Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

The less routine, the more life.—Amos Bronson Alcott

One of the strangest things about us humans (assuming this isn't being read by an extremely bright German Shepherd) is the effect routine has on our brain. Routine is just about the deadliest thing we face as crime fighters, and the problem is, we don't even see it when it's affecting us.

That's right, it is invisible, and like all invisible things it's...well... hard to see...I mean understand. Just think about how you were fresh from the academy, a fine tuned instrument of crime fighting expertise and awareness. Everything, every call, every stop, was intense and exciting. You were fully alert, alive, and ready for the next adventure.

Even the warning in the academy to never fall into a routine, to be unpredictable, seemed unnecessary as I raced about from call to call, or prowled the alleys and side streets of Tucson.

Years later, I can remember how routine erodes that excitement and our attention to the "possible threat" and gets us into the mindset of, "been here, done it." In fact, routine doesn't just make us comfortable, it actually "detrains" us, robs us of our edge, our intensity, and-as I read in officer killed reports-can even steal our lives.

I remember driving behind a strip mall, ninja-like in my stealth and cunning, a rookie on a mission to catch the business burglar that was haunting our area. In a dark corner of the business I saw a shape and lit it up. It was the Sarge, hidden in the darkness. When he didn't gesture for me to come over, I moved on wondering if he was going to yell at me for sneaking around with my headlights off.

The Sarge didn't say anything and midnights during the weekdays had us begging for a hot call after 3 a.m. We just did our hunting, and area businesses kept getting hit.

A few days later, I was doing my "a shadow moving through the night" thing when I came to that same strip mall and discovered, sure enough, there was the Sarge. This time he lit me up with his spot and I headed over to see what was up? What was up was an ass chewing...

The Sarge had made rank the same week most of the squad graduated from the academy, so he had the fiery spirit of being fresh from Sergeant School and he was going to whip his group of crime fighters into shape ASAP, including me.

"What time is it, Smith?" he asked with a tone that froze my eyes in mid-blink.

Looking at my watch I replied, "two-twenty, Sarge."

"What time did you drive through here two days ago?" Something like a bell was going off in my head telling me this wasn't going to go well.

"I don't remember," I answered honestly, wondering what was about to happen.

"Well, it was just about the same time, and then you never came back, and I'll bet you weren't coming back tonight either, so if I was the little maggot hitting businesses in this neighborhood, I'd figure you were gone for the night and I was clear to get to work, right?" I never got to answer. "So from now on you be unpredictable, you come from different directions, you turn around and sneak right back or go in on foot or do whatever you want, just don't fall into a routine again!"

Wow, just a few months out of the academy and routine had me being totally predictable, which gave me a whole new perspective on what they had kept telling us in the academy. Routine is so damn sneaky we have to actively fight against it. We have to keep making sure it isn't giving us bad habits or making us vulnerable. And that little bit of yelling on a cold night (for Tucson) changed my tactics for my whole career and, frankly, made me a better trainer.

So, on your next shift, your next stop, or your next ninja-like maneuvering through your beat, ask yourself, "What would I have done fresh out of the academy?" Of course, I don't mean the stupid stuff, just the good training stuff.

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

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