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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Part with those who go wrong

In response to my last column about “bad apples” in our organizations, I received a scathing e-mail from a reader who took issue with my reference to “the beloved Penn State coach”. He accused me of presenting skewed facts and misleading the public by referring to the coach in this way, saying, “Paterno didn’t molest anyone and you give this impression with your slanderous comments.”

To be clear, I was talking about Jerry Sandusky when I referenced the alleged sexual abuse against young boys. The reader took issue with my using “beloved” as an adjective before the word “coach”. I responded back and pointed out that Sandusky has been on the coaching staff since 1969 so he must have been “beloved” by someone to have been employed by Penn State for so long. The term “beloved” is subjective in my opinion. (I also pointed out that he should have been accusing me of libel and not slander since slander refers to the spoken word and libel the written word).

After I was done with my bratty and sarcastic response, I realized that he had a point. I concede to the fact that Joe Paterno is widely known as the “beloved” coach and my reference to Sandusky as such may have been misleading. However, the angry reader missed the point of the column entirely which was about cops being outraged by fellow officers who tarnish the badge. It also dealt with having the moral courage to stand up and acknowledge bad behavior within our own organizations rather than turning a blind eye or attempting to cover it up.

In the reader’s quest to preserve the reputation of the “beloved” coach, he failed to see that Coach Paterno bears some responsibility for the alleged molestation that occurred on the young boys after it was brought to his attention. While he did not molest anyone, he failed to follow up on information he received from an eye witness and the molestations continued. I give him credit for at least reporting it to university officials but once he came to the realization that nothing was being done about it, he should have taken it a step further and gone directly to law enforcement. Just ask Mr. Sandusky’s victims if they would have preferred that Paterno or any of the people who had knowledge of the abuse step up and make some noise until they were heard.

When someone has knowledge of something illegal or harmful that is occurring and they do nothing about it, they bear responsibility by allowing it to go on. Period. When they ignore objectionable behavior, they are condoning it. Is it a horrible position to find themselves in? Absolutely.

Don’t misunderstand and think that I’m idealistic enough to believe that we can all live on a moral high ground. I can assure you that I have been guilty of turning a blind eye to something at some point in my life because I was afraid. Most of us have been in situations where we know we should say something but choose not to. It’s easier to remain silent because we risk being ostracized by those who would have preferred that the information never be brought to light. It’s easier to hope that someone else comes forward so we don’t have to be the one. After all, there are people who will be loyal to the person committing the atrocity and turn their anger towards the whistle-blower.

My admiration goes out to those courageous enough to stand up and do what it right even when it’s uncomfortable. Abe Lincoln summarized it best when he said, “I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Policing Ourselves

In reference to my column where I talked about the Chicago Police Officer who tarnished our badge and our profession by falsifying an incident, a reader wondered if I get pushback from my fellow officers when I bring these topics to light because I’m supposedly breaking the “blue wall of silence” by illuminating these dark places.

The answer is no.

I sometimes feel like police officers get painted with a broad brush because the headlines report about corrupt officers leading people to believe that all police officers are dishonest. I can concede to the fact that there are police officers who should have never been allowed to assume the great responsibility that comes with the power they are afforded. I will admit that there are some police officers who use their position of authority in ways that serve themselves. There are police officers who take advantage of sick time and leave the officers who come to work every day to pick up their slack.

While they exist, it is in minuscule percentages when compared to those officers who come to work every day and do their jobs with a warrior spirit and a servant heart. The people that disrespect their office and abuse their power exist in every profession. They exist in religious institutions, the medical profession, political office, and most recently, in the locker rooms of prestigious colleges. Give me any profession and I will show you someone who has violated the core principles of humanity and the organization they represent because of their own character flaws.

The reason I don’t get any negative feedback on calling out the ones who don’t deserve to wear the badge is because the great majority of our officers are just as angry as the public at large about the lack of respect for the position they hold. In fact, the main reason institutions get into trouble in the first place is by failing to acknowledge when someone in their own organization does something devoid of ethics. Or worse, they cover up the wrong-doing in the hope that no one will find out about it.

I don’t think the general public is naive enough to believe that no one will ever abuse their position of influence or office. But we expect that it be dealt with swiftly should it occur. When the Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse allegations against Priests, the public was outraged. When Penn State turned a blind eye to the heinous sex acts being committed on young boys by their beloved coach, we took issue.

The same goes for the “thin blue line” in policing. In the police departments of old, I can assure you there was cover-up and corruption. But I can tell you with great confidence that the times have changed. In our profession, if you commit an act that is a disgrace to the badge, you stand alone. The thin, blue line of loyalty has dissipated because there are systems and processes in place by which cover-up and deceit only serve to get an officer unemployed. Blind loyalty is no more.

Just like the public should be outraged when organizations attempt to cover up wrong-doing for the sake of avoiding a scandal, so should every person who is a part of the disgraced organization. The reason the police officers don’t get upset with my shining the light in dark places is because they don’t want those unworthy to wear the badge either.

It takes immense moral courage to stand against a colleague who you know to be engaging in behavior that is destructive or illegal. And it takes even greater mental fortitude as the leaders of organizations where it is occurring to acknowledge it. But it must be done.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Observations from a CrossFit Beginner

About four months ago, I heard the rumblings of a trendy phenomenon called “CrossFit”. My police department was buzzing about it and so I searched the Internet to investigate. I was led to a web-site where I watched a video about CrossFit and decided instantaneously that it was for crazy people. The video depicted men and women with chiseled abdominals lifting Olympic-sized weights and maneuvering feats of athletic elitism on boxes and gymnastics rings. The decision to stick with my 30 minute routine on the elliptical with a magazine at my local gym seemed sound.

One of my co-workers and newly converted CrossFitter would often stop by my office to chat about which part of his body he couldn’t move after his Workout of the Day (WOD). While that was more validation for me to stick to my elliptical, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by how much he loved it. He assured me that all fitness levels were welcome and convinced me to try it “just one time.”

I scheduled my session and made my way to my nearest CrossFit gym where I was met by very welcoming coaches. I was immediately intimidated by their minimal body fat and deducted that my initial impression while watching the video on-line was correct.  I also noted a bucket in the middle of the gym labeled “pukey”. Compelled by these observations, my “fight or flight” survival instincts kicked in and I decided to wait for the coaches to look away so I could escape (fighting just didn’t seem to be an option given their muscular physiques). It occurred to me that I had already provided them my identity and it was painfully obvious that they would be able to catch me with minimal effort if I ran, so I reluctantly stayed.

It was during the next few weeks that the coaches would provide me with “elements” training – an introductory phase where I would learn proper form and technique before joining the seasoned CrossFitters in their WOD. Despite my being the new face in the gym, no one missed an opportunity to introduce themselves and provide encouragement in those moments when I needed it. Now that I am able to put it in proper perspective, it was the kindness of the CrossFitters that kept me coming back in those days I felt intimidated and overwhelmed. They continue to do that for me every day.

In the elements phase, I felt pain that I had never felt before. I was no stranger to strength training but this was different and unlike any other experience I’ve had in the gym. This was full body training that encompassed stamina, strength and flexibility all at once. It was grueling and it moved me so far out of my comfort zone by challenging everything I thought I knew about fitness and what my body could endure.

