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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

Agencies in Transition

For those agencies still on the fence about letting their officers pursue specialties, Sgt. Jordan offers this food for thought. "Do you want to take a shotgun approach to a particular situation and have someone who may or may not have been trained once on the matter two or three years ago basically feeling their way through an investigation? Or do you want to zero in on it like a sniper, targeting cases with the investigators who know how to streamline things and get it done accurately and quickly?"

Jordan is quick to acknowledge that his agency has two unique factors working in its favor to make the philosophical, practical. First, it is large enough to accommodate investigative units, and second, it has a relatively low number of part one crimes—a reality that many similar size agencies do not enjoy.

If evaluating the success of specialized units is difficult, it becomes more so when it is undermined .

Special units may become de facto manpower pools, continually ripped off to support yet other special teams and establishing day-to-day goals so that their missions become increasingly amorphous.

As James G. Wilson, author of "Varieties of Police Behavior," notes, "The law enforcement orientation of most departments means that specialized units are created for every offense that the community expresses concern on or for which some special technology is required. The patrolman, who once had the opportunity to perform some investigative functions, sees his scope of activity increasingly narrowed until what remains for him is clerical work, service work, and, of course, order maintenance."

Operationally, specialized units pose other problems. Within their respective fields of concern, new subsets of problem areas may arise, causing specialized units to branch off from one another, bifurcating and trifurcating, with each succeeding unit becoming at once more answerable to any number of higher entities, yet increasingly autonomous in its daily operations. Unchecked, they can become cancerous, metastasizing and threatening the very organization that supports them. Indeed, some of law enforcement's most infamous corruption episodes have evolved out of specialized units such as narco and vice; surveillance details have been abused for purposes of political gain and payback.

In January, 150 NYPD narcotics cases were reviewed in the aftermath of corruption allegations involving officers who had sex with prostitutes, stole evidence, and gave dope to informants. Three years earlier, an internal review of the unit found the quality of staff dipped when it went from an elite group of about 1,500 cops to more than 4,300 officers. According to the report, this resulted in "a significant infusion of unqualified, inexperienced personnel who lacked the dedication and drive essential to a highly specialized unit."

"Rarely do we create a unit or section without first looking at the impact it will have on the organization," says Capt. Grove. "Our Planning and Research Division has an audit unit that conducts efficiency audits in an effort to utilize the most effective structure. We have also recently tasked an outside contractor to take a look at our organization and the results of that consultation has produced a plan labeled 'Blueprint for the Future.' This plan…places us in the best possible position with the resources we have. Additionally, a few of the sections and units in the old structure were either eliminated or moved to a more compatible or functional place within the organization. We look at other departments for their innovations; however, we are careful not to take information at face value. It is clear to us that departments are based on the community they serve."

Paying Up Front

While acknowledging a need for specialization, the Oregon State Patrol saves itself migraines by keeping its investigative and patrol divisions separated. Annual budget commitments for each division remain largely immune from one another, and once earmarked for a particular division—or agency, such as Fish and Wildlife—monies from one budget silo can't be channeled to another without state legislative approval.

"Quite simply, we can't rob Peter to pay Paul," observes Lt. Glenn Chastain, assistant commander for the Patrol Services Division. "This is how we mitigate losses in other divisions."

By maintaining strict fiscal guidelines while allowing for outside funding, the agency allows its Criminal Division investigators to work any number of permanent or short-term assignments, ranging from construction fraud to tobacco tax enforcement, while becoming cross proficient in a multitude of aspects of criminal investigation.

If there is a liability to such investigative commitment, it is when officers who might otherwise be inclined—or at least willing—to investigate particular crimes are relegated to the sidelines. For some agencies, the dynamic can become a self-perpetuating one, with those senior officers deprived of developing such coveted skills getting left behind.

And without increased funding, it is a situation that is apt to get worse before it gets better.

Specialization will only become more of a fixture in law enforcement in the future. As more and more facets of the job come to demand unique knowledge, there will be commensurate demand for people with credible expertise to deal with these new frontiers. These people will continue to find themselves in increasingly nuclear clusters, often working autonomously; hopefully, not at the expense of necessary in-house communication, and not to the detriment of the mission at hand.

Ultimately specialization's success will continue to be dictated by the extent to which it is both embraced and soundly exercised.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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