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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why Do They Run?

 I recently attended training staged by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

In my new role as the Investigations Commander, I applied for the training with the Timmothy Pitzen case in mind. NCMEC supplied the Aurora Police with some great resources in that investigation and I was hoping to learn about other tools available to our detectives when investigating missing children cases.

I was expecting excellent training from NCMEC and they certainly delivered.  However, I was not prepared for the paradigm shift that occurred in the way I view missing children cases.

To be honest, I’d grown frustrated over the years when responding to these cases.  I’m not talking about when small children are taken against their will.  In those incidents, we respond by pouring every available resource into finding the youngster.

Rather, I’m talking about the frequent runaways (dubbed by police officers as “frequent flyers”) who cause our department to incur a great deal of resources.  These are teenagers who run away several times per year, stay away for short periods of time (frequently no more than several hours) and then return home.

Let me be clear that we do not take these cases lightly. When dealing with them, officers take a report, enter the child into our Law Enforcement data base (LEADS), and then ultimately complete another report when they return home and remove them from our LEADS system.  Many times, the runaway returns before the case is even assigned to an investigator.

It's not uncommon for police officers to become numb to these reports because of the frequency in which they occur.  It is often perceived that runaways are nothing more than juvenile delinquents who take flight when rules and structure are imposed upon them.  The misconception is that they stay away in defiance gallivanting through our community breaking laws and engaging in criminal shenanigans.

If you read my previous column about the labeling theory then you will certainly see how guilty I had become of seeing things through my own lenses.  Since we often criticize what we don't understand, we can gain some clarity in taking a closer look at the reasons kids run away.

Just like everything in life, there are no absolutes with runaways.  Some come from stable homes and loving parents who can’t understand how their troubled teen escaped their grasp.  Others are more often running away from something rather than to something.

This was where my thinking changed.  When we study the effects of criminal and sexual abuse and neglect on children, it is not difficult to see where delinquent behavior comes from.  Our physiological makeup determines only 50% of who we will become in life.  The other 50% is influenced by our environment and those who teach us (or fail to teach us) how to navigate through life.  Kids trust the adults that care for them and when those adults violate their trust, dire consequences result.

Although I don’t respond to calls in a squad car anymore, my hope is to remind my police officers and our community that every missing runaway is at potential risk for exploitation.  Many are afraid to return home because of abuse so they find themselves on the streets with no sustainable resources.  This makes them vulnerable to prostitution and other evils including people who are looking to exploit them for their own benefit.

It's easy to assume that teens who become involved in criminal activity are delinquents when in reality, their quest for basic survival has left them few alternatives.  As a result, they are forced into a life they may not have chosen for themselves because of the need to escape abuse and literally survive on the streets.

Life is comprised of the choices we make, but we need to consider that some people are forced into choosing a bad situation over a worse one.

I encourage you to visit NCMEC’s website at to learn more about missing children and what we can all do to make them safe.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Don't Believe Everything You Think

Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

I adore this quote because I see examples of it every day from people who deal in absolutes. That is, people who are always so sure of their own point of view and simply cannot (will not) take a moment to question their own assumptions.

In the book, “You are not so smart”, author David McRaney points out that all of us have a deep desire to be right all the time and an even deeper desire to see ourselves in a positive light both morally and behaviorally. We can stretch our minds pretty far to achieve these goals. We rationalize our points of view and we seek out ways to support our own viewpoint. It’s relatively easy to do.

All around us we can find support of our assumptions. Take the concept of self-fulfilling prophesy (also called “labeling”) as an example. If someone believes you to be a certain kind of person, you tend to live up to their expectations and they will find ways to support their beliefs. If I think you are a jerk, my demeanor towards you will be hostile, thereby causing your response to be jerkish (is that a word?) and thus, you will have validated my belief that you are in fact, a jerk.

It also works in the opposite (called the “halo effect”). If I believe you to be a good person, I will unconsciously gather evidence to support that assumption and keep you in a favorable light while ignoring that which might not fit into the template for which I have devised for you. And if you do something that does not support my perception of you being a good person, I will justify your actions and make excuses for them.

We are all masters at manipulating the world to align with our beliefs.

Police officers have to be especially careful not to fall prey to these assumptions. Just because a person breaks the law does not necessarily make them “criminal” or evil. The problem is when we make unfair judgments about the majority based on limited experiences. We must not paint everyone with a broad brush because no person fits into a precise template.

I have found that people won’t normally challenge their own assumptions without some sort of prompting. It usually takes something significant that causes us to audit our beliefs about something we feel strongly. In my experience, the one thing that is powerful enough to alter the lens through which we see the world is when something affects us personally.

I have an uncle who is prejudice and intolerant against people of color. Growing up, I remained silent when he made ignorant comments but once I found my voice as an adolescent, I started challenging his beliefs -- to no avail. He was immovable and unaffected by my accusation that his biases lacked logic or reason. That is, until something impacted him personally to transform his beliefs.

Last winter, my uncle was hospitalized for a minor health issue leaving my aunt to tend to the house alone and as bad luck would have it, during a large snowfall. Their neighbor (who happened to be black) took it upon himself to shovel their driveway and even carried groceries in for my aunt when he saw her struggling.

My uncle learned of this and was touched but confused. His neighbor’s actions were in direct conflict with my uncle’s belief system but an act of human kindness forced him to see what he did not see before – that his view of the world was distorted.