I finished the beginner phase and became an official CrossFitter. Over the past four months, I have come to the realization that the workouts do not get any easier. They aren’t supposed to. I have conquered some personal milestones like climbing the rope and doing pull-ups without a band. I can even do some double-unders (although I invariably suffer from welts in the process). Even though I’m gaining skills, every WOD makes me want to curse my coaches (and I often do!). Each day is a new challenge because no work-outs are the same. When I attain a goal, we celebrate the achievement but the ultimate victory is the understanding that you can always be better than you are.

I started CrossFit to get in better shape; I remain there because of what it has done to stifle the little voice inside my head that tells me to quit when things get hard. In the “box”, it’s not an option to quit because the coaches will remind you that the work-out you are doing is named after a real soldier who lost his life serving our country. When I begin to feel as though I cannot do 50 more box jumps or pull-ups, I remember that 20 minutes of pain is nothing compared to what our soldiers endure in the trenches. There are some days I modify the prescribed weight and there are some days I’m slower than everyone else but CrossFit has taught me to condition my inner voice to say, “Do not give up” and my body listens.

That is a lesson for both inside the gym and out.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Craftmanship means giving your best

One of my pet peeves is when people do things only half-way. I spend a lot of time explaining this concept to my children when they leave a chore half done or complete a homework assignment that is clearly not their best work. I repeatedly tell my children that the work they do is a reflection of who they are and they should always take care to give the world the best of themselves.

I find that humans will often take the path of least resistance when left to their own devices and if we aren’t conscious, laziness and apathy can become the norm. This is why diligence must be constantly reinforced.

This is illustrated beautifully in the construction of timepieces. In the beginning of watchmaking, individual masters made one of a kind works of art for royalty. These watchmakers were artisans and they spent many months making a single timepiece that was a precise mechanical masterpiece and a thing of beauty. The inner mechanisms of the timepiece were likely never seen by anyone but that didn’t matter to the artisans. They still took care that each piece was beautifully designed and hand-crafted to perfection.

There are still many individuals in different trades that operate under that same philosophy. Those who take the time to perfect their work for the sake of pride are today’s master artisans.

I sometimes think we have lost the concept of craftsmanship. By that, I mean the diligence and effort that goes into work that leaves the creator’s spirits lifted. It is the feeling you get when you stand back and assess your efforts and are proud and inspired by the product. One does not have to handcraft timepieces to be considered a craftsman. You simply have to put your skill and mastery into whatever it is you do.

Craftsmanship is not just about physical construct. I see police officers who exhibit craftsmanship through their service to others every day. Every contact with a citizen is a chance for them to reveal their mastery. Even when issuing a citation to a driver or taking someone into custody, if they do so with professionalism and character, they are displaying pride in their work. An officer who treats someone who chooses to break the law with dignity and respect is mastering their craft. Ensuring that a police report is a thorough and accurate reflection of the incident that occurred is a practice in craftsmanship.

Giving your best in all that you do can become tiresome. I have seen people lose their motivation to work at their highest potential because they felt their effort was futile or unrecognized. There is certainly something to be said for losing inspiration and motivation because of a shattered spirit. We can all point to something that was unfair or unjust at some point in our lives and easily use that as an excuse to stop giving our best. I watched many artisans in their trade give up because they felt they were underappreciated.

Those who have mastered craftsmanship understand that the motivation to give their absolute best comes not from external praise or recognition. It is the intrinsic motivation that comes from the realization of purpose. An officer who writes tickets to please their supervisor or to generate revenue for the city will easily become frustrated by elements beyond their control. In contrast, the officer who understands that their job is to do their part to prevent traffic crashes by upholding the law has a purpose that is bigger than themselves. They understand that issuing a citation (no matter how negatively received) is their contribution to preventing the loss of life.

No matter what your life’s work, a true artisan will not let outside influences dictate the quality of their work. The pride that goes with giving the best you have to offer in all circumstances is what craftsmanship is all about.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Routine" Traffic Stops

56 law enforcement officers were killed as a result of assaults in 2010.

Traffic stops accounted for seven of those 56 deaths. If you do an internet search of “police officers killed during traffic stops”, you will find pages and pages of stories where officers have been killed during a “routine” traffic stop.

We are taught in the academy that there is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. What might seem like a relatively minor traffic violation to a police officer could potentially result in a fatal encounter depending on who is in that car. An officer never knows if their next encounter might be the one that keeps them from going home to their families at night.

That is exactly what happened to Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. The Tampa, FL police officers were killed by Dontae Rashawn Morris after Officer Curtis pulled over a vehicle in which Morris was a passenger because it didn’t have a license plate. Curtis found that Morris was wanted on a warrant for writing a bad check and called for backup. Both officers approached the vehicle on the passenger side to take Morris into custody but he spun around and shot both officers. There were no radio transmissions after the shootings.

These officers represent two of the 56 killed in assaults last year. What the statistics don’t tell you is that Jeffrey Kocab’s wife was 9 months pregnant with their first child at the time of his death. They don’t tell you that David Curtis was married with four boys ranging from 8 months to 9 years old. They don’t tell you what impeccable human beings Officers Curtis and Kocab were or how much they contributed to their profession and their community.

I tell the stories of these police officers to not only memorialize them, but so you can understand the risk associated with a “routine” traffic stop.

If you are ever pulled over, I ask that you keep this story (and the countless others) in the forefront of your mind when confronted by the police officer.

Remember, they don’t know that you are a law-abiding citizen who gives to countless charities. To them, you are a potential threat.

If you see an officer’s overhead lights behind you, pull over as soon as possible. If you continue to drive, the officer will assume you are trying to flee from them. When you come to a stop, be conscious of your movements. The glove compartment is where most of us keep our insurance cards and vehicle registrations but it is also a common place for criminals to conceal a weapon. You might be well-meaning when you reach into the glove box on your own accord, but the officer will most likely tell you to stop. This is not because he or she is in bad mood. It is because they have no idea what you are retrieving.

If you are reaching under your seat or maneuvering in such a way that it is suggestive of guilty nervousness or that might arouse suspicion that you are hiding something, you can expect the officer to react. Many criminals attempt to “stash” illegal substances or firearms before being approached by the officer so it is imperative that your hands remain on the steering wheel prior to the officer’s approach and that you comply with his or her requests. If there are passengers in your car, advise them to do the same.

Most importantly, do not exit your vehicle. There is no greater threat to an officer than someone who begins to approach them.

As unpleasant as it is to be pulled over by the police, your cooperation during a traffic stop is greatly appreciated by the officers. They do not want to become another statistic.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What You Wear. Who You Are.

I am of the opinion that there are certain events for which we should dress up. Among these events are holidays, the theater, and court.

My holidays are pretty casual and consist of visiting friends and loved ones but I always insist that no one wear jeans. My kids scoff at this but yet I refuse to capitulate. The interesting part is that I have no good explanation for making them wear dress clothes except that more photos are generally taken on holidays and it wouldn’t hurt to look nice in a photograph that is a snapshot of time. Other than that logic, it just feels right to dress up on holidays. (This is applicable only to the major holidays, by the way. I’m okay with a pair of jeans on Columbus Day.)

