Spitballing


Spitballing is a term for throwing out ideas for consideration at a business meeting in advance of detailed development.

I invite you to check out the spitballing menu on this page and respond when something strikes you as provocative or something you agree or disagreee with.

Robert F. Lunney

Techniques for the Midnight Call

Never overlook the value of technique; the skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something.  The detail of good technique may seem trivial, but mastering a critical task is a sizeable step towards demonstrating effective leadership.   This post will review performance issues and techniques for police chiefs and senior commanders on the receiving end of middle of the night calls invariably involving emergencies and other bad news.

Be Prepared:

The first step is to practice a state of readiness.  For the chief or senor commander that involves a bedside check.  Is your telephone in working order with a pen and writing pad close at hand?  Is your mind clear?  There is no predicting when the calls will come so every night is the same routine.

Wake Up

When the telephone interrupts your sleep, swing your feet out of bed and plant them firmly on the cold floor and stand up.  Put on the light.  Now you are alert.  Answer in a tone that is crisp and professional. The person calling you is often in a state of excitement.  You must sound calm and composed.  Make detailed notes for accurate case management.  Ask questions to gain the best possible understanding of events.

Preliminary Investigation

If you are chief in a jurisdiction with an outside investigative agency dealing with serious injuries to persons as result of police action and the situation warrants, call the agency personally.  Do not delegate.  This puts you squarely in the picture as an active participant.  If the outside agency will carry out an investigation, you must still decide if a parallel investigation is needed.  Ensure that experienced investigators are called out, briefed and assigned.

Attending the Scene

Decide if you need to attend the scene.  If it is an officer down situation, no question: you either go to the scene or to the hospital.  Always be there if it sounds like a sticky situation where the critical interests of the service, the community or the well-being of one of your officers is at risk.  Select your clothing carefully.  You could end up on television or in an impromptu conference.  Uniform is never wrong, and a shirt, tie and jacket will take you most places.  What you don’t want is to appear disheveled or dressed too casually.  Remember that you may not be returning home until the end of the next working day.

First task at the scene is an updated briefing from the on-site commander.  Next is to speak with the involved officer(s), checking on their well-being and assuring them of support while avoiding any exchange of details that could be evidentiary.  No need to insert yourself into the investigation.  Visiting the scene gives you a sense of the environment, topography and lighting conditions, all useful details when later you must account for police actions or make critical decisions on disposition.  If the incident is on-going, such as an active shooter, avoid distracting the tactical team.  They must make critical decisions based on preparation and their leader’s judgment.  This is always a sensitive issue and chiefs are tempted to become directly involved.  Usually that is a bad idea.  If the best training and equipment has been provided, and the best leadership selected, chiefs should trust their people.  Getting information to next of kin is often overlooked in a tactical event.  The chief should ensure this is carried out.

Public Information

If the situation warrants, call out the public affairs officer to get a head-start on a media release and respond to inquiries.

Leaders show up

Even the most senior and experienced officers appreciate the presence of top leadership at a critical event.  Exert your presence, speak encouragingly to as many officers as possible, not overlooking the senior officers and supervisors who made the early tactical decisions. Recognize good performance.  They will appreciate and remember.

The Aftermath

The period immediately following an emergency is a potential time of peril, for this is when matters go wrong due to false assumptions or when critical details are overlooked.  The chief should not leave his or her post until long after the emergency, because that’s just the beginning.  It’s never over.

The Predictable Rise of Missing Person Cases

Canadian policing is on a hinge of change.  While the rates for crime and disorder are falling or at the least, remaining stable, other service demands are escalating: Cyber crime in all its permutations; response to incidents involving the mentally ill; and a host of other troubles requiring sophisticated problem solving skills.  Police are at risk of becoming the default agency for issues beyond their capacity, and will need all the help available through partnering with other government agencies, non-profit groups and the private sector.  One such challenge is a predictable problem with a rising number of missing person reports.

In 2011, 747,000 Canadians had Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. By 2031, if measures aren’t taken, that figure is expected to reach 1.4 million.  As the numbers increase, so do concerns about wandering dependents.  The Hamilton Police Service attracted positive attention in November of this year for its productive relationship with the Medic Alert program.  While Medic Alert is national in scope and other police services are involved in a similar partnership, the program deserves a higher profile and increasing public awareness if it is to achieve its potential in saving lives and preventing tragedy.  Click here for an illustrative story published in the Hamilton Spectator on November 24th, 2015.

