Thursday, May 31, 2007

Message for the graduates

The graduation ceremony for 10 new Lincoln police officers was held last night. For the past several years, I have had a personal talk with all the new officers about what's important in police work. I want them to hear it directly from me. I also give them this missive in writing. It's long, but I thought people who read this blog might be interested in the chief's wisdom, such as it is.

Congratulations. You are about to embark on an incredibly rewarding journey, an adventure and opportunity that very few people will have in their lifetimes. And you have a lot to be proud of. You were hired as one of 20 from among the 789 people who applied to be Lincoln police officers during 2006.

The next few months are going to be difficult, but we are convinced that you can succeed in field training just as you have in the academy. We would not be wasting our time if we felt otherwise. During the coming months you will be rotated among training officers working different shifts and areas. We will be evaluating your performance every day. You are going to be adapting to new experiences and some of the most difficult interpersonal and social problems imaginable. Despite the stress, you will look back upon this time fondly, so remember that you are having fun and doing justice. I want to give you some advice as a gift for graduation, a list of nine behaviors that will help you. Tonight, I will tell you about the tenth.

Focus on quality

This job is about quality much more than quantity—and sometimes the two do not go hand in hand. A handful of warnings and a couple officials for red light violations at an intersection with an accident problem are worth a lot more than a boatload of seven-over speeding tickets on Homestead Expressway. Recovering a stolen bike a few blocks away is good work. Getting an admission from a guy who’s been stalking his ex-wife is good work. Tracking down the person who bought the beer for the minors at the party is good work. And an artful interview of a suspect leading to a multiple clearance is good work—not handling more dispatches than anyone else on the squad. If the only fun in this job is driving fast, running on hot calls, and leaving the details behind in your wake, deliver Pizza. Otherwise, keep your focus on quality. Do not confuse doing more than your peers with being a better police officer.

Abiding by your oath

Every now and then, we all get a little frustrated. When that December mist starts to freeze, the wet pavement turns to ice suddenly in the late afternoon when the temperature falls a couple more degrees. Suddenly, people are crashing like mad at places like Interstate 180, the Harris Overpass, and 27th Street between Fair and Theresa. The elevated roadways get it first, but before long its everywhere, and the dispatcher is holding a screen full of accidents while you work your fourth of the day, only two hours into your shift. Just remember that it’s not that citizen’s fourth of the day, it’s her first—maybe the first in her life. And, yes, she pays your salary. Her accident is not an interruption to your day, it’s the purpose of your work. People are depending on us to treat them with dignity and respect, even when we are tired, angry, and overwhelmed. We all know that we aren’t paid enough—it is impossible to pay anyone enough to do this job—but we accepted this calling and swore this oath, and we need to remember our commitment.

Maintaining your ethics

Police officers confront difficult ethical decisions regularly. There are many temptations and frustrations as well. These will be a test of your character and your personal ethics. In many situations, you can cut corners, violate principals, do things that are illegal or violate department policy and nobody will know but you. At these moments, you will learn a lot about your character. Even the very best people do bad things from time to time. Remember the pit in your stomach when you came in for your polygraph appointment? But what defines your character is the pattern of your behavior and decision-making. We would not have hired you if we thought you were not a person of good character. Your challenge is to continue to meet that expectation. I have already given you this advice, but I want to reiterate this. I think it will help you to think about your Mom and Dad. What would your parents think if they were at your shoulder watching and listening? When they read about your actions in the paper, how will they feel? Get that image in your head. Remember that everything you do on duty and in uniform reflects on your coworkers, and on every other police officer in the United States.

Balance in your life

Work is only part of your life. Thinking and talking incessantly about your exploits at work is not only unhealthy to your psychological well-being, it will drive people away from you eventually. This does not mean that you should not be proud of your career, or should not tell others about your work, so long as you are not jeopardizing confidences. It is simply about balance—something police officers have a particular need to cultivate in their personal lives. When you find yourself talking to your friends in radio code, and answering your phone with “go ahead,” it’s time to think about balance. Seek relationships with a variety of friends, not just your coworkers, and find hobbies and activities that do not all involve paint balls, reloading, and night vision equipment. Healthy relationships with people you love, a spiritual life, and physical fitness are very important and all require effort to maintain. There are some things about police work that make all of these slightly more difficult to sustain, but certainly not impossible, and there are plenty of examples around here of people who have done so for decades.

Respect your predecessors

Your supervisors all did exactly the police work that you are doing. The difference is that they have done it longer, more consistently, and better than most. Well enough to rise to the top in an incredibly competitive pool of excellent police officers. It’s been thirty seven years since a Lincoln police officer carrying a five-shot revolver was shot by an escaped convict in a stolen car on O Street. Your supervisors faced and continue to face the same risks you face—in some ways under even more difficult circumstances. Officers thirty seven years ago did this work in much more difficult circumstances—without portable radios, without mobile data computers, without NCIC, without body armor, without training, with a 30% annual turnover rate, and when the department was even more understaffed. The number of officers killed in the United States has fallen like a rock since the 1970’s. In a 14-month period in the late 1960s, three Lincoln police officers were killed in the line of duty—at a time when the department was less than half its present size. Imagine what that was like. Your sergeant, captain, assistant chief and chief have been second-guessed, spit on, and sworn at just like you will be. They have endured intense, unjustified public criticism at times—the likes of which we have not seen here in over a decade. They have been subjected to discipline for not wearing their hats. And they formed the union that represents you and helps protect you from a few of their common experiences: like carrying a non-functioning war surplus .38 revolver, buying their own uniforms, mandatory unpaid overtime, split days off, forced contributions to the chief’s favorite charity, a work schedule with two or three shifts during the same week. They deserve your respect. Hundreds upon hundreds of Lincoln police officers who passed before you and served with distinction are depending upon you to uphold the honor of this department.

