Professional Practices in Law Enforcement

Some years ago my sister and I were watching TV in a hotel room in Southampton, England when the phone rang. It was the front desk clerk, saying there was a problem with our car. My sister, who did all the driving during our trip, got the keys to our rented Volkswagen and went down to the lobby.

The minutes ticked by–half an hour, and still no sign of her. What could be taking so long? Finally she reappeared, looking somewhat shaken.

“I had to talk to the police,” she gasped. “They thought we were murderers.” And then she told me that the cute police officer we’d asked for directions earlier that day had remembered an all-points bulletin for two American women in a Volkswagen who were suspects in a murder case.

Luckily my sister’s passport proved that we’d been in France when the murder happened. We soon forgot about our brief careers as murder suspects and spent three weeks enjoying British history and culture.

I’ve often wondered, though, what happened to that young officer who’d been so charming when we asked for directions–all the while taking note of our hotel and making plans to have our whereabouts checked. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the head of a British police agency by now. Or maybe has a responsible position at Scotland Yard.

That young officer exemplified three important principles of professional law enforcement: Stay current, be sharp, and know what to do.

1. Stay current.

It’s all too easy for an officer to slide into the nothing-big-ever-happens-around-here mindset. Some officers get out of the habit of checking postings of APBs (all-point bulletins) and BOLOs (“be on the lookout for”). Officers who don’t read newspapers (“I’m too busy/too tired”) can miss out on important unfolding stories–and the opportunity to be there when there’s a break in a case.

2. Be sharp.

That young officer made a mental note of where we were staying and remembered to pass on that information to his agency. Sounds simple – but the skills he used (knowing his town, giving accurate directions, remembering significant details) don’t come naturally. Officers need to have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and maintaining that mental database takes practice. Here are some ordinary things every officer should know:

  • local geography and directions: north, south, east, west
  • the length of your normal stride
  • how to work your cell phone camera
  • important phone numbers

3. Know what to do.

That English officer didn’t swagger, pull us over, and demand to know where we’d been 10 days earlier, when the murder took place. He resisted the temptation to impress us with his authority and insider police knowledge. Instead he followed his agency’s procedures and turned in the information for follow up.

By contrast, I’ve heard tales of officers who intruded on and embarrassed people who’d done nothing wrong–and refused to give even a hint of what was going on (“I’m the one asking the questions here, not you”). A friend of mine walking his dog with his wife and son was brusquely questioned by a local officer. Later my friend learned that police had been investigating a report about an intruder in the neighborhood. Do intruders stroll with their families?

Effective officers see themselves as a) professionals b) part of a team and c) part of a community. That young English officer exemplified all three qualities. He was polite, he trusted his agency to follow up, and he was an effective representative of his agency.

A routine encounter in a busy shift is easily forgotten. I would be surprised if that officer still remembers the sunny afternoon when he thought he’d cracked a murder case. But my sister and I continue to think about that incident (which has enlivened countless dinner parties – the night we were almost…).

That officer may not have solved a murder, but he left two American women with a positive impression of how law enforcement is done in Southampton. That’s a significant accomplishment for a routine shift on an ordinary day in England.

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