 

Walking the Talk

Police work is about talking to people.  It always has been and always will be.  It is about interviewing victims and witnesses, developing informants and building relationships with members of the public wherever you go – on the beat, in the coffee shops and cafes, as you meet people while responding to calls or conducting traffic stops, wherever there is information to be offered and gathered that may be useful for crime prevention, problem solving or investigations.

Practice in conversation is essential for development of policing skills.  It happens through exchanging pleasantries with people encountered while on patrol, but also in non-work related conversation between peers or with supervisors.  The pretext and the topic don’t really matter. It’s the contact and the quality of the exchange. Stopping to talk to kids playing road hockey or shooting baskets, passing the time of day with cab drivers or street labourers or striking up a conversation with a street person is all part of the police officers working routine, expressing a genuine interest in people and their concerns and learning how to use small talk and conversation on the fly.

Police officers skilled at interpersonal communication are the ones who pick up that stray piece of information helpful to ongoing investigations – like the neighbour who took the license plate of a strange car parked in an alleyway, or the clerk in the convenience store who wonders about the unexplained absence of a regular customer.  The neighborhood officer with a good mix of connections will be a magnet for gathering useful information and intelligence.  It’s simple: develop a facility for conversation. Talk to everyone. Build a network.  Never miss a chance to turn a casual contact into something of value.  Make social intelligence the foundation of your professional life.

The Importance of Empathy in Policing

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”

Mohsin Hamid

If you have followed the progression of Spitballs on this website you will appreciate the contribution of veteran Edmonton Police officer Clif Chapman and his memorable stories describing incidents and insights developed during a lengthy and distinguished career.  In a recent exchange of messages Clif commented: “I used to have members come up to me and say, “You worked Tactical and fired all kinds of weapons, what do you think is the best weapon you can have out there?” I had a one word answer, “empathy“. It got me into the other guy’s head and out of harm’s way many times.”

Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s feelings, their experiences and emotions.  This is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or to see things through their eyes.  People high in empathy are more likely to help others in need (Hello!), even when it may be against one’s self interest.  Empathy reduces prejudice and racism, something we should value and encourage in the face of alleged racial bias or allegations that poor and homeless persons are mistreated by police.  The capacity for empathy does not just apply to relationships with the public.  An organization that extends empathy to its own people during times of stress and illness encourages loyalty and builds resilience.

This got me thinking about whether an assessment of the capacity for empathy is adequately taken into account in assessing the personal characteristics of police recruits, nurtured in police training classes or evaluated in performance reviews.  With the current focus on police legitimacy, there is mutual value in training new officers on how to display their understanding of community values and needs when they interact with citizens.  Showing empathy increases trust and confidence and when the public trusts the police, officers get more cooperation and find themselves in a safer place.

Use of Force – Our Way

My relationship with policing in the United States extends back to 1975, when I joined the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), later serving as Canadian representative on the IACP Board.  In 1982 I became a member of the Washington D.C. based Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and following retirement contracted as a consultant with PERF, over the span of nine years working on many projects including a two year residence at Washington.  I am a graduate of the FBI National Executive Institute and proud to list many distinguished American police professionals as colleagues and friends.  I mention this as a form of credentialing before introducing a column published by Blue Line Magazine in October 2015 referring to the current controversy over police use of deadly force in the United States.  It is not often an author receives direct feedback, but this one aroused the ire of a Canadian Use of Force trainer who took issue with my position in colourful terms.  This could only mean one thing to me:  I must be right.  The column is reproduced below.  You can judge for yourself.

Training that reflects our policing culture                                              

Police in the United States are dealing with a crisis of public confidence on the use of deadly force with overtones of racism due to a notorious series of fatal shootings, most recorded on video.  To name a few: The killing of a 12 year old boy with a pellet gun by a police officer in Cleveland OH; the shooting of an unarmed man in Charleston SC fleeing from police after being called upon to account for himself; and the fatal shooting of a suspected bicycle thief (mistaken identity as it turned out) in Gardena CA, a jaw dropping display of questionable judgment by police officers recorded on a video just lately released by the court.  Progressive police leaders in the United States are keenly aware of the threat to police legitimacy and slipping public support.  Make no mistake; the crisis faced by policing in the U.S. is contagious, and Canadian policing is in jeopardy because of our adoption of American training materials.