I feel the same way about the theater. My family frequently attends performances in Chicago and at the Paramount and I believe we owe it to the performers to put forth some effort in our appearance. Not to mention that theaters are typically ornamental and decadent in d├ęcor and we should blend in with the surroundings. I think it adds to the magic of the evening when you make an effort to dress up. If you have no interest in the arts, you will find this preposterous or not applicable – or both.

You may find it strange that I didn’t include church on my list. As a child, I dressed up in my Sunday best because it was expected. I still adhere to this myself but I have bounced around a few churches in Aurora and have noted that the trend is more casual than the days of old. I firmly believe that Jesus just wants you to show up whether it is in cut-off jeans or a nice suit. You might feel as strongly about dressing up for church as I do about dressing for the theater. This is the beauty of life. We can co-exist even with different viewpoints.

Someone told me that commercial air travel in the 1940’s and 50’s, there was an unspoken dress code. Air travel at that time was used primarily by affluent individuals and dressing up to board a flight denoted status. Today, commercial airfare is affordable and commonplace so it is not unusual to see someone in flip-flops and cut-offs. I’m a little conflicted on this issue. Personally, I don’t like to look like a slob to the person who is greeting me at my destination.

I have been in many courtrooms over my career as a police officer and it astounds me how people present themselves in a court of law. Even if you appear for something as minor as traffic court, I believe you should look professional. The same goes if you are a defendant or a plaintiff in a criminal proceeding. For some reason, wearing a torn T-shirt with a heavy metal rock band emblazoned on its front and tattered jeans doesn’t portray a likeness of someone who respects the law or the criminal justice system.

The irony is not lost on me. For example, one of my favorite sights is a defendant in the courtroom dressed in a calm colored suit with hair that is neatly groomed only to watch the police video of the defendant at the time of the offense looking vastly different. I know they are trying to portray a wholesome look in court and I’m okay with that because I don’t think you can really mask your actions by putting on cufflinks.

This isn’t really about what you wear. It’s about who you are. You can dress up for church every Sunday or wear a suit to court but if your character is disheveled, the truth of who you are always comes out no matter how you attempt to disguise it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

When you tarnish one badge, you tarnish them all

Nothing infuriates me more than a police officer who abuses their authority. Whether it be an overt action of excessive force or a seemingly minor compromising of one’s moral compass, there is no room in this profession for those who use their position of authority with dishonorable intention.

Take for instance, an off duty Chicago police officer who was on her way to work and running late when she was deterred in traffic by a funeral procession. Clearly impatient and agitated, she began weaving in and out of the line of mourners’ vehicles. Debra Green was one of those mourners in the procession for her deceased sister. She yelled out to the rude driver and pointed to the funeral procession flag to put her on notice.

We’ve all been in the unfortunate position of being late when an obstacle presents itself. When I’m running behind schedule, I’m convinced that the traffic lights conspire against me in perfect harmony to redden themselves on my approach. This is masterly choreographed the entire length of my commute. The days I’m stuck awaiting a train are notoriously when I need to be on the other side of the tracks.

Since I’m a naturally impatient person, I’m always in a hurry even when I’ve nowhere to go. I’m also guilty of letting out a groan of annoyance when I approach an intersection to see that I will be delayed by a funeral procession. However, in that circumstance, I’m able to snap out of my own selfish need to continue moving and put things into perspective. I remind myself to be grateful that I’m not in the procession mourning a loss, or the one for which everyone is gathered. This is why I was so annoyed by the actions of the off-duty officer. But the story gets better.

After Debra Green yelled out to the rude driver, the police officer radioed for assistance saying that Green threw a bottle at her vehicle which went through an open window and hit her in the face. Green was detained by the police and subsequently charged with battery which resulted in missing her sister’s burial.

Investigators from the Independent Police Review Authority discovered that a Chicago Police blue-light camera had captured the incident. The footage revealed that the officer’s account of the episode was skewed. Her windows were rolled up when she alleged that a bottle came barreling through. This was uncovered after the officer had already lied on the witness stand in her testimony against Debra Green.

To be clear, I am well aware that there may be some missing data from this incident for which I am not privy. I don’t have documentation of the court transcript, the police report or the subsequent internal investigation and I have learned over the years that there are three sides to every story: one side, the other side and the truth. But I do know that the charges were dropped against Debra Green and the police officer has since resigned from the Chicago Police Department and has been charged with felony perjury awaiting a hearing.

I’m wondering if this officer has had a chance to reflect on the circumstances in which she finds herself. I empathize with that panicked feeling of being late to work but I’m so disturbed by the tangled web of lies that were spun so she could justify her actions. Had she been late to work, she may have incurred some minor discipline and the story would end there. Because she was a police officer, she was able to use her position of authority to manipulate a situation for her own benefit. She did so at the expense of her career and the expense of the rest of the law enforcement officers who practice nobility and upstanding character both on the job and in their personal lives.

When you tarnish one badge, you tarnish them all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Symbolism of a tree

The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks caused us to pause and reflect as a community on the profound tragedy that fundamentally changed us as a nation and as human beings. Like many, I was glued to the television last Sunday watching the memorial ceremonies taking place at the crash sites in somber remembrance. Tears were shed in solitude as I listened to the personal stories of loss and sacrifice. I thought of my police and firefighter brothers and sisters who perished that day while running towards the catastrophe instead of away from it. Those first responders are credited with saving the lives of thousands of people and they are what we epitomize when we think of heroes. In the middle of the melancholy, I heard a story about a pear tree that was planted at the World Trade Center complex more than 30 years prior to the 9/11 attacks. It stood as part of the scenery and like most gifts of nature, it was taken for granted as it was rather unassuming. After the attacks, the tree was found clinging sideways in a pit in the middle of the destruction. It had dwindled to an eight foot stump and was covered with ash. The towers crushed the tree’s branches and it was scorched so badly that the vibrant, green color had been replaced with black and gray. There was little hope for its survival as its roots barely clung to the earth. It looked like a wounded soldier. The tree was plucked from the rubble and transported to the New York Parks Department where many attempted to nurse it back to health. It lay dormant during the winter months that followed the 9/11 attacks but in the spring of 2012, green buds poked out from the stump creating hopes it would survive. Through careful pruning and constant care, the tree grew and flourished only to suffer another setback last March when it was uprooted during a storm. Amazingly it recovered yet again and grew to a height of 30 feet in time for its return to the place we have come to know as Ground Zero. The symbolism is quite majestic when you stop and think about it. With assistance from the parks department employees, the tree was able to grow new roots and become stronger. We as a nation suffered a horrific loss and in the dark days that followed the attacks, we felt broken, uprooted, and vulnerable to further terrorist acts. The color drained from our lives and we were left with shades of gray. Life as we knew it had changed. But in the face of adversity, we found hope. Despite the deplorable actions of terrorists that were rooted in hatred, Americans locked arms and stood together as one. We focused on the stories of heroism and kindness that occurred on that fateful day. In the days that followed, we nurtured our survivors back to physical and mental health and supported those who incurred personal losses. At ground level, workers rolled up their sleeves and cleaned up the debris. At higher levels, security for our nation was revamped and new measures implemented to prevent further attacks. Out of the dust and debris, we rose as a nation. While attending the 9/11 Memorial Ceremony at the Aurora Central Fire Station, I looked around at our police officers and firefighters mourning the loss of the first responders and it was clear to me that each will still run toward the gunshots and into the fire because that is their call to duty. Like the pear tree, we as a nation and as a city have grown new roots and are stronger and more resilient than ever before. The loss brought us to our knees and yet we rise, dust ourselves off, and do what we were called to do.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Voice Inside Your Head

Several months ago, a colleague from the police department told me about his new obsession, CrossFit. It’s a strength and conditioning program that appeals to police officers and firefighters because it requires proficiency in endurance, stamina, strength and flexibility – all crucial elements of job performance.

