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Loose Lips Sink Ships

Keep quiet in the field of you could unintentionally jeopardize a case.

September 22, 2011  |  by Steve Albrecht

Wrong:

Radio silence, police code words, and investigative jargon are for TV cops. Let suspects, victims, and witnesses (who could be interchangeable now or later, depending on the type of case) hear your radio boom across the street, as it blasts out such interesting tidbits as, "Our victim couldn't ID the guy," "the evidence techs say they didn't find the knife at the scene," "the second suspect is not, repeat, not in custody," or "the hospital says she's not gonna make it."

Solution:

Maintain good radio discipline by using an earpiece. Your radio is your officer safety lifeline, your access to information via your dispatcher, and therefore it needs to be protected. Go back to the good old days and start reusing your 10 and 11 codes, and the related police jargon that was designed to keep the bad guys, and their friends and family, in the dark as to what you and your partners are doing or will do.

Wrong:

To make future on- and off-duty officer safety even more challenging, please tell anyone (suspects, witnesses, victims, civilians) where your on-call detectives are coming from. Say, "It may take awhile for her to get here. I think she's driving in from [insert the name of the neighborhood where the detective actually lives]." This is so very helpful for our stalker friends. Knowing where the investigator lives makes it easy for the Internet savvy or just-out-of-jail suspect to go to that community and scout around until he finds the detective eating with her family at a popular restaurant or coaching his kids at the only soccer field in town.

Solution:

If you must explain any delay, say, "He or she is coming from our headquarters." Your best approach is to be intentionally boring, vague, and non-committal. When a gangster asks, "Am I gonna be talking to Det. Smith from the Gang Unit? I hate that guy!" your answer should always be, "That's not something I know or can say right now. We are waiting for an investigator, so just sit tight and you'll know soon enough."

Wrong:

Not only does it not matter what a cop says to suspects or victims, it doesn't matter what victims say. Don't bother to take high-risk victims seriously. This includes prostitutes, mentally ill people, the chronically homeless, informants, and lifelong substance abusers. Whatever crimes they said happened to them probably didn't occur because they're all known liars. Besides, it's their high-risk lifestyles, where and who they hang with, and what they do to survive, that's the real reason they got punched, raped, stabbed, or shot in the first place.

Solution:

Any victim can provide helpful information. For example, prostitutes have survived sexual assaults by men who were later found to be serial sexual murderers. This points to the fact that whether or not you agree with the morality of their lifestyle, they can be invaluable resources. One phone call from a prostitute you know about a customer who asked for a highly unusual sex act could lead you (and a state or federal serial murder task force) right to the guy.

The homeless and other street people have a lot of free time on their hands and they see things you don't see from inside your rolling office. Maybe they want to tell you about someone or something they saw out of civic duty, to get a few bucks or some food from you to help them get by, or because they want a predator to stay away from them. You should take their calls, tips, and comments, no matter how sketchy they sound. One small piece of new data (cars, plates, nicknames, tattoos, etc.), coupled with something other cops or investigators already know, could break a multiple-victim case.

And here's some bonus advice in the same vein. Don't give any case-related information to people who, at the time you encounter them, might seem like witnesses, bystanders, or strangers who have wandered over from somewhere else. These same people could be friends or family members of the suspect and have a strong desire to ask you anything that can help their loved one or beloved friend go free. It's always best to say as little as possible in these situations. Any sensitive information you provide could come back to bite you—and everyone else involved in the case.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His police books include "Streetwork," "Surviving Street Patrol," and his latest, "Tactical Perfection for Street Cops," all available from Paladin Press. He can be reached via editor@policemag.com.

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Tags: Field Interviews, Patrol Tactics, Communications, Verbal Communication


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