On december 12, 2012, Tropper Timothy Strohmeyer of the Pennsylvania State Police was arresting a suspect for shooting several people when the suspect shot him in the chest. He survived the gunshot due to his protective body armor. This vital tool saved his life. Trooper Strohmeyer received the International Association of Chiefs of Police 2013 Officer of the Year award for his act of bravery.
Law enforcement officers should consider the tools of professional interaction and quality work as vital as protective body armor. They will ensure longevity and success in an officer’s career and make good officers—great. Let us consider professional interaction and quality work on (1) the patrol beat (2) during enforcement (3) on arrest, and (4) beyond arrest. (See Figure 1)
The Patrol Beat
An officer patrolling in an assigned area should ask, “How does the public feel about my actions, behavior, and policing style? Am I leaving a positive impression and affecting public safety for good?” \
On January 18, 2014, a Rosenburg (Texas) police officer exited his patrol car at a neighborhood apartment complex. A young boy was standing in the street with a football. He saw the officer and began to move from the street. The officer held up his hand for a pass. The boy passed the ball and a game of catch began. This positive interaction, uploaded to YouTube, had over 64,000 views in the first two weeks.
Officers who act professionally and communicate well will gain credibility and respect. Alternately, officers who tend to be more adversarial and seem to be concerned with demonstrating “power” through the badge, leave a negative impression and lose cooperation. Consequently, each interaction has a positive or negative ripple effect on public trust and cooperation.
While on a patrol beat, officers regularly conduct traffic enforcement and answer calls for service. Each interaction is potentially volatile and dangerous. Officers use safety tactics to reduce the risk of injury or death. The tactics of proper communication and discretion are as important as safety tactics. Officers who communicate well, show respect, and apply discretion reduce the chances of confrontation, complaints, and negative interaction.
Additionally, officers who focus on public safety and devote time and effort to solving legitimate community problems will find they are more effective and valuable. As an example, the Utah Department of Public Safety, State Bureau of Investigation, Alcohol Enforcement Team recently demonstrated a positive approach to policing. Prior to conducting enforcement operations at the Sundance Film Festival, agents worked with alcohol licensees and other community stakeholders to provide education and training. This effort led to increased public safety, reduced alcohol violations, and enhanced community relationships.
At times, officers are required to arrest—particularly when a serious crime occurs. Good officers will carefully consider the probable cause and elements of the crime prior to arresting. Great officers will also understand what additional investigative steps may be required to prove the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Some officers believe the prosecution of a crime is the business of a prosecuting attorney. Great officers take interest in ensuring the prosecuting attorney has all the information possible to increase the chances for prosecution. These officers will take the necessary and appropriate steps after arrest to ensure the prosecuting attorney has the best information available.
As an example, if an officer arrests a kidnapping suspect based on a 911 call from a victim detained in a car, the officer should ask several questions. What is the relationship, if any, between the suspect and victim? What evidence is available for collection? Are there potential witnesses? Do I have the time and technical expertise to handle the additional tasks to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt?” If there are unanswered questions or lacking expertise, an officer should contact a supervisor or investigator.
After an arrest, officers may consider four areas to ensure a successful and appropriate conclusion to a case including (1) interviews and witness statements, (2) evidence, (3) report writing, and (4) court proceedings.
Interviews and witness statements. Preparation before interviewing an individual is critical. An officer should know the incident, the elements of the crime, and background on the individual. With the information, the officer should develop an interview strategy. During the interview, an officer should develop rapport and actively listen—even if the suspect is lying. Officers should avoid immediately confronting a suspect when they lie—a lie can be as beneficial as a truth in prosecution.
Witness statements are useful for obtaining contact information and an idea of what a person knows. Officers should not rely on witness statements only. A quality interview and thorough documentation is necessary.
Evidence. Evidence proves the elements of the crime; consequently, proper handling of evidence is critical. Evidence collection occurs in three phases: (1) preservation, (2) documentation, and (3) collection. (See Figure 2.)
First, proper preservation ensures the integrity of the evidence. The use of gloves and crime scene tape are examples of simple, but effective, tools for preserving evidence. Second, documentation of evidence ensures proper recall and understanding
of the scene. Documentation may include a field sketch, field notes, and/or photographs. Officers should take seriously the need to document evidence prior to collection. Finally, officers should collect evidence using best practices. If an officer is unclear on how to collect evidence, they should consult with appropriate personnel.
Report Writing. Officers must write a quality report including all elements of the crime. The report should allow for a person who knows nothing about the incident to visualize what happened. To accomplish this, officers must review notes, video, statements, and other evidence and draft the report appropriately. Prior to a final draft, a peer or supervisor unfamiliar with incident should review the report for accuracy and understanding. A quality report protects the officer and increases the odds of prosecution.
Court Proceedings. Court proceedings are crucially important. Officers should prepare and thoroughly review all material prior to testifying in court. If possible, officers
should meet and discuss the case with prosecutors. An officer’s preparation and court demeanor establish his or her reputation and credibility. A prosecution hinges on a quality investigation and the ability to testify accurately. Preparation is key.
In conclusion, Trooper Strohmeyer’s use of protective body armor saved his life and career. Whether patrolling, conducting enforcement, arresting, or performing duties beyond arrest, officers should employ the tools of professional interaction and quality work. As they do so, they will have success and sustainment in their career. They will have the trust and confidence of the public. They will successfully navigate the difficulties and challenges of the law enforcement profession.