Before being hired, police officers are required to pass the state standards of fitness which include a timed 1.5 mile run, bench press, sit ups and a flexibility test. Most departments still use these standards as a measurement to determine a new applicant’s fitness level. That makes sense for prospective hires but for a police officer patrolling the street, these benchmarks do not replicate the actual demands one encounters.

Foot pursuits are not uncommon during an officer’s shift. When a bad guy decides to run, the officer giving chase does not do so at a leisurely pace for a long distance. Pursuits rarely last more than a few minutes but the officer is in full sprint during the chase. They jump fences and call out their location and direction of travel over the radio in full gear while simultaneously keeping mindful of the threat posed by the criminal. This level of physical agility requires more conditioning than the state standards. The most elite officers I know train daily to keep in optimal shape so they have an advantage over the criminal.

I decided to try CrossFit training at BareBones CrossFit in Yorkville. I was immediately intimidated after meeting my coaches because it was clear from their minimal body fat and muscular physiques that they are elite athletes. Observing that I was clearly out of my element, I decided to wait for them to turn their backs so I could escape but I had already given them my real name. Fearing they would hunt me down, I reluctantly stayed.

One of the first work-outs involved doing as many rounds of rope climbing, kettle ball swinging, 400 meter run, and pull-ups as possible in 20 minutes. The last time I climbed a rope was in 7th grade so I laughed at the prospect. My coach showed me a modified version of the climb that would build my skills so I would eventually be able to scale the rope. After my first few sessions, I wanted to deliver a punch to my good friend for suggesting CrossFit but I was too sore to form a fist or raise my arms. Instead, I pressed on and continued going back for more.

The work-outs are designed with a prescribed standard to be met. I seem to modify the standards more often than my gym mates but that’s okay because I’ve learned something far more important in my 2 ½ months of CrossFit. I went there to get in better shape; I remain there because of what it has done to the little voice inside my head that tells me to quit when things get hard. In CrossFit, you cannot quit because the coaches will remind you that the workout you’re doing is named after a real soldier who lost his life serving our country. When I begin to feel as though I cannot do 50 more box jumps or pull-ups, I remember that 20 minutes of pain is nothing compared to what our soldiers endure in the trenches.

That little voice inside our heads actually determines if we fight or give up. I have heard many stories of police officers who, after being critically wounded, have rallied and found the strength to fight back and survive. It’s all because they trained their inner voice to say, “Do not give up.”

This isn’t a commercial for exercise. Rather, it’s a reminder that you don’t have to be a soldier or a police officer to be a warrior. You are stronger than you think in any area of your life but you must condition that voice inside your head to tell you so.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Experential Learning

When I was the lieutenant on midnight shift, we were brainstorming methods of burglary prevention when one of the sergeants suggested that the only way our citizens will learn to close and lock their doors was if the police started taking things they leave in open view to teach them a lesson. Of course we would return the items when they were reported stolen. We all pondered that thought for about 3 seconds until we came to our senses and realized that it was a terrible idea. Great in theory maybe, but not in practice!

I once stole a bicycle from a garage. Well, I guess it doesn’t count as stealing because it was my son’s bike and I took it from my own garage to teach him a lesson about leaving the garage door wide open. I had warned him repeatedly that his bicycle was going to get stolen but after my warnings fell deafly upon his ears, I took matters into my own hands and committed the “burglary”. I held out for a week before I gave him his bike back. He subsequently complied with my plea to be less careless.

One of my colleagues was so frustrated with his wife leaving the doors to their home repeatedly unlocked that he decided to create some experiential learning to drive his point home. He left for work (or so she thought) but he was actually casing the house. He waited for her to leave for the grocery store and found that she had left the back door unlocked -- again. Unknown to his wife, He arranged for a co-worker to come over and hide in the house. When she arrived home and walked in, the friend jumped out and grabbed her. To be clear, I don’t condone this extremism and I can assure you that the husband slept on the couch for quite some time afterwards. However, she has not left the house unlocked since.

Sometimes a person has to feel the consequence of something before they understand the lesson. If only we were wise enough to heed the advice that others offer before we have to feel the discomfort. Hindsight always provides such clarity when we come to the realization that we should have listened and changed our behavior. We frequently don’t do that because we all carry an air of infallibility. Bad things only happen to other people. That is, until something bad happens to you. Sometimes the bad things are unpredictable and out of our control. But most of the time, we become victims because of our own carelessness.

We are currently dealing with a burglary problem in our city. While violent crime is the lowest it has been in decades, property crimes continue to be an ongoing battle that our officers are fighting. The frustrating part for police about the burglaries is that a majority of them are preventable. Criminals are looking to prey upon careless people to victimize. They don’t want to work very hard and so they look for an easy steal. Your open garage and car doors provide them with the perfect opportunity.

During our bi-weekly meetings where we address crime statistics, the common theme for most burglaries reveals unlocked doors. Our officers have tried issuing Crime Prevention Notices when we see an open garage door or valuables left in plain view in a vehicle. You may have even been awakened in the middle of the night by one of our midnight shift officers telling you that your garage or front door is open. We are trying to be vigilant for you but there is only so much the police can do to protect your property.

Since we cannot subject you to the aforementioned experiential learning for obvious reasons, I ask that you heed our advice so you don’t become a victim.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Gratitude. Get some.

Wherever we go, we can find something to complain about. When we are in the throes of the frigid, winter months, we complain about the cold and we long for the heat. When the treacherous 90 degree heat finally arrives, it makes us yearn for a cold front to cool things off.

Every year, my children count down the school days that bring them closer to summer and when it finally arrives, they whine, “I’m sooooo bored!!!” It seems we are by nature, hardwired to see what is wrong rather than what is right in nearly every scenario.

I am often astounded at the spectrum of attitudes when I listen to the viewpoints of my comrades at the police department. The recent contract settlement between the city and police union left some angry and disappointed while the response of others was, “I am grateful to have a job.” Those who choose to see the negative, focus only on the things they lose. In doing so, they become so clouded in their own negativity that they fail to see anything good in a situation. Those who make the choice to feel grateful they are employed with a roof over their head, food on their table, and a job to go to every day, enjoy a sense of peace within them. There are setbacks and disappointments that occur in life for which we have no control; however, we get to choose how we view the situation.

While investigating car accidents throughout my career, I have watched seemingly normal people transform into irrational human beings in response to a “fender bender”. I’ve always made it a point to tell the owners of the vehicles that their cars can be replaced. A car is an inanimate object made of metal but loss of life cannot be resurrected at a body shop. If no one is hurt, be thankful. If no one has died, be grateful they will recover and live to see another day. Every situation we encounter is an opportunity to place it in proper perspective.

