At the equally distressing opposite end of that spectrum is a department with no accountability and no healthy policy in place to maintain integrity. Audits and reviews of all aspects of policing that are subject to discretion and abuse should be a part of operational structure. This includes evidence, petty cash, working with youth, drug enforcement, traffic enforcement, and attendance patterns. Monitoring officer conduct maintains discipline and serves as an early warning system for officers who need guidance, and rewards and encourages integrity.

Exotic training - The default training strategy of ineffective police departments is "scheduling by brochure" - the lack of a focused set of training objectives in favor of catching training as it happens by. While it's good to offer specialty training to keep officers interested and motivated, sending an officer to underwater evidence recovery school makes little sense when basic competencies remain unmastered. Underperforming police agencies fail to establish a cohesive and relevant training plan.

Bootstrap counseling - Agencies that do not attend to the psychological health of their officers will suffer loss of productivity, shortened officer careers, and higher levels of sick leave and injury. Ignoring the traumatic events - or defining traumatic events as "just part of the job" - creates a sense of hopelessness in officers that can lead to a slow erosion of their effectiveness. Regular supportive and preventive services should be as important as any other department operational consideration.

Line led culture - Leadership requires the establishment and maintenance of culture and tradition. Departments that fail to create a sense of identity, mission, and purpose from its leaders will create their own out of the basic human need for belonging and identity. Values of hardened and cynical officers can dominate an agency if not countered by positive and rich symbols, ceremonies, language and traditions established by high performing leaders.

Unshared leadership - Leaders who fail to understand that they are not always the smartest person in the room fail to cultivate the intellect and influence of their officers and staff. Ideas must be genuinely welcomed, available for consideration, and rewarded. Leaders may not want to share power, but it is essential that they share influence. Not every idea is a good one, but not every good idea comes from the command staff.

Underperforming law enforcement agencies are almost always governed by fear of engagement with managers. Effective policing is accomplished with an artful blend of strong leadership and discipline balanced by trust and support of those who do the hard work of the agency on the streets. Mutual respect and communication will strengthen the agency and multiply its effectiveness in serving the community.

Hunting For Heroes

An idea for reality television stopped one federal agent at the reality part. Chris Allen is stationed in his home state of Missouri. Although serving now in a metropolitan area, Allen grew up as an avid hunter in the woods and fields of southern Missouri. As a sportsman he was looking at possible careers in baseball and professional hunting while finishing his criminal justice degree. After graduating at the top of his class at the prestigious Missouri Police Corps training academy he worked the streets in a St. Louis suburb. He finished his Master’s degree while working with BATF agents on a gang task force and began the long application process to join that federal agency.

Allen didn’t lose his Ozark accent or his passion for hunting to urban policing. He and former police partner Chuck Bowles began researching the feasibility of hosting a hunting show for television. Part of the concept was to follow police officers who were also hunters and catch them at work and play. One show idea was a charity hunt for disabled lawmen. To his shock, Allen didn’t readily find an organization with the sole mission of serving disabled cops. The dreams of television faded as the idea for helping disabled police officers through outdoor activities came into focus. The result is Hunting for Heros. “We are a group of law enforcement officers who felt a calling to serve our disabled brothers and sisters. We feel it our duty to provide for our fellow brothers and sisters” says Allen.

HFH is experiencing success and the challenges of growth. Support for HFH has been enthusiastic but that doesn’t automatically translate to the dollars needed as the organization begins serving more disabled law officers. The first event was such an inspiration that two of the participants asked to serve on the HFH board. Several tournaments and activities are scheduled for 2011, just the second year of operation for Hunting for Heroes.

The future of HFH includes obtaining property to provide ongoing camping experiences available year-round. A supportive counseling environment with peers and the continued fellowship of the law enforcement community will be integrated into the outdoor experience. “They just want to get out and hang with the boys in blue and forget about their injury for a while” says Allen. Another goal is to develop scholarship programs for spouses who may need new skills to become sole supporters after the loss of an officer’s full time income from his or her disability.

Hunting for Heroes can be found on Facebook as well as its own website ( and is always open to suggestions and support. Heroes helping heroes. What a concept.

How to be an Arrogant Cop

Genuine confidence shows in a competent officer's speech, bearing, and most importantly in the quality of work he or she does. Confidence is associated with career success, street survival, and it engenders the respect of peers. Confidence comes from real knowledge, experience, and skilled performance of one's work. None of these positive attributes are associated with arrogance.

Arrogance is a poor substitute for confidence. Arrogance appears where confidence is lacking. Arrogance is shallow, serves no good purpose beyond one's own ego, and is an impediment to real success. Arrogance continues because it works on some level with some people. It is sometimes mistaken for confidence, success, or genuine superiority. There are always the ignorant groupies that have no baloney filter and will mistake arrogant posturing for genuineness. It also relieves the arrogant person of a drive to learn more, be a better person, and invest in the wisdom of others since he or she believes they have achieved the pinnacle of knowledge.

If you feel that arrogance might work for you or a colleague, here are some tips to increase your arrogance quotient:

1. Work on "the look". Lean your head back a little bit and almost imperceptibly squint your eyes so that you appear to be looking down at everyone you meet. Cock your head slightly to the side as a sign of disbelief and skepticism at everything you hear. Roll your eyes subtly, or at least flutter your eyelids. Pose with one foot slightly ahead of the other, as though you were sipping a martini at a Hollywood party. Let your head bob and use a condescending laugh when someone else proposes an idea or plan - or just come right out and say "yeah, right".

2. Make your organization your shield. You're a state cop, an investigator, the top paid agency, the biggest organization, the best cars, the baddest bad guys, or whatever makes you feel superior. Whatever job you have, it's the best and we should all envy you for it. You might have gotten where you are by a fluke or the seat of your pants, but your association with some notion of superiority bolsters your reputation. By merely carrying a certain badge you've obviously seen more, done more, been braver, been better trained, and seen more awful stuff than the next guy. The discussion is over; if you ain't like me you ain't nothin'.

3. Prop yourself up by putting others down. Amplify the mistakes of others. Make no effort to put yourself in their shoes - they should be in yours. Assume the worst of others and play your own mistakes off as professional discretion. You're a rule breaker because the rules are for other schmucks. Other professionals will eventually stop sharing their experiences with you since you always have to have the last word and the better story. They'll know if you’re talking everybody else down then they will get treated the same way behind their back. Eventually all you'll ever hear is yourself repeating how great you are with no one wasting their breath to tell you otherwise.

4. Shut yourself off from learning. After all, there are two ways to do something: your way and the wrong way. When you go to a class be sure to tell any instructor how you see it. Talk to the people next to you about your experience and ignore the trainer, lean back with your arms folded, avoid participating unless it's to challenge or correct. Don't put yourself in a position to be vulnerable or admit you're not an expert. If you are motivated to be the best, do it to beat your peers, not to improve yourself or be a better public servant. Rely on your past achievements and tell the same war stories over and over.

5. Make sure the public knows. Establish your authority in citizen contacts by bullying behavior. Be personally offended by traffic violations and petty offenses. Lecture everyone and treat them like wayward teenagers. Point out the obvious, and be ready with a tart response for every predictable excuse or comment. Don't ask sincere questions seeking information; ask questions with a goal of embarrassing the person. Make sure they understand you and make no effort to understand them.

If you know a cop who just isn't quite arrogant enough, share this article with them. Maybe they'll correct me on something. After all, they already know everything, right?