If you ever find yourself so certain that you are right about a particular belief or feel disdain for a person (or group of people), seek out experiences that challenge you to see things differently.

You just might need a new pair of glasses.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Females in Law Enforcement | The Good and the Bad

Back in 2006, Madeleine Albright gave a keynote speech to members of the WNBA in which she made the following declaration: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

When I first heard those words, I immediately thought them a bit harsh but now that I have 22 years of law enforcement experience, I have to come to understand the magnitude of the point that Albright was trying to convey.

When I started as a police cadet in my agency and as a sworn officer shortly thereafter, there were no female police officers that held a position of rank. During my tenure as an officer, my agency promoted its first female sergeant. Naturally, I was excited that my gender was represented in rank but I learned very quickly that she wasn’t as eager to be a mentor as I was to be her protégé.

This continued to be the theme with some of the other female officers in my agency. It started to become apparent to me that some women enjoyed being the sole female amongst their male colleagues and often found ways to keep other females down so as not to alter their proprietary position. It was sheer selfishness in basking in the role of the “only” female.

This is the group at whom I think Madeleine Albright was pointing when she delivered her now famous quotation.

As confusing as it was that females did not support other females, I understood some of the circumstances that perpetuated that mindset. For some, it stemmed from a place of scarcity versus abundance. Many agencies were forced into “furthering the interests of women” by forward thinking city government who felt pressured to promote a female or a minority or allow them into a specialized unit. This feeling of scarcity created a competition among women given that there weren’t many positions available to them.

Whatever the reason, it is intolerable to fail to provide support to someone who actively seeks it or to sabotage the efforts of progression out of self-interest. Despite my lack of female mentors, I was fortunate enough to find wonderful male mentors who supported me through my ascension in rank and who continue to mentor me to this day.

I was also fortunate to have stumbled across the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) during an internet search. It was at my first NAWLEE conference as a brand new sergeant that I realized that there were more women willing to help one another than those who were not. Through NAWLEE, I developed a network of successful women who offered emotional support as well as support through the technical aspects of my job.

I attribute my success to those who forged the path ahead of me and guided me. The only way I know how to pay those people back is to pay it forward and to help others who have high aspirations. It is very fitting that I serve NAWLEE in the way it has served me in my career.

No matter what your rank or position, you have an opportunity (and an obligation) to help the people around you succeed. And that should not be limited to your own gender or social group. The cream rises to the top. Period. Good leaders see things in others that they don't necessary see in themselves. If you care deeply about your chosen profession, you should be cultivating future leaders who will carry the torch and further the mission.

After all, what is a life worth if it is not spent helping others?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Communication vs. Notification

Think of the last time you said, “Because I said so!”

If you are a parent, chances are it wasn’t that long ago. When I tell my kids’ “no”, it is because I have the wisdom and life experience to know what puts them in harm’s way and what would not be beneficial to their well-being. But sometimes I just don’t feel like explaining all the life lessons and it’s easier to say “no” followed by “because I said so” when they ask “why?”.

This leaves them angry and confused and I soon remember that it is my job to take the time to explain my reasoning. When they were little and put their fingers near the flame of a candle, an emphatic “NO” was the correct response. Now that they have developed cognitive reasoning skills, I know they will better accept my decision (even if they don’t like it) when they understand it.

One of my co-workers and I were having a spirited but respectful discussion about following a supervisor’s orders within the police department. During our exchange, I advised my colleague that we should explain the reasons behind our directives. He asked simply, “Should we have to?” I thought momentarily and answered with an insistent, “YES!”

Whenever possible, those who make rules or policies that they expect others to follow should take the time to explain their reasons. The only exception is when it is an emergency situation and there is no time to question – only time for action. It is no different than keeping a child from burning themself.

In policing, I would not want an officer questioning a commanding officer in the field in the middle of a serious incident. There is a time and a place to question operational decisions and during the operation is not the time. However, the majority of the time, we are not operating in an emergency mode. Rather, we are writing policies and enforcing rules and directives as a result of non-emergency situations that arise.

My philosophy is that wherever and whenever possible, anyone who implements a directive should explain why it is being enacted. I think we have a tendency to fall back on our formal authority or titles when telling someone to do something. When people reach the level of decision maker in their organization, it is far easier to put out a memo or directive that barks the order. It takes more time and energy to provide the transparent thought process behind the rule. Truth be told, it sometimes becomes exhausting to do the latter.

I fielded a complaint several years ago against a patrol officer whom I supervised. A mother said her son was pulled over on a traffic stop so she drove to the location and began to approach the officer to give him her son’s proof of insurance. The officer immediately yelled at her to get back in her car and would not listen to her explanation. Her complaint was that the officer was rude.

When I explained to her that traffic stops are the most dangerous encounters for police officers and he perceived her as a threat to his safety as she approached him from behind, it was as though a light bulb went off in her head. She understood that her charging in his direction was reason for him to raise his voice to her.

That officer was not wrong in barking the order because he perceived her as a threat. However, after the stop had concluded, the officer could have followed up with the mother and explained his actions. Had he taken the time to do so, she would not have filed the complaint.

It takes a lot more time and energy to explain the rationale for your decisions. But I have found that people are generally reasonable if you use communication instead of notification.