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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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Why You Should Talk to the Bad Guys

You can learn a lot by sitting down and having a conversation with the people you arrest.

April 19, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo by Kelly Bracken.
Photo by Kelly Bracken.

When Japan wanted to improve its military competence a few generations back, it dropped France as its consultant and went with Germany. Whatever long term success this mustered for Japan is subject to debate, but the fact remains that France went on to enjoy the distinction as being regarded the Susan Lucci of the military arena (although Cracked would have you believe otherwise:

So when it comes to having some say on getting one's ass kicked both on the field and in the geopolitical arena, it should enjoy some credibility. And the fact remains that America might have been better served if it'd listened to France when it warned America against going into Vietnam and later against invading Iraq.

 But as Max Paul Friedman, author of "Rethinking Anti-Americanism", notes, our unwillingness to listen to advice because we don't trust the motivations behind it can be at our own peril.

Cops come in contact with a variety of human beings and with them an even greater variety of back stories and credibility issues. Within the context of a detention or call-initiated contact, it is reasonably prudent for officers to continually evaluate the credibility and agendas of these people. Such prudence has allowed many an officer to finish his or her shift safely.

But it is also true that, sooner or later, people have a wonderful capacity to do something wholly unexpected of them. Storytellers exploit such turns for dramatic effect such as when "bad guy" Merle does the right thing and gets killed for it on "The Walking Dead" or when "straight arrow" Henry Fonda takes the money and runs at the end of "There Was a Crooked Man."

Real life affords us examples, as well, and so it is that one day you may find people you have arrested that you know are guilty in a contrite mood and confessional spirit. The catalyst for this change in demeanor may be the death of a mother or some unforeseen misadventure for which they hold themselves responsible. In any event, they will be uncharacteristically candid and in the mood to talk about everything and anything under the sun, even to you.

What will you do on that day? Will you arbitrarily dismiss this person with a reciprocating hostility for all the times he fought you physically or verbally? Or will you take the time to essay the father confessor role and listen to what he has to say? Might you even encourage and escalate the dialogue?

If your answer is "no," then I won't get pious on the matter. Being sullen and resentful by nature, I can't say I always maximized such opportunities. And I believe I may have deprived myself of a great opportunity each time I clammed up and indulged myself a smile instead of an empathetic glance. I also reflect on those other occasions when I was operating at full capacity and took the time to listen to their stories and gained peculiar insights into worlds previously foreign to me.

Of these subcultures that operated by their own rules, codes, and protocols, the most intriguing to me were the heroin addicts. In part, this was because we had so damn many hypes in my Temple Station jurisdiction when I was on the job.

But there were a couple of other factors at play, too. For one, their brains weren't as fried as meth heads, and their paranoia was more transitory, inclined to dissipate when the gig was up and they were in custody.

Also, that same sensitivity that would work against me elsewhere played to my advantage here, allowing me a degree of empathy for these pathetic souls and so long as they hadn't sufficiently alienated themselves from my marginal affections, it was in my nature to talk with them.

To be honest, I not only better understood their psyche but felt a genuine compassion for them. Unlike the desire for some elevated sensory perception common among stimulant abusers, heroin addicts always wanted to diminish reality, to somehow dull the omnipresent physical or psychic pains that plagued them. Generally scornful of violence, they gravitated towards property crimes to support their habits. If they were better liars in some areas, it was only because their frequent contacts with cops obliged them to be. If they were more creative in their hiding places, it was because their contemplative natures allowed them to be.

Now much of whatever I gleaned from hypes took place in environs far away from the usual adversarial setting. In jail cells or interview rooms and away from the high stakes game of evasion that they'd play in the field, they found it easier to talk. Little facilitators such as a timely cigarette or soda could work big miracles. 

But invariably, I found them to be at least more forthright as to how they acquired their vices, and how they supported them. They also tended to be more candid as to their modus operandi, whether it be in how they shuttled about their own supplies, or how they used booster bags to engineer their thefts. True, their generally weak natures made them susceptible to selling out anyone, but again this proved more often than not to my benefit. And of all the dopers they were most apt to do a reverse buy bust, if it meant their somehow getting back on the street again.

Among drug abusers, there has always been an "anything goes" demographic that's up for uppers, downers, speedballs, what have you. But back in the day, there was generally a clear dividing line among tastes, and I found personality types tended to drift towards different addictions.  

I don't know if this holds true today. Between today's designer drugs, transitory night clubs and raves, and my retirement, I really have no idea what addicts and abusers are gravitating to these days, or why. Not sure I want to know, either. But if I was working patrol or was a university cop, I think I'd put a priority on knowing this information and would try to strike up an opportune conversation now and then.

Of course, some eggs are harder to crack than others. With gang members, for example, the longer their tenure and the higher their standing, the more difficult it is to get them to roll over on anything. Still, most of the gang investigators I knew went out of their way to develop as much of a rapport with gang members as possible; failing that, with their girlfriends and mothers. 

I could go on about the different types of criminals, for example, white collar crooks exhibited the broadest spectrum of human emotions, running from guilt-ridden effluviums of info to the tight-lipped, all-too-aware-of-his-ill-deserved-rights perp.  

My point is that it makes sense to try and pick the minds of the people that we find ourselves routinely dealing with. It's the kind of thing that make forensic psychologists and FBI profilers thrive.