My generation of police leaders is responsible for the current state of risk regarding use of force training.  Despite a stated commitment to community policing and some creditable development of use of force models, we unwittingly opened the door to introduction of a portfolio of tactical training materials introduced by commercially inspired “experts” in officer safety that led to misleading beliefs and aggressive militaristic tactics.  Much of this problematic content is contained in training modules and videos developed in the United States, where laws and cultural mores on firearms and deadly force differ distinctly from Canada.

Before Canadian policing falls prey to the unfortunate outcomes suffered by policing south of the border, (some would say it has already happened), all U.S. training films and simulation programs regarding use of deadly force and defense against edged weapons should be withdrawn from Canadian police training curricula forthwith, to be replaced by Canadian produced training aids reflecting the policing philosophy of this country. Canadian police officers on their own or with sponsorship have often attended use of force training offered by private contractors in the U.S.  While attendance probably cannot be prohibited, it should certainly be discouraged.  The divergence of policy and practice is now too wide and insoluble. Instruction modules developed by home-grown police trainers and consultants steeped in the ethos of Canadian policing should be given exclusive preference.

Disengagement is the first priority, but just the beginning.  Deadly force is far too critical an issue to be left to simple solutions.  A more comprehensive process must involve a review of policing philosophy, strategy, education, training and accountability.  But that is another story.

In Praise of Shit Disturbers

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying
to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

 If you have followed these spitballs you will know of my healthy regard and defense of the dissenting opinion for its value in sorting out the truth and challenging conventional wisdom. Without Shaw’s unreasonable man we might never have advanced beyond hunting and gathering. Thankfully, those who wanted better questioned the status quo and pressed on. In the lexicon of the English language, Shit Disturber is a strictly Canadian phrase. The Urban Dictionary and Collins Dictionary list the term as a vulgar description of a person who purportedly causes needless difficulties or distress to others, or a troublemaker who causes controversy and upsets people. Although crude, the phrase is nonetheless in common use and generally not thought sufficiently offensive to be banned from customary speech.

The offbeat ideas and insights of the Shit Disturber make life interesting. They entertain us with their often absurd ideas and complaints, and despite their vexatious tendencies, there are times when they are quixotically accurate in their assessments and pontification. Shit Disturbers may be hard to cherish (which is the least of what they want in any event) but they make a useful contribution to our endless quest for improvement. A light-hearted tolerance and an occasional nudge of encouragement is the ticket for managing them in your community. Within your organization: How about an annual award for “Shit Disturber of the Year”?

Responsible Stewardship

The maintenance of good order and discipline is a major responsibility for a chief of police and inevitably there are events that require a decision to retain or to fire. When an officer is conspicuously in the wrong the chief must act in the public interest. That decision is more difficult when there are mitigating circumstances. Case in point: As reported by Canadian Press August 4, 2015, Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer was quoted as supporting an officer who was convicted of assaulting a cyclist in 2013. It was the Chief’s decision to keep him on as a patrol officer despite media insistence that he be fired. Citing this officers extraordinary record for bravery and life saving, Chief Palmer defended him saying, “People may make a mistake on a certain day, but I don’t think they should be judged for their entire career on just one thing. We’re not talking about a situation of an officer who has been in trouble before. This is a one-off thing and I look at the totality of the circumstances and I support this officer.”

In my first year as Chief in Edmonton a patrol officer engaged in a high speed pursuit. The offending vehicle left the city but was safely intercepted on the highway. The officer attempted to extricate the resisting offender from his vehicle, striking him and using force that appeared to be excessive. An RCMP officer witnessed the events and when the driver filed a complaint the Edmonton officer was charged with criminal assault. On conviction he was given a conditional release. The matter was pursued in service court and it was my responsibility to set the parameters for sentence on conviction.

This officer was a productive patrol man with a clear service record. His supervisor and others spoke well of his behavior and potential. In the totality of circumstances I refrained from seeking dismissal. There was criticism from the media and some public concern, but it soon receded. In the years that followed this officer demonstrated a keen ability to detect and solve crime making some outstanding arrests, and at the climax of a bitter and violent labour dispute he performed an act of bravery by stopping a vehicle driving into the picket line in a way that prevented multiple injuries and possible fatalities.

In the case of the Vancouver incident, not only did Chief Palmer make a considered decision based on the totality of circumstances, but he explained publicly and in detail his reasons for doing so; a demonstration of responsible stewardship in command.