Gratitude is such a simple concept and yet it does not come natural to many of us. We think it is an innate emotion but I don’t believe that to be so. I think some people have a natural tendency towards gratitude but the majority of people go through life with lenses that only allow them to see the worst in people and situations.

The field of psychology has been studying the effects of gratitude since 2000. Normally the field focuses on distress rather than on understanding positive emotions but gratitude has become a mainstream focus of research because empirical data has shown that people who are more grateful have higher levels of achievement, well-being, and are more satisfied with their lives and their relationships. According to Greek philosopher Cicero, ““Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.”

I know many police officers who have survived life-threatening situations. Making it through a traumatic experience is sometimes the awakening a person needs to begin practicing gratitude. I say “practice” because the rest of us must make a conscious decision to live our lives being grateful. Energy goes where attention flows so our negative thoughts dictate how we see the world. However, forcing yourself to be grateful will literally alter your perspective. Rather than saying, “I have to ” replace it with, “I get to…” That one simple conscious exercise will begin to bring things into focus.

No formal education can teach you to appreciate what you have so begin your own gratitude experiment. Randomly throughout the day, find ways to express gratitude and make a concerted effort to be completely conscious of what you have. The more you practice gratitude, the more good you will do in the world.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Police should NOT have to parent your child.

This past week marked the end of the school year for most Aurora students.

This is my favorite time of year as sunshine and blue skies become a consistent feature in the scenic backdrop and warm air stays for more than a fleeting moment. There is a sense of limitless possibility for the months ahead and the kids enjoy more freedom as they are allowed to stay up later and sleep in a little longer. There is still a schedule to be followed but it’s made up of baseball games and summer camps.

For police officers, summer represents something a bit different. It means enforcing noise ordinance violations for loud parties and “thumping” vehicles that disturb the peaceful quality of life for our citizens. The summer months also mean that officers spend a lot of time parenting other people’s children.

The ability for our children to roam freely through the neighborhoods is precisely what we want for them. After all, when we were kids (insert “back in my day” preface), we stayed outside in the summer until the street lights came on and only stopped home briefly for necessary re-fueling in the form of food.

However, a problem occurs when children are given too much freedom with too little supervision. This becomes a police problem because when left to their own devices, some kids will exercise poor judgment that might result in their crossing paths with a police officer. Trespassing, criminal damage, burglary and curfew are some of the crimes associated with youthful offenders.

I subscribe to the notion that nothing good happens after dark. I have tested this theory as a patrol officer over the years and find that I’m rarely wrong. Curfew laws were implemented because someone smarter than I developed this hypothesis long ago. I cannot come up with one reason for a minor to be out past curfew unless they are coming home from a job or a sanctioned school or church event. If those exceptions do not apply, I am inclined to believe that kids roaming the city after hours only means that they are engaged in shenanigans.

For arguments sake, let’s give our angelic kids the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are “playing” aimlessly after hours and not breaking any laws (with the exception of curfew). I am still in strong opposition given the fact that there are people out after dark that might prey upon our innocent children. In other words, the curfew laws exist as much to protect our children as well as ensure that they aren’t engaging in criminal activity themselves. My daughter will often say, “Mom, you can trust me.” To which I respond, “I trust you but I don’t trust other people.” She has little room for rebuttal in that statement. Feel free to adopt that as your own.

If you lived in Davenport, Iowa, you could potentially be punished if your child commits a crime. Davenport adopted a statute to address the wave of juvenile crime they were experiencing and decided that parents should “exercise reasonable control” over their children. Parents can be ordered to attend parenting classes as well as pay hefty fines for their child’s infractions.

This ordinance outlines the importance of parents being accountable for their children. Being a parent means that it is your job to supervise your children. That means knowing where they are at all times. That means taking the time to get to know their friends and making sure they aren’t being subjected to bad influences. Being a parent also means saying “no” when necessary.

The best parents I know impose rules, limitations and expectations upon their children. It is no coincidence that those parents also have good kids.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The "F" Word is not Allowed

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, May 22, 2011

Police officers don’t use the “F” word. It’s taboo in our culture and when an officer does slip and incorporate the dreaded word, they open themselves to ridicule from their fellow officers. The “F” word to which I’m referring is feelings.

In the police culture, it’s been imbedded that we cannot show weakness because it is in direct conflict with the image of power and strength we are trying to project. Cops are really good at keeping a “game face” even when confronted with a tragedy that yanks on their heart strings. In some ways, it’s a blessing that most officers develop an emotional shield to protect them from the painful things they’ve seen. The callousness often used to describe a police officer’s lack of feeling is systematically created over many years of being the first responder to scenes of death and destruction. These layers eventually become so thick that some officers don’t have to pretend not to feel anymore – they simply don’t. At least they think they don’t.

In some ways, I see this emotional shield as a necessity for public servants. If doctors, nurses, firefighters and police officers didn’t develop one, they couldn’t sleep through the night without replaying the images over and over again. The fact is that those who say they are unaffected by the devastating tragedies usually find that it manifests in some other aspects of their lives. While they may successfully block the images from their minds, they turn to unhealthy habits that serve as outlets for their pain. But it almost always catches up with them.

One of our officers arrived first on the scene of the fire on Claim Street that took the lives of six people last weekend. He ran into the burning building and tended to victims that didn’t survive. As if that weren’t enough to handle, that same officer had a baby die in his arms the week before as he was administering CPR. When I checked in with him to see how he was doing, he answered, “Fine.”

When someone asks how you are, fine would be an acceptable answer. It means satisfactory. Most people go through life being just fine. If you had to endure what that officer endured, I surmise that you would not be fine. Perhaps he thinks he’s fine but I know he’s not. I know because this stuff gets deep inside your psyche and no matter how much you want to block it out and ignore the pictures that are etched into your memory, they keep coming back. This is the very stuff that changes us over the years. This is why the suicide rates of police officers are double that of the general population--- because they aren’t fine.

Joanne Furnas is the Director of Victims Services at AID and she facilitates stress debriefings for firefighters and police personnel after traumatic incidents. I gave the police officer (the one who said he was fine) her phone number and plead with him to reach out to her. He called me a few hours later to tell me that he had not only called her but she made herself available to him immediately. He shared that his meeting with her was very helpful.

According to Joanne, the officer was minimizing the incident. Because I know Joanne’s no-nonsense method, I was glad to hear that he agreed with her assessment. He went on to tell me the details of the fire through his eyes and said it was “the worst thing he’s ever experienced” in his career.

I think he’s actually on his way to being fine because he sought the help he needed and he’s talking about the pain rather than stifling it. Some might think it’s a weakness to ask for help. In reality, admitting weakness and reaching out for help is a sign of true strength.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bad Attitudes and Glowworms

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on May 8, 2011

In my third grade classroom there was a poster on the wall that read:

I wish I were a glowworm,

A glowworm's never glum.

'Cuz how can you be grumpy

When the sun shines out your bum!

I didn’t understand what that poem meant until I was in my 20’s, and I had an epiphany about attitude. I was partnered with a veteran officer and two hours into our eight hour shift, I began to realize that that there was not a single thing he enjoyed about his job or his life. Being assigned to ride with me was also a source of contention for him and he wasn’t bashful about telling me so.