It won't always be easy. I always wondered how it was that some sex crimes investigators were able to win the confidence of those they were investigating. I suppose more than a few could have taught Olivier a thing or two about acting. 

Indeed, as I type these words I am left to wonder how the men and women who may be dealing with the suspect taken into custody for Monday's Boston Marathon bombing will approach his interrogations. What will they make of him? What manner of intel might they acquire? Might they actually find themselves in some manner able to save lives in the future? I certainly hope so. And while I do not envy them their task in speaking with such a man, I respect their ability to do so.  

A cornerstone belief of our profession is that it is in our best interests to learn from than those who have "been there and done that," particularly as it relates to officer safety matters. This is why so many of us gravitate to officer survival seminars, and listen to people like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

But I wish that I saw more cops being active listeners to those that have historically been a bane to them. True, there is something discomforting in hearing a convicted cop killer say, "He got careless, so I wasted him." But how often can a mere six words leave such an indelible imprint on our mind and help get us through our shifts? And when we see someone whose path eerily evokes that of another that we have dealt with, might we not have greater chance in getting them off that path than we might otherwise?

I am not suggesting that you join a hand-holding campaign or try to build bridges as some Israelis and Palestinians are attempting with the Compassionate Listening Project. Rather, I am suggesting that you think twice about ignoring possible sources merely because they come from the other side of the fence.  

Talking to the bad guys will make you better at what you do. Consider that shortly after the establishment of their sovereign state, Israeli leaders studied German commandos and their tactics in designing their own Israeli Defense Force and special forces units. In doing so, they exploited the legacy of a regime that had been hell-bent toward their genocide. And that must have been extremely difficult to do. But the dividends of this initiative have figured significantly in the Israelis having prevented their extermination for generations onward.

And so I ask: Who will you listen to today? And what will you hear?  

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Mark Tarte @ 4/22/2013 4:54 PM

Dean, another well written and thoughtful column. Talking to bad guys when they weren't being bad was always an education, but like you, I didn't always take advantage of it when they wanted to talk, much to my professional regret.

DaveS55 @ 4/23/2013 1:33 AM

Excellent advice one again (listening and Learning). I wanted to share this from a native friend: Old vs. Young: The Battle That Shouldn't Be They have chosen a path to constantly improve, not just for their sake, but so that they may be more effective in strengthening their people. We are all young for a time – but becoming a warrior is a path we choose to follow and is done with purpose, on purpose. They are quick to provide insight, new tools, fresh ways of thinking, a helping hand and motivation to those who need it. They also learn the traditions and history that make us who we are. They have chosen a path to constantly improve, not just for their sake, but so that they may be more effective in strengthening their people. We are all young for a time – but becoming a warrior is a path we choose to follow and is done with purpose, on purpose. That being said, here is a humble plea to both the older and younger generations to keep the peace on the road ahead: To older folks: please don’t use your age and position to control, condemn, lecture, bully or minimize the younger generations. Regardless of your years on this earth, your experience, wisdom and understanding of how life and the world works, please don’t use these strengths to marginalize others. To younger folks: please don’t use your age and position to control, condemn, lecture, bully or minimize the older generations. Regardless of your youth, your prestigious education, passion to change the world, know-how of new tools and technologies, please don’t use these strengths to marginalize others. Shoving our “good ideas” down other people’s throats, or brow-beating them into submission, not only violates a respectful exchange but also creates animosity for those doing it. The key to open, healthy communication is for us to be willing to consider knowledge and ideas from others with respect and openness – and to offer our own ideas with grace and humility.

john m wills @ 4/23/2013 4:57 AM

Good article. I did that--at first our to curiousity--later, after I understood the value.

gunner @ 4/24/2013 7:10 PM

Outstanding article!
Working Uniformed Courthouse Security for the last 4 years I have employed my own method of up close and personal. When we have Court regardless of the case, criminal or civil I always try to have conversations with friends or families involved with the parties in the Court action for two reasons. 1. What the moods are and 2. Are there weapons? Being a small County we do not have the funds to run metal detectors very often so it is up to us to do our own detecting.
On Court Service Day, Traffic or days we have Indictable and Serious Misdemeanor Court I try to walk around and small talk folks sitting or milling around for reasons cited above. It is remarkable after 4 years how most people, not the cream of society will freely talk to me and sometime use me as a sounding board about their problems and especially names surrounding incidents that cause them to be there. One little thing I do during times when I don't have the usual frequent flyers and the mood is questionable among the contestants waiting for Court is to find a little child ( they always seem to bring them with ) and give them a "Sheriffs" sticker or some other trinket then watch the reactions of the folks around. If they are not smiling I watch them real close, most bad guys/girls still love little ones, most aren't that far removed from being a child themselves. Folks I no longer patrol the streets and have not for a long time but do know having the ability to have Bovine Scatology with people in life having a different view of right and wrong can and will reap huge rewards for you. You don't have to be a buddy, pal or friend but someone they feel comfortable to talk to, it is amazing what you can learn.
Semper Fi, Stay Safe!

richard valdemar @ 4/25/2013 11:45 AM

Excellent points Dean, this ability to communicate with criminal gang members is what makes the difference between the mediocre and outstanding gang investigator. We must glimpse into the mind of our advisories in order to effectively combat them. Great article!

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