Don't be a report-taker

We expect you to investigate crimes and to solve problems, not just take reports. If our job was to take reports, we would hire the type of work crew that telemarketers employ. We expect you to do quality interviews, get detailed descriptions, check every combination of the partial license plate numbers, cruise the neighborhood looking for the car with matching damage, check the pawn records, interview the residents next door, track down the suspect, look in the dumpster down the block. And we expect you to document your work with concise, thorough, well-written reports. Nobody expects you to spend the rest of your career following-up on a vandalism to a porch light, but it is flat unacceptable to make a broadcast for a known suspect with a local address, and then forget about the case until someone else does your job. Decent follow-up on serious incidents like missing persons, burglaries, sexual assaults, and protection order violations is mandatory. And we expect it on runaways, hit and runs, larcenies from autos, gas drive-offs and more minor incidents as time and resources allow. If you don’t like working cases from beginning to end, and would prefer to be a report-taker who hands over anything more complex than on on-view misdemeanor to a detective, there are hundreds of departments in the United States that still follow this practice, and they are looking for bright, well-educated, highly trained recruits like you. Given your abilities, I can be reasonably certain you will soon be disenchanted, grumbling that the detectives are getting all the rewards, having all the fun, doing the “real” police work, and that you are being oppressed by management which fails to recognize your capability or trust you with anything more serious than a bar fight.

Learn from your mistakes

Beginning tomorrow, you are going to make many mistakes. We are more prepared for these than you are. You are used to success and achievement, and it can be daunting to be confronted with a misstep, and poor performance, a bad daily observation report. You have to put these behind you quickly, and to learn from the mistakes. When you obsess about your errors and poor performances, this usually compounds the problem. Field training officers even have a word to describe this process: snowballing. Devote your best efforts to learning from these mistakes, avoiding repeatedly committing the same errors, and getting consistently better. As long as we see improvement over time and honest effort, we are stuck to you like glue. It is our job to help you become successful, not to weed you out, and that’s where our focus will be. Mistakes and errors will occur throughout your career. The quickest way to avoid any trouble in police work is to do nothing. You can avoid work and avoid conflict. If you put your mind to it, you can never get assaulted, never have a complaint lodged, never lose a case in court, and never have a traffic accident. Some officers are able to make a career of ducking calls, blowing off follow-up, and avoiding arrests. To avoid confrontation is to allow evildoers to victimize the citizens who depend on you for protection and safety. It is in the nature of good police work that conflict must inevitably be encountered and overcome. Accidents will happen and mistakes will be made. Nobody expects perfection, but no one tolerates intentional or repeated malfeasance. The difference is pretty obvious. Honest mistakes and poor judgments are tolerated pretty well around here and usually met with mild reproof. This is difficult and stressful work, and we are all imperfect. We expect you to feel bad when you have messed up, made a rotten decision, or acted boorishly. Unless it becomes a habit, or it is so corrupt as to be intolerable, you can expect to suffer the consequences and move on without the discipline becoming the Scarlet Letter for the next 20 years.

Concentrate on personal communication

The primary reason we rotate new officers to several field training officers is to expose you to different personal styles of policing. We are hoping that you will find models of interaction that fit with your personality, disposition, and skills. There are different ways to accomplish the same tasks, and we want you to see alternatives. We are not trying to produce officers in the same mold. The most successful officers on this department, however, seem to have a common thread. They cultivate strong personal relationships. They talk to people of all stations in life well. They are not officious or overbearing. They empathize with victims, and build trust with suspects. This personal approach is an incredible asset. It helps you do better interviews, get admissions, cultivate information sources. If you make a concerted effort to meet and talk to people every day, it will pay big dividends. Stop in businesses, introduce yourself at the schools on your beat, pull over and chat with people working in their yard. When you arrest someone, talk with them. Always introduce yourself, leave your business card whenever possible. I talk to people regularly who ask me if I can say hello to Al Maxey, want to know how Joe Buda is doing, where Rollie Weisser is now, or ask if I know Bill Fitl. These officers have been gone for decades, but they left an impression on thousands and thousands of people. Your first name is not “officer.” It makes a tremendous difference when people look past your name plate and realize that you are a real human being. One of the best cops I have ever known, Paul Jacobson, gave me some great advice when I was 21 and he was 49. Jake was so good at building rapport that he could get a tree to confess to issuing a bad check. “Casady,” he said, “you should get rid of those mirrored sunglasses; people can’t see your eyes.”

Discover if you have the passion for policing

Police work is the most stressful occupation extant. The psychological toll of this job can be extreme. Police officers must deal with the very worst human beings can dish up to one another and the good people on their worst days. Shift work is tough. It stresses personal relationships, and fouls up the natural human rest and work rhythms. The workload can be great, and expectations high—some errors have serious consequences, and lots of second guessing goes with the territory. The intellectual component of this job is underestimated by almost everyone, and your brain will hurt. But despite all of this, it is an unparalleled gift to have a calling in life that provides the opportunity every day to do something socially significant. You will have accomplished great things in a year that most people won’t be able to claim in their entire life. And it’s fun. But it’s not for everyone, and if the passion isn’t there, it does not mean that you are a failure. It is normal to experience periods of doubt. We all have bad days, weeks, even months. But if you have sustained negative feelings about work over a long period of time, you need to think about your future. Seek some professional help from the employee assistance program, and don’t make a rash decision. But do not waste the best years of your life doing work that makes you feel bad rather than giving you a sense of reward. Take the training and experience you have received here as a valuable asset and find your calling wherever it may lie without any acrimony or regret. Do not let this work damage irreparably your family, your mental health, or your physical well-being.

