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The State of American Law Enforcement - Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?

The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

May 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Consider a hostage barricade situation and the multi-pronged response from law enforcement that such an incident can spawn.

First to arrive on the scene are patrol officers, maybe a K-9 unit or two, and possibly even a chopper to effect containment. Then comes the incident command officers, the hostage negotiators aided perhaps by a mental evaluation team, and the tactical unit. In the field, the tactical unit may receive intel gathered by investigators and the technical surveillance. And finally, once the whole mess is over, the detectives come in to gather evidence and interview witnesses.

OK, that's a simplification. I left out the PIOs who corral and engage the media, the internal affairs investigators who go to work should the bad guy get shot, and myriad other officers who swing into action when some whack job decides to shoot up the neighborhood and take his family hostage.

The point here is that nothing in contemporary police work is simple. And today, the generalist cop is quickly becoming a relic of the past.

For smaller agencies, one officer may don any number of these hats. But on larger agencies, establishing special units that possess critical expertise and experience has become a priority.

Welcome to the age of specialization in law enforcement.

Tim Jordan, a training sergeant with the Naperville (Ill.) Police Department, notes that specialization has helped his agency successfully prosecute cases.

"For us, the shift from generalist to specialist started around 1991—shortly after the arrival of our new chief (David Dial). Up to then, we had a generation of generalist cops, the kind of 'soup to nuts' cops who were jacks of all trades and had a good handle on case development. They might get a bad check case and go out, interview witnesses, victims, suspects, and develop info. They'd then go out and get warrants, and serve them, too. But invariably, the time spent doing such investigations came at the expense of other patrol functions—increased patrol presence, targeting local problem children. Since then, we've augmented our investigative division and let developed case investigators handle such crimes."

Identifying the Specialist

There is no shortage of inducements to work specialized units. Cool tools, flexible schedules, prestige, and the ability to work at something one is truly interested in are but a few of the perks.

Many agencies have discovered that developing specialists is less a case of identifying prospective players than just allowing people to gravitate where they're destined to be. Larger agencies with huge gene pools allow for conditions wherein the cream—absent the usual political mitigators—rises to the top. Historically, the would-be specialist exhibited an eye for a particular type of crime, a talent for getting suspects in custody, and an ability to get the job done.

But with so many people coveting such positions, getting the assignment may require the candidate to get an edge.

Beyond supplemental training and networking, Lt. Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sees two core components that will help people get to where they want to go in law enforcement.

"Finishing a bachelor's degree and learning a foreign language are huge considerations," Parker says. "Neither will necessarily help you get hired in the first place, but once you're on the job, they will open doors and heighten your prospects for promotion. Your knowledge base coming into law enforcement will accelerate your career path."

Parker's points are underscored when you examine where such factors are missing from a skill set such as in those instances where those making the decision may be looking for a means of thinning the herd. "Well, all things being equal, this other candidate has a degree, whereas you…"

This is particularly true in an era wherein specialized skill sets are increasingly coveted. In general, agencies are less concerned with the nature of the degree than the fact that an individual has acquired one.

The presumption that the college graduate is capable of multitasking and exhibits a certain amount of intellectual flexibility—ideally, both ideologically, and technically—is a powerful bias. It comes with the implicit belief that higher education requires persistence while providing ancillary benefits such as the acquisition of problem-solving skills. It is also widely believed that the educated officer is less likely to use force or to use a degree of force higher than that warranted for a given situation.

As law enforcement operates at a more multinational and multicultural level than ever before, specialization may include immersing oneself in extra-cultural research. Twenty years ago, you didn't have officers signing up for foreign language courses such as Arabic or Chinese, a reality today.

Specialized language skills can expose officers to varied assignments. Consider the benefits of language skills in my former agency, the LASD. Speaking Russian can get you on the fast track out of working custody and into West Hollywood Station. Vietnamese-speaking deputies are coveted at Temple Station. Different dialects of Chinese will find you being recruited to Walnut Station. Deputies may also find themselves getting more interagency exposure, such as when federal investigators flag a deputy to work a wiretap operation by virtue of his or her ability to converse in another tongue.

Moreover, in many ethnocentric enclaves, learning the language may be less a case of keeping the peace or ensuring that people get along. It can be a matter of life or death. More than one officer has been able to detect a threat by understanding a language that the bad guys thought he or she didn't understand.

Policing in the Information Age

Perhaps nowhere in law enforcement is specialization more readily and tangibly apparent than in the technological arena.

According to the 2003 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey, more than 80 percent of local law enforcement officers work for agencies that use some form of mobile digital terminal or computers in patrol cars. Mobile data systems allow officers to document arrests; capture photographs, videos, and audio tape recordings; and receive instant verification of vehicle and suspect identities in the field. This has paved the way for increased officer patrol time, improved conviction rates, and greater officer safety. All of this technological know-how and capability, however, does not come out of a box ready to use.

Considerable expertise is required to evaluate the electronic needs of a department, implement the necessary programs and databases, and train officers in their effective use. Even more specialized is the ability to analyze data and trends utilizing the numerous federal, state, and local crime databases currently available to law enforcement.

With the proliferation of computer crime and identity theft, police and sheriff's agencies must also be able to keep pace with a new breed of criminals: those who steal information and intellectual property rather than physical possessions.

Gutting the Patrol Ranks

So how does the creation of specialized units affect those stalwart officers who choose to remain on the front lines of law enforcement?

First of all, the generalist is not dead. He or she just needs to be flexible and versatile. Those who can readily adapt to their changing environment and who are willing to wear as many hats as are thrown at them will continue to thrive.

It's just that those who excel in any one area are likely to be plucked out of the general lineup to serve in the growing numbers of specialized units.

For example, whiz-bang computer skills have seen many a computer savvy officer's skills get exploited, first in correcting or designing some needed database, to eventually being appointed scheduling officer or computer guru.

However, the attraction of specialty work for veteran patrol officers may have a serious effect on the quality of patrol officers on the street.

Joseph F. King, associate professor in the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice, notes that specialization cleaves both ways, impacting both operationally and personally, in ways both favorable and not.

"Specialization in larger departments can be a good addition to patrol," notes King. "But these officers have to come from somewhere—usually patrol—leaving it under-manned, or where it ends up with a less favorable ratio of rookie officers to experienced officers."

In the sink or swim world of law enforcement, it may become a reality that more and more officers may work patrol for shorter and shorter periods of time. The quicker rotations out of patrol will ensure that less seasoned patrol officers remain on the street. Already, fully 20 percent of some agencies' sworn personnel have less than two years on the job.

Patrol officers also lament that personnel otherwise destined to work a particular shift are sent to training instead, often without backfill. Meanwhile, those who remain behind, but nonetheless covet the same investigative, strategic, logistical, or tactical knowledge, inadvertently are deprived of it.

Officers who spend an inordinate amount of time in training may become insulated from patrol and from one another, becoming barriers to the successful dissemination of information to where it can be of greatest use.

Hopefully, patrol officers will continue to receive supplemental training, such as first aid, force, and range training that they've historically been given. But the smart officer will find a particular niche that he or she is interested in and start working toward it.

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