I found his disdain for life odd – especially given the fact that it was a beautiful summer day and the few calls we answered were relatively uneventful. As we patrolled the streets, I visualized a dark cloud exclusively over his head in contrast to the sunshine surrounding the rest of us and I laughed out loud as the glowworm poem popped into my head. It was at that moment that I started to understand the effect our attitude has on our entire existence.

Throughout my life, I have been bombarded with lessons about attitude. It’s not what happens to us in life, but the way we respond that makes a difference. If you can’t change a situation, you must change the way you see the situation. I understand these lessons on an intellectual level but conceptually, there are times I find it difficult to find the light when darkness seems to be so overwhelming.

As I gained more experience as a police officer, I began to understand how the metamorphosis from an optimist to a pessimist occurs. I became distrusting of other human beings though not without reason. I had been lied to, spit on, and physically attacked while doing my job. I saw the evil human beings did to one another and started to become suspicious of motives all around me. There was a moment where I quietly challenged my decision to make this my career and I felt my own dark cloud begin to hover.

Because I’ve always been very analytical and self-aware [by my own estimation], I started to pay attention to the negativity of my co-workers and it suddenly became clear that the miserable ones seemed to feed off each other like vultures. They gravitated towards one another because they validated each other’s thoughts and beliefs. They were always victims and they effortlessly found someone else to blame for all that was wrong. Never did they stop to look in the proverbial mirror and ask themselves if they might be part of the problem.

My favorite book is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In his book, Frankl writes about his experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He took particular interest in how some of his fellow prisoners seemed to endure and even thrive, while others gave up and laid down to die. From this, he concluded that, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose ones own way.”

We all struggle in some way with things that are completely out of our control. But the way we gain control over these things – even if only attitudinally – is where our freedom lies. We don’t have to experience torture in a concentration camp to apply Frankl’s teachings to our own lives. We each have the freedom to make choices that liberate us from our self-imposed prisons.

If Frankl’s story doesn’t motivate you to choose the way you look at things, maybe you need to surround yourselves with more glowworms.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Life Could be 99.9% Over and We Don't Even Know It.

A passenger of a commuter train in Chicago was robbed of her iPhone last month at the Fullerton “L” stop. The offender struggled with her, eventually snatched her phone, and then fled as the train doors opened to the next stop. That is an unfortunate incident in itself but it doesn’t end there. When making his get-away, the robber ran towards an exit and pushed 68 year old Sally Katona-King as she was walking towards the train platform, knocking down the metal and concrete steps. Katona-King died as a result of her injuries.

Katona-King, a church Deacon ironically, was a victim of circumstance and proximity. Some may find peace in believing that “it was her time”; that her life’s end had been etched in stone with no alteration - that this was her fate. Others believe that life brings forth a sequence of events that unfold by chance and circumstance. They believe that every choice we make as we move throughout our day has an impact on the way things manifest.

Think of the precise moment a fatal car crash occurs. There is one millisecond in time that brings the crashing of two objects together and subsequently alters lives and history. Some people play events backwards after a tragedy and secretly wonder what would have happened if they had turned left instead of right or didn’t stop to get gas. Others avert tragedy and declare that they were supposed to have been in that building that caught fire or on that plane that crashed but something in their plan was altered thereby sparing their existence.

I don’t know where Ms. Katona-King was headed as she moved towards the platform on that fateful day, but what if she had paused to listen to the jazz musicians play on the platform or stopped to buy a newspaper, thereby altering the precise moment that the armed robber crossed her path?

My colleague and friend worked as a fatal traffic investigator for many years and his computer screen-saver had these words: “Your life could be 99.9% over and you don’t even know it.” I thought that was both morbid and disturbing until I reflected upon the powerful reality of that statement. Police officers come to understand this notion very well because we are front line to the gunshot or the crash that abruptly closes the chapter on a life.

Katona-King ultimately died because a thug stole a cell phone. I wonder what would happen if we turned back the clock and the owner of the cell phone altered her actions slightly. This cell phone robbery only made headlines because of the death that resulted but I can assure you that there are hundreds more incidents you don’t hear about because stealing a cell phone isn’t really newsworthy.

I frequently ride the train to Chicago with my family and I am very conscious of the unconsciousness of most of the commuters. Smart phones have become an appendage to the human body and most people walk with their head down, oblivious to their surroundings because they are engaged in a text conversation or they are scrolling through their news feed on Facebook. What if we could prevent these robberies by being aware of our surroundings? What if we made it difficult for those who prey upon others by being astutely conscious of the risks and threats around us?

I cannot say for sure if we have the ability to alter events. It might be a long shot to suggest that simple changes in our routines and habits might change the course of history. But I do believe that we can prevent being a victim by being conscious and smarter in the way we move through the world. Maybe we cannot alter fate, but I think there are some things we can do so we aren’t leaving everything to chance.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Mom and Some Eggs

My car got egged on April Fool’s Day. I'm not sure if the date had any significance or if it was just an act of delinquency on a typical Friday night. I surveyed my neighbors and learned that a few of them spent their Saturday morning at the car wash as well. Because there was no permanent damage, neither my neighbors nor I filed a police report.

Upon returning to work on Monday I received a letter of appreciation for two of our officers from a citizen that had been forwarded to me from the Chief. I settled in with my cup of java in eager anticipation to read the compliments bestowed on Aurora's Finest. The letter was from a mother who praised the way our officers handled her teen aged son who had been caught "egging" cars with his friends the previous Friday night.

GASP! Were these the same culprits who chucked perfectly good eggs at my perfectly clean car? I started to relive my emotions when I walked outside and discovered the gooey mess and secretly scolded myself for not filing the police report on Saturday morning. The boys were caught in the adjacent subdivision so there was little disputing these were the same offenders.

After my blood pressure dropped a bit, I continued reading the letter. My mood shifted as I read the emotional words of a mother who was mortified by the actions of her child and very eloquently described the scenario for which the police officers caught her son and his friends. The boys were handcuffed and detained while the officers collected statements from witnesses and victims which is a standard procedure.

The victims of the damage opted not to press charges because the boys had never been in trouble. In a refreshing shift from the norm, the offending teens apologized to each person with humility and sincerity. The police officers (according to mom) used the incident as an opportunity to mentor the kids about the consequences of their actions and what a felony criminal damage conviction would do to their future when it came to applying for colleges and jobs. They reiterated that one bad choice can alter a future in a moment’s time.

My anger dissipated as I read the "sentence" imparted by the boy’s mother. He was required to pay for each of the cars to get washed and his ultimate consequence was that his car (used in the commission of the crime) was to be taken away and subsequently sold.

Because I have children who will be of driving age in less than three years, I empathized with the plight of this mother and the feeling that her child should be punished but relieved that it was going to be by her and not a judge or jury. I often tell my children that my wrath will be far worse than what they will incur from a school official or the law and I detected that the mother who wrote shared the same philosophy.

I'm grateful to the mother for writing to the Chief to describe the excellent job done by our officers. Society tends to focus on what is wrong rather than what is right and it's refreshing to see that someone is paying attention. But I'm even more grateful to this mother for having the courage to shine a spotlight on her son’s actions rather than trying to defend him or displace her anger and ridicule the police for doing their jobs. It is our natural instinct to protect our children when they do something wrong but we must acknowledge objectively when they do and apply consequences. That is good parenting.