I hope you save this letter somewhere. You may need to pull it out on one of those bad days. You might want to push it across the table someday to remind me what I told you was important. I hope that thirty-five years from now, we run into each other at the retirees’ annual get-together (I’ll be 88), and you hand it back to me with a sly smile.

Best wishes for a great career.

Thomas K. Casady
Chief of Police

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Off to a good start

After yesterday's arrest of four teenagers allegedly burglarizing Lincoln High School, I am sure that many people are shaking their head that one of the defendants, Ricky Turco has again been arrested. Acknowledging the fact the Mr. Turco is innocent until proven guilty, I still think this is a matter which demands some comment.

Mr. Turco has been no stranger to the Lincoln police department. Since turning 16 in 2005, we have either arrested or cited him on 21 occasions, resulting in a total of 38 counts or charges. Of these, prosecution was declined in two cases, three were transferred to juvenile court, 17 are pending, and he was found guilty or pleaded guilty in the remaining 16, resulting in fines totalling $935.

During the preceding weeks as Turco has become something of a public figure, I have been slightly surprised at the number people seem to be unfamiliar with the basic workings for the criminal justice system. The police have a great deal to do with how often he is arrested, but nothing at all to do with the setting of bond or with the sentences ultimately imposed when he is found guilty.

This whole affair has exposed to many more people something every police officer worldwide knows: a small number of people account for a large number of arrests. Police officers call these "regular customers", "frequent flyers", or simply "job security." To most people, the fact that an 18 year old has been arrested or cited by the police 21 times in less than two years for 38 counts including three felonies is shocking.

Seasoned police officers are beyond the shock. In our world, we would call this a good start.

Lest anyone conclude that I am a cynic, did you see the front page article in today's Lincoln Journal Star about Kelsey Neal, whose life was saved by Officer Rusty Lashley? If you can look at that photo of Kelsey holding her guitar, the accompanying photo of Rusty holding his AED, and read that story without getting a little misty-eyed, only then are you a cynic. I'm okay.

Monday, May 28, 2007

No simple solution

Last weeks tragic car-pedestrian collision that left a 5 year old Prescott Elementary School student in critical condition brought up an issue I have needed to explain frequently to parents or principals frustrated with the congestion, illegal parking, speeding, and similar problems as the school bell rings. It's not as simple as assigning a police officer to patrol around the school.

Some of the remarks in the local media after the collision were from citizens who thought it was that simple. They were disappointed that the police are not around the school to do more about bad driving and parking. I hear this repeatedly. The parent or principal is usually seeking some more police presence, and is not aware that this same set of issues is troublesome around all the high schools, all the middle schools, and all but a small fraction of the elementary schools in Lincoln.

To illustrate this post, I collected a little data from Friday, May 25, 2007. Since schools generally begin their day sometime between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., and dismiss sometime between 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., that was the time frame I was interested in exploring. This data which follows represents a typical weekday scenario for us.

First, I was interested in the total number of uniformed officers and sergeants on duty at the moment. These are the women and men who are ready to respond to dispatchers. The number of LPD officers on duty varies throughout the day. We staff shifts according to workload. The demand for police services peaks at times such as the morning and evening rush hours, lunch hour, and especially the time surrounding the bar closing hour. We also use staggered and overlapped shifts so we don't deplete all the officers at shift change times. In comparison to other police departments, a large percentage of our officers are deployed in uniform on the street, rather than in specialized units or plain clothes assignments.

On Friday at 8:00 a.m., there were 33 uniformed street police officers and sergeants on duty in Lincoln. At 3:00 p.m. there were 52. These officers, however, were not sitting around the station waiting for the bell the ring. Rather, they were busy responding to the expressed needs and wants of the citizens of Lincoln.

From 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. on Friday, we dispatched Lincoln police officers to 64 incidents. Between 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., officers responded to 93 incidents. This total of 157 incidents that needed police attention during the before and after school hours Friday included assaults, shoplifters, drunks, traffic collisions, alarms, disturbances, fights, child abuse cases, and so forth. Many of these incidents required more than one officer. While some were quick and simple, others were quite complicated and/or time consuming.

There are 54 public schools in Lincoln, and another 17 parochial K-12 schools, for a total of 71. That's not counting dozens of preschools.

Even if there had not been a single mental health crisis demanding police attention, no domestic involving a pregnant women and her boyfriend, no residential fire on Starr Street, no child abuse victim at the St. Elizabeth Hospital emergency room, and so forth--there would still not have been anywhere close to enough police officers to have someone in close proximity to each school in Lincoln.

In fact, there would not have been enough officers to have someone in proximity to any school in Lincoln, unless he or she happened to be near the school (or at the school) in connection with one of those 157 incidents. In reality, during many time periods throughout the week dispatchers are queueing incidents--keeping a computer-aided list of events to which they have nobody to send, and dishing the queued calls out to officers on a priority basis as somebody becomes available.

While we clearly need more police officers in Lincoln, increasing the size of the police force--even dramatically and at a huge cost--will not solve the traffic safety problems around schools. We've got to continue working on a broader range of solutions, because it's a pipe-dream to expect a police officer at every school dedicated to shooing the negligent parents out of the bus zone, snapping the speed of every lead-footed neighborhood resident, and making that minivan parked too close to the crosswalk move along.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Can you hear me now?

Wednesday's Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan exercise (TICP) underwent a thorough four hour review in the LPD Main Conference Room yesterday morning by the evaluators. I served as one of the peer evaluators, but the evaluation group was mainly composed of State and Federal officials from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I went through the evaluator training earlier, and Wednesday evening I was a trained observer watching and documenting what was occurring. It was an odd experience for me--I wanted to jump in the command structure, but couldn't.

