Successful LEOs seek out knowledge. One way is to work with other units.Photo: Amaury Murgado
As a longtime law enforcement officer starting my 27th year, I have had plenty of time to reflect on what it takes to be successful. I have realized that being a LEO is a lot simpler than I imagined; but simple didn't make it easy. I have found there are three essential characteristics that are common to all outstanding LEOs: having curiosity, maintaining a sense of urgency, and having a thirst for knowledge. It's easy to remember the three if you use the acronym "CUT."
Curiosity is one of those essential characteristics for any LEO assignment. Curiosity means wondering about how things happen and why. It means questioning what you see, hear, and more importantly what people do.
For example, why is the suspect adamant about his side of the story and yet he can't look you in the eye while telling it? Maybe it means something or maybe it doesn't, but you'll never know for sure until you find out. Curiosity is the art of finding potential red flags and seeing if they lead anywhere. If you are not curious you will miss clues, hints, and suspicious coincidences.
Curiosity crosses over all levels of investigations. Think about the way a small child looks at the world. Toddlers are seeing things for the first time and trying to understand not only what they are seeing but why. This is a useful way for officers to view the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret." That's what we do…we unlock answers so we can bring secrets out into the open. Only an innate curiosity will bring important questions to the forefront. If they are never asked there will never be answers.
I remember early in my career my zone partner helped solve a murder simply by being curious. It was late at night and as we were leaving a check on the well-being of a citizen, he spotted a suspicious drop of something on the driveway that reflected off his flashlight. Someone else might have just ignored it. It could have been a drop of oil or anything car-related and nothing more. However, upon closer examination it looked like a drop of dried blood.
That one clue led us to ask more questions, to conduct an area canvass of the neighborhood, and then to have our detectives come out to the scene based on new information we developed. They ended up solving the case a few hours later complete with a murder confession.
If you have no sense of curiosity then you really have no business being in law enforcement. You should always be asking why and sometimes even why not. In order to be curious you have to stop, look, and listen. We are too quick to throw out possibilities based on our own bias. Just because you don't think it happened a certain way doesn't mean it didn't. The fictional character Sherlock Holmes said it best: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
One of the differences between great officers and mediocre officers is their sense of urgency. Urgency means making every call important no matter how small or large the crime. By that I mean do what you can do in a timely manner. I often use the example of an 8-year-old boy who gets his bike stolen. It may not be that big of a deal to the officer but it sure is to the boy. Your job is to investigate the incident and try to help him.
LEOs who seem indifferent to the calls they handle have lost their sense of urgency. These officers are typically the ones who don't turn in their paperwork on time. You find them saying things like, "What's the big deal? It's just paperwork and the case will be dropped anyway." They tend to establish their own hierarchy of effort. They establish their own work ethic of "the less I have to do the better." We know them very well; these are the ones who spend more time trying to get out of work than actually doing work. When I was on the road as a supervisor, I used to see it all the time. If the LEO had just taken the report instead of trying to talk the victim out of it, they would have finished a lot sooner.
Urgency also means maintaining the attitude that all calls are worthy of your 100% attention. The only real difference between any call for service is that some are completed faster than others. Sometimes you can do a great deal and sometimes you can't. The amount of time spent investigating the call is determined by the evidence at hand and not in having a poor attitude. If it's not important to you, everyone around you will feel that vibe. That usually translates later into some type of complaint.
Thirst for Knowledge
Let's face it, if you think that all you will ever have to know is what you learned at the police academy, you're destined for failure. Law enforcement operates in ebbs and flows. What was relevant today will change tomorrow. You need to stay up on things by constantly studying and actively working to stay on point.
For example, legal updates are enough to keep anyone busy. Reviewing your administrative code and policy and procedure is another area that will keep you busy. In other words, there is always something to review. There is always something new to learn as well.
Tactics are another area of great concern. I remember a time that if you were dealing with an Active Shooter, you held what you had, formed a perimeter, and called for SWAT. You'd be relieved of duty if you tried that now. Things change and if you don't change with them you become obsolete, irrelevant, and of no use to anyone. You will be that person the chain of command only remembers when they need a uniform to do busy work.
Some LEOs use the excuse that their agency won't pay for training so they can't possibly keep up or learn anything new. That's ridiculous. Though an agency may not foot the bill, this doesn't relieve any officer of his or her responsibility to stay current on skills essential to the job.
With the advent of the Internet, the world is at everyone's fingertips. There is a great deal of information waiting to be found. For example, there are many online courses and webinars you can take, as well as articles and blog posts written by other professionals you can read. At the basic operator level, you can find most if not all of what you need to get up to speed on new tactics and techniques for free.
Keeping abreast of current events is also important. Watching or reading about local and national news helps keep you in the loop, and you need to be aware of what's bleeding over into your areas of responsibility.
When it comes to expanding your skillset, one of the best ways to learn something new is to job shadow. Do you want to become better at conducting your own investigations? Ask your chain of command if you can job shadow with a detective. Since first responders concentrate on the initial investigation, job shadowing the people who do the second half only makes sense. I learned a great deal about handling complaints when I asked for some help from my agency's internal affairs division.
Seize the Opportunity
If you want to be a successful LEO then I would take a look at CUT and see how it applies to you. I have tried my best to stress these points to my recruits while teaching at the police academy, while training rookies in the FTO program, and in developing supervisors under my command. Some took heed and have had fantastic careers. Others didn't care and are complaining about why they didn't get the position they applied for.
I have never understood those who maintain a laissez-faire attitude with regard to their jobs. They worked so hard to become LEOs and then once there, they did absolutely nothing with the opportunity they were given. If you are not going to try to excel at what you do then why do it at all? I think we should focus on being a CUT above the rest and continue to move forward within our own careers.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has more than 27 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.