Judging from the officers’ described remorse of the boy; I surmise that the harshest punishment of all was knowing that he disappointed his mom.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Privacy and Parenting

My daughter rolls her eyes every time I ask to speak with the parent of the friend with whom she is making plans. She has a similar reaction when I ask her to call me from the land-line of the home she is visiting so I can make sure she is where she is supposed to be. Naturally, this falls into my “trust but verify” philosophy and even though she’s only in Junior High, my intention is to get her used to my parenting style for her upcoming high school years.

Now that I am embarking on being the parent of a teenager, I feel as though I’ve earned the right of passage to use the phrase, “Back in my day.” Back in my day, my parents’ greatest challenge (from my vantage point of-course) was my tying up the home telephone while talking to my best friend for hours at a time. Things were pretty transparent back then and the worst breach of privacy was my mom reading a handwritten note that I inadvertently left in the pocket of my jeans that made it to the laundry. If we weren’t careful with these secret notes they even got intercepted by teachers from time to time !

Today we have to contend with cell phones that are used to rack up enormous amounts of text-messages back and forth. Kids can delete their texts thereby erasing any evidence of malfeasance. Their Facebook in-boxes contain their inner-most thoughts and even the most attentive parents can be completely ignorant to the teenage underworld because technology provides the venue to be secretive.

Having cops as parents mean my children are subject to searches at any time. It is not unlike me to randomly say, “Hand over your phone” and inspect a sampling of text messages when the urge strikes me. My daughter thinks this is a privacy breach but I disagree. I tell her that I pay for her phone and the bill for her unlimited texting capabilities so I have full access to the content. If she were to pay for her own services, I might capitulate to her privacy argument. By the time she is able to pay her own way, I surmise that she’ll be in her late 20’s and my vested interest in her communication will have waned.

As I wrote in a previous column, my daughter doesn’t have a Facebook page--- yet. She will be getting one in a few months when she turns 13. However, I will ensure that she has “friended” me so I can see her news feed. I do vow to practice restraint from posting anything that would embarrass her on her wall but I will be voyeuristic in my pursuits. Furthermore, I will insist on her password in the event I want to check her in-box. Once again, I apply the same logic. I pay for the computer and the internet therefore I own the content.

There are some parents who believe kids should be given the same privacy rights as adults. As a police officer, I have come to the conclusion over the years that this philosophy is good in theory but not in practice. The parents who claim to “respect privacy” are usually the last ones to know why the police are knocking at their door. Worse yet, they might not see a serious problem involving drugs or bullying that their child is having before it is too late.

There is a fine line between being an informed parent and giving your children space. I try very hard to balance it so they can make and learn from their own mistakes in judgment while simultaneously protecting them from harm. As parents, it is our responsibility to be intrusive in our child’s lives --- even if it they deem it unfair. Remember, you are their parent - not their friend.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scolded by a Citizen

Mary lives on Aurora’s east side. I’ve never met her but she left me a long voice mail telling me she was disappointed by my last column about officers and self-initiated activity.

If you recall, a suburban Police Chief mandated that his officers make two traffic stops during their shifts. My position was that it is a shame that police management has to resort to forcing officers to do the work they should already be doing.

But my position is not what upset Mary. She felt my tone was sarcastic and said it had a “biting edge”. I was very bothered by her assessment because it wasn’t my intent to sound sarcastic. In fact, I usually apply my gift of sarcasm quite purposefully and this was not one of those times! Her comments made me wonder if I’d missed the mark completely, so I called her to get some more insight on what upset her.

Mary was a bit shocked that I called her back and even apologized for leaving the scolding voice-mail. I assured her that she need not apologize for her own interpretation of my words. Because I am not a writer by trade, I often wonder if my message is being conveyed in the most appropriate way and I rely on the feedback I receive (both good and bad) to generate discussion. Mary did not shy away from respectful dissension. She said it was unsettling for her to hear me talk about targeting criminal activity through traffic stops and took exception to this excerpt:

“Some feel that the premise of the contact is to find something wrong and I readily admit that it is. I’ve never heard of a police officer pulling someone over to tell them that they are doing a really good job driving their car. Make no mistake--- these contacts are to find illegal activity.”

Looking at my words from another vantage point, I can see how the tone might have been perceived as sarcastic. I regret that. I was simply trying to make a no-nonsense point that we find stolen property, guns, persons wanted on warrants, etc. through traffic enforcement. I assumed that most law abiding citizens were comfortable with this method because they know it results in busting criminals.

My assumption was wrong. I’m sure there are more “Mary’s” out there who felt the same way but weren’t compelled to pick up the phone and tell me about it. Mary feels that targeting people through traffic stops is the wrong way to go about finding criminal activity. She is more in favor of police officers engaging citizens by building relationships with them. She described the walking beat cop and said, “the officer should be a friend rather than looking for a crime.” Mary didn’t appear to be soft on crime, however. Her theory is that in building these relationships, officers are alerted to crime.

Mary is exactly right. What she is describing is the Community Policing philosophy that has been proven in both theory and practice that developing partnerships with the community benefits both the citizens and the police. Citizens who take responsibility for their neighborhoods and work with the police see dramatic improvements. In taking the time to get to know each other, trust develops and communication ensues. Crime reduction through innovation and problem-solving is a natural consequence.

However, that is just one component to fighting crime. I must say unapologetically that one of the reasons crime has dropped to an all time low in Aurora is because our officers are aggressively pursuing gang members and criminals who commit violent crimes. We have to be relentless in our pursuit against those who exist to terrorize our community.

Building relationships is invaluable. So is aggressive police work. Even more important are Aurorans like Mary who are vested in this city and care enough to suggest that we can have both.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Self-Initiated Contacts

I recently posted a link to an article on my Facebook page that generated quite a bit of spirited discussion amongst my cyberspace cronies. The article from highlighted the initiative by Chief William Clay of the Belleville, IL, Police Department directing his officers to make two self-initiated contacts in their 12-hour shifts.

“Self-initiated contacts” are simply contacts with the public primarily through traffic stops though they can also occur through field-stops. Field-stops are when an officer stops a person who is walking and makes contact with them to ensure that they are not engaged in criminal activity.

For some citizens, self-initiated contacts automatically conjure up the notion of a “quota”. Those of us in policing have learned how dirty the “Q” word is for citizens. When I was in the ticket-writing business before my dangerous desk job, I would often be accused of writing a ticket only to fulfill the police department’s quota. I took the time to explain that the Aurora Police Department does not have quotas and would justify (while making a conscious effort not to sound sarcastic) that the ticket I was issuing had everything to do with the receiving party’s infraction rather than moving another bead on the abacus. The quota accusation ranks up there with the “Why don’t you go mess with the real criminals and leave me alone?” question that only further serves to illustrate the lack of responsibility for ones actions – but I digress.

Chief Clay described the new initiative as a method of getting his officers more engaged with the public in order to address crime. This is a pleasant way of saying that contacts through traffic stops are an effective way of locating criminal activity through warrant arrests, drug possession arrests, and others. The Chief is absolutely correct in that the more contacts his officers make the probability of finding criminal activity increases.