The scenario for this exercise was a tornado strike in three locations, downtown, east Lincoln near Westfield Shopping Town/Gateway, and Highway 6 through Waverly. When you think about it, this is among the more likely critical incidents to occur in our area. The sky was dark and foreboding as the exercise began, with severe weather in the forecast.

The exercise, however, was primarily about communications: in the event of a large scale incident that outstripped the capabilities of Lincoln Fire & Rescue and the Lincoln Police Department, could be engage mutual support from other agencies effectively, and set up a functional communications and command structure? We ultimately involved the Public Works Department, StarTran, Lincoln Public Schools, all three hospitals, rural fire departments, utility companies, the Red Cross, Lancaster County Emergency Management, and all the other area law enforcement agencies.

From a technological standpoint, communication was smooth: everything worked, we had plenty of capacity, there were no problems in establishing effective radio talk paths and groups. Yes, a bus driver can really communicate with a fire fighter, if the situation requires. We learned a great deal from the problems that were experienced, and it will help us as we move forward. I am anxious for a follow-up exercise, which we may do quite quickly. We are thinking about a "table-top" for police and fire commanders in particular.

You always learn the most from the problems. These always surface in complex operations, and this is where issues can be identified for troubleshooting or improvement. The problems we encountered had nothing to do with the technological capabilities, and reinforced what I've always known: communications interoperability relies on preplanning, exercising, organizational abilities, entrepreneurial decision-making, and a variety of other factors primarily in the realm of organization, not radio technology. The technical part is the easy one, the real challenges are on the people side.

One of the interesting sidebars is that the real world intruded twice on the exercise. We had taken over a large number of talkgroups to use in the mock scenario, but we had to leave plenty for the firefighters, police officers, and deputies on duty for normal operations. About an hour into the scenario, I received a call from Capt. David Beggs--our real world duty commander. He briefed me on a critical incident, for which I activated our SWAT Team. The officers establishing the perimeter at this event (a high-risk search warrant) needed a tactical talkgroup that we were using in the exercise. At this point, all the law enforcement officers in the exercise were moved off the needed tactical talkgroup to another radio talkgroup. This happened effortlessly, and without confusion or interruption.

The real world weather also intruded: a severe storm warning caused us to close up shop a few minutes early--an appropriate end to a communications exercise centered around a tornado scenario.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Threshold alerts

Threshold alerts are automated emails that inform Lincoln police officers and commanders of crime trends or patterns that might otherwise be lost in the sheer volume of work we do. Threshold alerts merge our geographic crime analysis capabilities with the rich data resources provided by our own police database--the Lincoln Police Department's Records Management System.

With an average of about 400 events dispatched every day, it would be easy for an emerging trend or pattern to be missed. Enter Threshold Alerts. The queries are set up in advance, but after the initial set up, they are executed automatically with Windows Task Scheduler. The sky is the limit: if you can think of the question revolving around what, where, when, and how many, we can build a Threshold Alert. Every day, a group of more than 40 of these automated queries run during the early morning hours.

Threshold Alerts are a feature of one of our geographic crime analysis products, CrimeView from the Omega Group. We’ve had a long and productive working relationship with this firm since we first started using CrimeView in October, 2000. The most recent versions have included that ability to set up these automated queries that search for a certain number of incidents in a certain time period, occurring in a certain geographic area. The parameters of what, when, how many and where are defined by the user for each individual query.

As an example, Capt. Genelle Moore wants to know whenever there have been more than three commercial burglaries in the Northwest Team Area within the previous seven days. At 5:00 AM, the department’s geographic information system automatically runs a spatial query, and if that threshold number is met, Capt. Moore receives an automated email.
Attached to the email is a map of the offenses, and a tabular report (.pdf format, with hyperlinks) with the basic details. The case number is a link, and a click will take her to the complete case file—a splendid feature of our web-enabled and home-grown Records Management System.

Another Threshold Alert lets personnel know immediately if any high-risk sex offender appears in the department’s database with an address that is within 500 feet of a school. This automated notice alerts investigators to the potential violation of Lincoln’s residency restriction. Sgt. Michon Morrow receives a weekly threshold alert of repeat complaints at the same addresses about party disturbances in the Northwest Team Area; Officer Jeff Sorenson gets an alert whenever a new arrest warrant is issued for a resident of his beat; Capt. Brian Jackson is alerted to any narcotics cases during the preceding 24 hours, and so forth.

Getting information to officers quickly and making sense of the chaos of police work is a daunting task, but one at which the Lincoln Police Department excels. The quality of our primary police database and the partnership we have forged with the Omega Group, the supplier of our crime mapping software, has allowed us to do implement an interesting push technology that enhances the efficiency of our information systems.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Prevention wins every time

ACUDAT is an acronym we use for our version of COMPSTAT. It stands for Analyzing Crime Using Data About Trends. ACUDAT is a monthly meeting I host on the third Wednesdays at 7:00 PM in the LPD assembly room at headquarters. Any officer of any rank and any civilian employee is welcome to attend. It's optional, and open to all. Generally about 20 to 30 people are there.

The purpose of the meeting is to review our current crime trends, patterns, cases, and suspects. We are trying, once a month, to step back from the volume and from the daily drum beat of activity to take a look at a bigger picture: the entire city, the broader pattern, how we're doing, and the connections that might get lost otherwise in the sheer volume of what we do.

As of last night, I have held ACUDAT meetings for exactly 10 years. I'm not sure about everyone else, but for me it has been a valuable experience, that has led to lots and lots of learning and many fresh observations that would not have been made otherwise.

