Tipping Our Hands

Between clueless coworkers, astute criminals, damnable fate, and our own inattention, we can turn a winning hand into a losing one.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

In poker, it's the "tell"—that physical or verbal signal that betrays the true strength of a player's hand. Tells can run the gamut. From the subtlety of a sigh to the blatancy of an over bet. It's why some of the game's best advocate not playing the cards, but the player.

It's no different in the field. For just as we're watching our detainees for tell-tale signs of bad intent, so are they scrutinizing us to see just how strong our hands are.

Up and down the food chain and throughout the animal kingdom, everyone is seeing who's going to blink first and whose bluff is going to get called.

Given such realities, you'd think that street cops would be pretty vigilant to maintain whatever edge they might have.

But getting that edge and keeping it is not as easy as it may sound. And therein lies part of the problem. That whole sound thing, not to mention the showing thing.

On the one hand, we do as much as possible to minimize the likelihood of alerting others to our presence. We soundproof our keys, approach wide on the passenger side, and use distractions to keep our quarry off base.

On the other hand, after doing all the stealth and sneaky stuff, we undermine our best intentions by letting the cat out of the bag.


Oh, we can be equally inventive to that end.

Little things like telling our partner that a detainee has a warrant—while said detainee is within hearing range. That's bad enough. Doing so while trying to compensate for your partner's hearing loss when the detainee's six-foot-four-inch, 260-pound buddies are also in earshot is even worse.

Being too clever can come back and bite us.

Convincing a detainee that you've got a witness on the other end of your cellular phone might be a great idea. That is, until your "Welcome to the Jungle" ring tone activates with an incoming call.

Or, let's say that you've just pepperballed some guy through a window and he's pissed off, but you've convinced him to allow paramedics in for medical treatment. Of course, this is all a ruse to have a couple of deputies get dressed as paramedics go inside and take him down. Everything's going according to plan except that while you're around the corner high-fiving one another for your brilliant game plan, his homie neighbor—also around the corner—sees this and calls your target to give him the lowdown.

Impatience is a bugaboo. How many cops have actually pointed out something lying on the seat next to the driver or on the floorboard and said, "What's that?" only to see the detainee swallow the object in question like Rosie O'Donnell at a freebie buffet?

How's this one: The first two times I spotted two suspects from the "wanted" flyers of adjacent agencies, they got away.


Because each time I was so damned shocked that I actually recognized the SOBs that my eyes bugged out and my mouth made a wide "O" as they passed me going in the opposite direction. By the time I made a u-turn, they were gone with the wind. In short, they alerted on me alerting to them.

Like a good poker player, we need to acquire a litany of tricks, including poker faces, fearless postures, and even the occasional false tell.

As preventive maintenance is infinitely preferable to damage control, we need to plan for a variety of situations ahead of time. Planning means determining what we expect of ourselves and one another.

It means recognizing that a generation raised on "COPS" has picked up on our "10-codes." Worse, those with an Internet connection and some initiative surely have. Maybe you develop your own visual and audible shorthand to signify if someone needs to go to jail, or if the contraband you've just spotted is within destructive reach of your perp.

It means learning to camouflage your motives. If something catches your eye but it doesn't warrant immediate attention, then don't dime off your intent to check it out. Have the driver step outside to check out his tail light before you go back for another look or to seize it.

And just who's to blame when you keep witnesses or subjects in an area where they are exposed to the comings and goings of clueless cops who say something that can hurt your case? Your clueless cop partner with the big mouth? Or the cop who's all too familiar with his bombastic boorishness?

It's not just on criminal or tactical matters that we can betray ourselves. More than once, I'd end up rolling to do some supervisorial intervention on a pissed off citizen. The beef? The citizen heard an on-scene traffic deputy identify the party at fault. They will find out soon enough who's at fault once the report is processed. Besides, you may find additional information once you're well away from the accident scene (such as verification that traffic signals were not working).

If you see a dirtbag, act casual as though you never even noticed him. Check out the skirt on the sidewalk instead. Then slowly work your way into a position where you can catch up to him.

Plan on camouflaging your motives, too. Once, I spotted a guy loitering by a mailbox. Because of the configuration of the roadway, I was able to see his torso just as he picked up on my lightbar. Neither of us saw the other's face until I made the bend in the road. By then, he'd opened the mailbox and tossed something inside. I happened to know the residents of the house—a finer bunch of dope-dealing fiends you couldn't hope to meet—and knew that this guy wasn't one of them.

I pulled up on the pretense of wanting to speak with someone inside the house, and inveigled him into the backseat of my patrol car to wait. I then checked out the mailbox (PC: tampering with U.S. mail) and found a bottle of rock cocaine inside. 10-15…oops….another run rides the bus (that personal code thing).

Finally, remember that once the guy is locked up, it isn't the end of the game. You may have to appear in court. If you end up having to refresh your memory, make sure you're not going over notes and reports with the D.A. in the hallway and saying things like, "Five ounces? Great! I thought we'd only found three." You never know if a defendant's friend or family member might be listening.

Eventually, we may to have to put our cards on the table.

But let's keep them close to the vest until then.


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Dangerous Bad Habits

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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