Law abiding citizens probably have no issue with police officers increasing traffic stops Because mandatory contacts do not require the officer to take action, discretion is still within the officers’ purview so getting stopped does not necessarily mean a ticket will be issued. Most law abiding people are on board with any initiative aimed at curbing criminal activity.

Police Officers have mixed feelings about this mandate. When I was in patrol, we had a similar directive from our Commander who required us to make one traffic stop a day. I recall some of my colleagues being defiant about the directive but I also remember thinking that it wasn’t a lot to ask of an officer to make one traffic stop in an 8-hour shift. I still feel that way. Many people in the private sector have jobs that require them to meet objectives set forth by their boss. Asking officers to make more contacts is not much different than a company setting a sales goal. Private companies concentrate on profit as the bottom line. Our bottom line is reducing crime.

Some feel that the premise of the contact is to find something wrong and I readily admit that it is. I’ve never heard of a police officer pulling someone over to tell them that they are doing a really good job driving their car. Make no mistake--- these contacts are to find illegal activity. Therein lies the issue with some citizens in mandating a certain number of contacts. Will it lead an officer pulling over someone committing an infraction that would normally be overlooked because of apathy? Maybe. But that is why police officers are not very popular - because they are enforcing the law and holding people accountable.

My position is that it’s a shame that officers have to be forced to do their job by putting these arbitrary numbers in place. We shouldn’t have to mandate officers to carry out the oath they were sworn to uphold.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

For the Aurora Citizen - Third Time is a Charm

I have heard the “third time is the charm”. Although I’ve never been well versed in statistics, I am conducting an experiment to determine its validity.

This is the third column I have dedicated to you, the Aurora citizen, on the importance of locking your car and your home to prevent those individuals who cannot help themselves to supplement their material possessions by stealing yours.

My second column on this topic was delivered with “tough love”. Looking back, I see now that my tone was harsh and scolding but I thought that method was well suited to break your pattern of complacency. At our most recent CompStat meeting, a venue where we report on crime trends in the City, each Lieutenant reported that burglary is still the overwhelming problem in their respective areas.

This should not surprise you. Historically we have noted that when the economy is in the tank, it brings with it a rise in property crimes. One does not have to be an astute criminologist to understand that desperate times often result in desperate acts. However, each Lieutenant also reported that an overwhelming percentage of burglary victims admitted that their vehicles or residences were unlocked at the time of the crime.

My scolding obviously did not result in a change in your behavior. Since I’m not one to give up easily, I will now appeal to you in softer tones. I’ve decided to make a plea to those of you living in the “it won’t happen to me world.” PLEASE stop leaving your doors unlocked, your garages open, and your GPS devices, iPods, and other valuables inside your vehicles in plain view so that thieves won’t steal them!

Crime cannot exist without opportunity. You, my fellow Aurora citizen, continue to provide the crucial component of opportunity for criminals to victimize you. The most successful cops I know have the ability to think like a criminal. Years of experience in dealing with crime and criminals allow them insight into the dark side of the human psyche. Please join me in that journey for just a moment.

Imagine that you are an experienced thief. We’ll call you “Five Fingers <insert your name here>. You make a living stealing from others. You prey upon the poor, oblivious souls who are careless with their property and you seek them out. You wait for the cover of darkness and head out to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of traffic. You dress in dark clothing to blend into the night armed with a back-pack. You simply walk along the cars parked in the street, peering into vehicles and inconspicuously checking door handles. Alas! You find an unlocked door and quickly duck into the vehicle undetected. Inside, you discover a garage-door opener. You stuff it into your back-pack and make a mental note of the address in the event you decide to return when no one is home – but that’s for another day…

You continue down the street, pleased with the high number of unlocked vehicles. Your back-back is getting heavy from the purse, laptop, camera, and other valuables you stole so you call it a night. You walk boldly down the street to your car that is parked a few streets over.

Even if someone saw you, they will rarely think anything of it because you don’t do anything overtly “suspicious”. You have learned over the years that people will second-guess themselves and ultimately do nothing. That is, until the following morning when neighbors swap stories about being burglarized. Only then will someone remember seeing a person walking down the street with a back-pack. By then, you will be home making plans to visit a different neighborhood.

Through my “third time is the charm” role-playing experiment, my hope is that you will begin to think like a criminal as a means to prevent being victimized.

If you don’t, I’m out of ideas.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Practical Wisdom

Aristotle theorized that practical wisdom--- having the moral will to do the right thing coupled with the skill to know what the right thing is--- was the highest virtue one could attain.

In their book “Practical Wisdom”, authors Kenneth Sharpe and Barry Schwartz detail the psychology behind Aristotle’s theory and its application to real life and the way institutions are managed. They found most employees of organizations have to choose between doing the quick or expected thing, over doing the right thing because they feel as though they do not have the autonomy or authority to choose the right thing if it conflicts with production or operations.

I couldn’t help but make the correlation to police work since there are specific sets of policies that dictate how police officers are to respond to given situations. A great example is an officer who is dispatched to a residence for a conflict between neighbors. In the interest of time (productivity), officers are expected to handle the call and move onto the next one so the calls don’t back up. The very least the officer will do if there are no arrests to be made is to write a report documenting the incident and moving on. In doing so, nothing has been done to solve the problem and we will most likely be called back as the tension escalates.

This pressure for productivity overrides the logical approach one might take in mediating the conflict. A better approach might be to learn the root of the problem and discussing the underlying issues with the parties involved. Sometimes misunderstandings are the catalyst for incidents that turn violent and can be diffused with some effort. This is why the judgment of the officer is crucial. The moral will to want to right a wrong must be coupled with the officer’s skill in knowing if the participants are reasonable enough to work on the issue.

Some officers might believe that practical wisdom is impossible to apply because we cannot overcome the culture of policing that pressures officers to be rapid in their response to calls. It can be problematic to spend time getting to the root of a problem because of other citizens waiting for their calls to be answered. Because we have always considered rapid response as an imperative, changing the culture is challenging.

During his research, Aristotle studied the great craftsmen of his time. He was particularly fixated on the artisans who built columns and structures. The craftsmen quickly learned that it was difficult to use a ruler to measure the cylinder-shaped columns so they figured out a way to bend the ruler so it wrapped around the column. This bended rule is what we know today as a tape measure.

This analogy is quite powerful because it speaks to the practical wisdom that Aristotle felt was applicable to all human beings abilities to adapt to their surroundings and come up with solutions to specific issues. Policing is no different. We want to empower our police officers to determine that each situation is unique and problem-solving requires the moral aptitude and skill to do what is best in that particular situation. When dealing with human beings, we have to be able to exercise judgment and adaptation to allow the best outcome.

However, Schwartz and Sharpe point out that no matter how specific the rules, there will never be an absolute approach that fits all situations. This is indicative of policing by the level of discretion afforded our officers as they carry out their duties.

The most important aspect of the “bended rule” is the moral will. It is not enough to be a skilled craftsman or a skilled police officer if ones moral compass is askew. Applying discretion to serve yourself is a form of manipulation and so the only adaptation made in any situation should be with the service of others in mind.