One of the outcomes of ACUDAT is action. This might be additional follow up on a case that we suddenly realize is related to other cases, or further work on a new suspect that has been identified. But as we've continued this process, our outcomes have increasingly involved creating or energizing preventative interventions. An excellent example follows, and one that constitutes absolutely outstanding police work by Capt. Kim Koluch's late shift officers on Lincoln's Southeast Police Team.

A common crime trend we examine is residential burglary. We've discovered that a large percentage of these burglaries occur through garages--many are through garage doors left open at night. Golf clubs, bicycles, and tools are common targets, as is beer in spare refrigerator, and the contents of cars parked inside. Last night, as we examined residential burglaries in the past two weeks, I noted that 8 were through open garage doors. That seemed low. Residential burglary is down about 7% so far this year, but the open garage door burglaries still seemed low. So I checked. Open garage burglaries are especially down this year: from 80 at this point in 2006, to 54 so far in 2007. That's a one-third reduction.

Here's why: The Southeast Team is most heavily hit. They are home to affluent neighborhoods with two and three car garages, expensive stuff, and spare fridges. The late shift Southeast Team officers have been working on a problem-oriented policing project in which they are using their uncommitted time to search subdivisions, find garage doors standing open, and wakie up the owners to let them know. It's a great project. When you hear our PIO talking about this on the 6:00 news, you've forgotten about it by the end of the newscast. If you read about it in the paper, the half-life of that knowledge is about 30 minutes. But when Officer Paul Aksamit is talking to you on the front stoop at 3:00 AM, it will cause you to double check the garage door before bedtime for the remainder of your life, and you will pass the habit on to the next six generations.

The Southeast Team had knocked on 101 doors as of midnight yesterday. The door-knocks, as the chart shows, are mostly in the very wee hours of the morning.

The map shows the locations where officers have made contact on open doors this year, and you can clearly see that the Southeast officers are really charging along on this. That area along the southern fringe corresponds quite well with the area normally hammered the hardest with garage burglaries.

I've had exactly zero complaints (not that I really care--if somebody doesn't realize how this is protecting them, I'd be happy to explain). The number of open garage burglaries in Southeast has fallen by more than half compared to the same time period in 2006. Congratulations on great police work to Paul Aksamit, Tony Ortiz, John Hudec, Tim Abele, Eric Runge, Chad Hein, Alan Grell, Jesse Hilger, Keith White, and their Sergeant, John Walsh, who has knocked on 16 doors himself!

There are few professional joys greater for police officers than catching an offender in the act. But it is far, far more effective to implement strategies like this that prevent crime than to engage in the endless chase of crook-catching efforts, inevitably leading to the occasional arrest of a chronic repeat offender who receives a plea bargain, house arrest, and intensive supervision probation, only to be caught driving suspended at 4:00 AM prowling residential neighborhoods a few weeks later.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not a fair fight

I stepped into the police academy class yesterday morning. Officer Chris Ehrhorn was teaching a great course he's developed on follow-up investigation. I was particularly interested in a discussion Chris had with the trainees about using the resources of coworkers to your advantage. He was talking about the wealth of skill, experience, and knowledge that individual officers bring to their job, and how accessing what your coworker might know can be incredibly helpful. Police work, though often done by a single officer alone, is in many respects a team endeavor, too.

A few times each year, I will deal with someone who is upset that after encountering a small team of officers during a resisted arrest. "Not a fair fight" is the theme. They are right. When it comes to crimes and arrests, we're not like a bowling league where everyone has a handicap to equalize the competition more even. We're more like the army: it is not our aim to fight fair or on equal terms with an adversary. We try mightily to get the odds decisively in our favor by whatever means are available--albeit within the rules of engagement established by the Constitution, laws, court precedents, and policies.

When a suspended driver bails from the traffic stop and flees on foot, we do not give him a half-block head start. If circumstances allow, we would actually consider it perfectly sporting to let the pursued wear himself out (nobody outruns radio waves) while we vector in more help, including somebody like Mark Fluitt, or the fleet-footed Kony.

Teamwork occurs on many different levels. During the police academy, I teach a course called "Information Resources" to our new police trainees. The object of the course is to acquaint the students with the resources available in our Records Management System and other data systems. After the classroom portion, the new recruits spend a half day working through a series of exercises designed to take them into many of the nooks and crannies of the LPD information stream. The primary purpose, though, is to teach them to practice two things:

1. Think creatively about how you might bring information to bear on a case or a problem.
2. Work collaboratively to solve problems: two heads are better than one.

That's how we do it in the real world. If I'm trying to find some information and I can't remember how, or don't know where to go, I get help from others. In a group of officers, somebody is more likely to have an idea. This is also true if I'm trying to conceive an interview strategy, think about a possible motive, identify a potential suspect, come up with a good solution, and so forth. Working independently is not nearly as effective as working collaboratively with others.

This shift in thinking isn't always easy to accomplish. Our police recruits are used to doing their own work in school. They've been taught not to plagiarize, not to look at anyone else's paper, to keep quiet during quizzes, and so forth. Now, I want them to do just the reverse--things that might be cheating in a college test. On this "test", I need them to talk with each other. Rather than everyone working every problem, divide the labor and share your answers. Get the answer any way you can. It takes a while for them to get the difference.

Practice helps, so a couple of times after the Information Resources class, I've popped into the classroom, asked them a question, and told them to find the best answer. Today, I relied on a couple of emails that other officers sent out department-wide over the weekend. One officer had recovered a blue Schwinn girls bike that had been abandoned. A second officer had recovered a Stihl chainsaw. Both were alerting other officers and looking for anyone who might have taken a report of a similar stolen item. I asked the recruits if they, too, had received the emails. They had. So I gave them this impromptu assignment:

Give me the most likely case numbers of the offenses that match these
found property descriptions.
It didn't take long before the designated messenger, Mark Kounovsky emailed the results to me. He provided the case number of a recent bicycle theft with a description that was very similar to the found bike, and not too far away. He had the case number of a recent burglary with a promising description of a Stihl chainsaw. The recruits were in other classes all day, so they must have worked on this during their short breaks. Here's what I really appreciated, though--not just the find, but the signature line:


We have the two original case numbers for the bike and chainsaw for
you. The chainsaw case number is A7-043428. We think the bike case number is

Academy Recruit Class

Everyone shares the credit. Ten heads are much, much better than one.

Monday, May 14, 2007

How many people have to die?

That’s how the letter, email, or phone call normally starts. The correspondent or caller goes on to tell me about people ignoring the no parking zones around the elementary school his child attends, or the unfathomable speeding on the street she lives on, or the incredible frequency with which drivers are ignoring the red light at the intersection he travels through.

Who is parking poorly around the elementary school at dismissal time, speeding like a demon in the residential neighborhood, and blowing through the red light a full two seconds after it changed?

You—or at least people just like you. Want to do something about aggressive driving? Start in your own driver’s seat.

Those lead-footed motorists blasting up:

Fletcher Ave.
S. Coddington Av.
Holmes Park Rd.
Touzlain Blvd.
Glynoaks Dr.
Beaver Creek Rd.
Sea Mountain Rd.
Tipperary Trail
Briarpark Dr.
Hazelwood Dr.
Fill in the blank_____________

are generally not intruders from Omaha. People from all over the city are not cutting through Blackstone Road to get to WalMart anymore. The speeders are, most often, your neighbors, their kids, and yes, even you. The same is true of the nincompoops who seem to think it’s their right to park anywhere they want to pick up junior after school so he doesn’t get shin splints walking six blocks, and also true of the latte-sipping, cell-phone dialing, lane-straddling drivers who seem to believe that a red light is a suggestion: ordinary people driving badly.

I don’t know what the solution is, but enforcement alone does not seem to stop it. If it did, the 105,643 official citations and warning citations for traffic violations issued last year by the Lincoln Police Department would seemingly have had a more dramatic effect. Think about that number, by the way. Pretty impressive for a city of 241,000 I’d say. Maybe enforcement helps hold it in check, though—I’d hate to see what it would be like if our enforcement effort was less vigorous.

Before anyone starts, rest assured not a dime of the fine goes to the police department or to the City of Lincoln. It goes to the school district, a requirement embedded in the State Constitution.

I had a call from the director of a major institution in our fair City a while back. He had spotted the very hardworking veteran Officer Dave Goehring running radar on Old Cheney Road. After Old Cheney was widened between Highway 2 and 70th Street, it instantly became a speedway. It is on Dave's beat, and I admire proactive police work. I had proudly noticed him running radar from time to time, snuggled back on Blackforest Road with an excellent view of the westbound flow. It would be a little too late for a 70 MPH driver to slow down before Dave had already measured the speed. The director-of-the-large-institution chided me because an officer was running a speed trap two or three times a week. I think it surprised him a little bit when I told him, “It’s our job to catch speeders, and I will not apologize for doing so effectively.”

One evening last week, I was headed home. I was on my cellphone (Bluetooth headset plugged in right ear, thank you) talking with Capt. Bob Wilhelm about some crises or another. Southbound on 9th Street, at about Washington, I glanced to my right to see the driver of a white pickup brushing his teeth. I reported this to Capt. Wilhelm. He advised me to roll up my passenger-side window in the event the man with great oral hygiene needed to expectorate.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The hidden cost of airport parking

There's a booth at the long term parking lot at the airport staffed by a single employee, around the clock. I handed her 9 dollars last week, and thought to myself that there was a good math problem involved in this that relates to police work.

How many people does it take to staff that little booth around the clock, 24/7/365?

Let's assume, for the sake of this problem, that parking booth attendants need a certificate requiring 19 weeks of classroom training, followed by about 6 months of field training--about 9 months total before they can ever make change on their own. The work of parking booth attendants is among the most demanding in our society. The shift work is destructive to personal relationships and the healthy sleeping, eating, and exercising habits. Paper cuts are a constant menace. The impact of mistaking a ten dollar bill for a twenty is huge--and there are always the accountants to triple check every little line on the register tape. Ever tried picking a dropped dime up off the floor in a booth the size of a glove box? The cumulative stress of dealing with people who insist "Can I have a receipt for that?" can turn a bright, idealistic, enthusiastic 22 year old into a jaded burned-out cynic at 24.

Since this is skilled professional work, parking attendants are mostly college graduates. If not, they generally have some kind of equivalent life experience or skill--prior career experiences, bilingual, military service, or such. Their work is filled with both physical and psychological risks and challenges requiring physical ability, mental acuity, great self-control, and a host of other personal and interpersonal skills.

It takes a pretty special kind of people to do this work well. So parking attendants must pass a battery of competitive tests of their intellectual capacity, psychological fitness, physical fitness, medical condition, polygraph examinations, drug screens, credit checks, reference checks, and background investigations. You can't be a parking lot attendant if you've ever been convicted of a felony, a crime of domestic violence, or if you have more than a few minor violations of the laws of the land--even if nobody knew about them but you and God prior to the background investigation. And if the polygraph exam shows that you have lied about anything during the many interviews, or been a regular user of racist language or one who harbors hateful attitudes, you won't be punching any tickets.

Finally, let's assume that it is critical that parking attendants receive regular on-going training on a variety of very important topics to maintain their skills and to adapt to the changing dynamics of the lot around them.

Now, to the math: There are 52 weeks in a year, 7 days in the week, 24 hours in the day. That's 8736 hours in year we'll need to cover. If our attendants work a 40 hour week, they'll each put in 2080 hours, so we'll need 8736 divided by 2080. That's 4.2 full time employees. Wrong. You forgot the following:

Vacation: Average, 100 hours per year
Holidays: 88 hours per year
Sick leave: Average ,58 hours per year
Mandatory training: 40 hours per year
Injury leave: Average, 8 hours per year
Compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay: Average, 40 hours per year
Military leave: Average, 6 hours per year

We're up to an average total per employee of 340 per year, which has to be subtracted from the 2080 hours that would constitute a year's worth of 40 hour work weeks. So, each employee will actually be in the booth for 1740 hours, and we've got to cover 8736 of those hours in a year. 8736 / 1740. There, we'll need 5.02 employees. Wrong again, there's more.

We have to overlap the shifts of the parking attendants a little bit. The off-going employee has got to check out her drawer and balance, the on-coming employee has got to check in, log himself onto the cash register, and scan the newly-posted corporate memos. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employees be compensated for such tasks, so we'll need to have a 15 minute overlap for each of the two employee switching out at three daily shift changes. That means we'll lose another 1.5 hours of time on each of 365 days, or 547.5 more hours--just a little less than a third of an employee.

The net result: We need 5.3 more full time police officers to put one additional patrol car on the street in this City of a quarter million, where we have an average of 40 uniformed officers and sergeants on the street at any given time. Between the City budget cycle, recruitment, selection, and training, it will be nearly two years from the day the addition is approved until the day we actually realize the increase.

A police officer costs roughly $70,000 a year in salary, benefits, and the pro-rated annual cost of such things as equipment, vehicles, mileage. Adding 5.3 officers necessary to staff one additional officer on the street at any given time, then, would add $371,000 annually to the City budget. Adding enough officers to put Lincoln at 1.5 officers per 1,000 citizens (our long standing goal, but still way below the average in our region, and in the nation) would require 44 additional officers at a cost of about $3,080,000 per year, and would result in about 8 more officers on duty at any given time.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Blue Monday

I had another topic planned for this week's first post, but good stuff interceded. There is sometimes a dearth of that in my job, so I'm just feeling compelled to share a couple events that made my day!

Monday afternoon around 1:30 P.M., a 13 year old girl with a heart defect woke up at Children's Hospital in Omaha, looked at her parents, and said "What happened?" Here's what happened:

Saturday night at home, she collapsed in her bedroom at her home in rural Lancaster County. Her heart was not beating properly, rather she was experiencing arrhythmia--a quivering of the heart muscle, during which blood is not being effectively pumped. Her parents began CPR and called 911.

While rescue units were responding, the dispatcher asked for any officer with an AED--an automated external defibrillator. Although the home wasn't in the City of Lincoln, and the Sheriff's Office does not have any AEDs, Lincoln Police Officer Rusty Lashley was on duty in the Southeast Team Area, near the southern edge of Lincoln. He is one of 10 LPD officers with an AED donated to the department by Lincoln's AED Consortium. Rusty responded, and arrived in three minutes. It took 1:26 from the time he turned on the AED until the device, charged, diagnosed fibrillation, and delivered a life-saving shock that restored the heartbeat.

Lincoln police officers will receive several life-saving awards this year in ceremonies we conduct four times annually. But Rusty's award was already pretty evident on his face when I talked to him yesterday afternoon, and it had nothing to do with a plaque.

Earlier in the afternoon, Mayor Coleen Seng presented a team of Lincoln Police Officers with the Mayor's Award of Excellence for the month of April. Sgt. Mike Bassett, Officer Megan Schreiner, and Officer Cassie Johnson received a nice plaque, a savings bond, and a day off with pay in recognition of the excellent work they've done in attacking prostitution in southwest Lincoln. I blogged about their work in a previous post, and it was great to see the Mayor recognize them.

They were nominated by Captain Bob Wilhelm, who also deserves a hand for clearing the path for this kind of good proactive police work. On the nomination form, you have to choose a category for the performance. Undercover prostitution operations don't really fit neatly into any of the categories. So, the award goes on the records in the category of "Productivity and Customer Relations." Yes, that's actually engraved on the plaque--a bit of that off-beat humor everyone at LPD appreciates.

Friday, May 4, 2007

We can do better

My mid-week blog post on the Lincoln Police Department's response to behavioral crises involving young children at elementary schools started a spirited discussion, with comments ranging from the ignorant to the eloquent. I'd like to close it with a few observations.

There are a fair number of Lincoln police officers who were teachers and even members of school boards. There are several school staff members, likewise, who wore our uniform. There are plenty of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and other family members whose professional lives take place in police cars and classrooms. We cope with the same kinds of social problems and dysfunctions every day, and it's a pretty common topic of discussion. Protest as you may, you know we can do better in coping with the high needs of a small number of children in our schools.

Most people in Lincoln are somewhat oblivious to this issue. They simply don't know what teachers, principals, administrators, and police officers know: we have an increasing number of little kids with serious behavior disorders, mental illnesses, and just plain conduct problems. Other people are more aware, but don't realize just how acute it can be at times.

It's not going away soon, and no amount of wistful pining for the 1950's will change that. Although some of these problems are clearly traceable to the complete absence of parental care and responsibility, others are not, and in many cases very loving and capable parents are trying to cope as best they can with a high-needs child for whom they desperately want the best opportunity.

Maybe we need more capacity at the special-needs facilities and programs already operated by our school district. Maybe we need better laws, policies, or guidelines. Maybe we need a small group of more highly-trained and experienced rapid responders for our rare but acute crises. Maybe we need more creative thought. I don't know, or pretend to know. It's incredibly easy to run someone else's business--poorly. I do know, however that we certainly need more parenting education, more teenage pregnancy prevention, more substance abuse treatment, more surrogate grandparents, more respite care, more home-visiting public health nurses, more Teammates, more Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Right now, it appears to me that we rely upon teachers and principals to control the most serious manifestations of these behaviors. They are very good, but sometimes they are overwhelmed by the severity and intensity of the behavior they are called upon to deal with. In these extreme cases they must rely on the coercive power of the police, and on the ability and willingness of the police (when necessary) to physically restrain, arrest, or take children away. As a City, School District, and society, we ought to do better.

I hope that funding priorities are not an impediment to finding a better way. Those are some pretty impressive athletic facilities, and I hope that garnering support for schools in Lincoln does not come at the expense of bending our priorities to fit what we perceive as the demands of our popular culture, rather than the most important needs of our educators and our students.

There are some teachers or staff members who have posted on this blog who are mad at this messenger who is questioning the response to behavioral crises involving little children.

I don't buy it.

This is an emotional response (to which they are entitled), but they, more than anyone, know that we can do better and that we should. They may call the police, but they cry when a mentally ill child, or a child with a behavior disorder, or a child with no impulse control, must be intimidated by the presence of a police officer--or worse. They cry. I know this with certainty. Even when they are frustrated, frightened, assaulted, and exhausted, their heart breaks. They know that what this child needs is a skilled counselor, or a clinical psychologist, or a psychiatric social worker, or a hospital bed, or a competent parent. Or love.

They do not need, at the age of 7, a police incident report, a citation, handcuffs, fear, and the Plexiglas-enclosed back seat of a police cruiser. Unfortunately, several times a year that's the best we can muster.

As Forrest Gump said, "That's all I have to say about that."

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

School violence strikes Lincoln

Monday, it took three officers to deal with a disturbance at a Lincoln Public School. The incident started in a classroom. The culprit was taken to the school office. Shortly after arrival, he became aggressive and physical. The suspect tried to escape by crawling through a window in the office. The principal and two other staff members tried to physically restrain him. When the first officer arrived, he put a bear hug on the struggling suspect and was head butted. It took a couple more officers to get things under control. In the end, three staff members and one police officer were assaulted.

Here's the surprising part (to you, that is, not to the police): it wasn't a 17 or 18 year old at a high school. It was a 9 year old elementary school student.

I did a quick search looking for police dispatches to Lincoln elementary schools so far in 2007 which contained the key phrase "out of control" in the first 80 characters of the remarks field that is keystroked by the 911 call-taker in the Communications Center. My search returned 37 cases. It would have been more, if I had been a little more creative with the search terms. Here are some typical excerpts (I spelled out a few abbreviations, though--call-takers have their own unique shorthand):

"1st grade student out of control causing property damage"
"2nd grader out of control throwing chairs"
"9 year old out of control and escalating, destroyed a room"
"5th grader assaulting staff right now"
"7 year old male being restrained by staff and parents"
"3rd grade female out of control kicking, hitting, screaming"
"8 year old out of control, being restrained"
"9 year old contained in room she has torn apart"

...and my favorite:

"7 year old refusing to come in from playground"

This probably speaks volumes about the emotional problems of children in our society and the difficulties teachers face. But it also illuminates an interesting phenomenon that impacts the police. What do we do when a nasty 2nd grader won't come in from the playground? Call the cops, of course.

I realize that a 9, 10, 11, or 12 year old can be quite a handful. I also realize that emergencies happen--that's one of the reasons we are here in the first place. I know that school personnel try other interventions before resorting to 911. But something seems wrong to me when the contingency plan for dealing with a child with Oppositional-Defiant Disorder ends with "call the police."

I have discussed this on several past occasions with administrators and principals--including meeting with all the principals as a group. "What," I asked, "would you have us do when we arrive at the scene of a 6 year old who has shinnied up a pole and is sitting on a wall refusing to come down? Use the OC spray, the Taser, or the nightstick?" (I don't make these things up). The responses during this discussion were interesting, and here's my summary.

1. "We call you because your presence will intimidate the little one into complying. "

2. "We don't have the training or the trained staff to grapple with misbehaving children."

3. "We call you because if we touch the child, the parents will be mad at us."

My response:

1. Therapeutically instilling fear of the police in a 6 year old is a fine idea. It will help us a lot by the time he's 15. (I'm trusting the readers of this blog to understand that I am being facetious: it will make him that much more difficult for us to deal with in the future.)

2. If you serve over 30,000 children, a small percentage of whom have serious behavior problems or disorders, I guess you ought to have the appropriate skills in your organization to do so effectively. Maybe an LPS behavioral "SWAT Team" of specially-trained staff would be good--like a van-load of social workers and a psychologist or two.

3. Thanks. We'd much rather mom and dad be mad at the police.

Actually, if you've called the police because you are worried that the parent who has already been summoned to the scene will fly off the handle when he or she arrives, just like the child has, I can understand that.

Some officers (and some citizens) think we should just stop responding to these calls involving little kids at school. I don't think that's a viable option. We don't know exactly what's going on, and the minute we tell the slightly-frantic secretary making the 911 call that we won't be coming, something Really Bad will happen. We all know whose fault that will be.

The job of teachers, para educators, and principals is tough. I think very highly of them. I do not envy them. I understand why they call the police in these circumstances: they have a significant problem, and it is an expedient that works--we will come, and we will do something. I have no easy solution. This isn't about the workload and I'm not complaining about the calls--we're here to deal with life's curve balls.

It just seems that there ought to be a better way of dealing with an out of control 2nd grader with a behavioral disorder than having a police officer bristling with handcuffs, pistol, chemical weapon, baton, Taser and body armor bring his or her arrest authority to the proceedings.