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Are Specialized Units… Special?

Are Specialized Units… Special?

During my career I was assigned to several specialized units. Sometimes on “loan” (can you say playing a hooker for the vice unit? Ahem … ), background investigations (for new hires) and other times driving a “crash car” as a traffic officer, as a commercial vehicle enforcement officer and as an accident investigations detective. I also spent time on the San Diego PD “Beach Team” trying to keep the hordes under control around the beaches and bays. I think there were other assignments, many temporary, but they’ve sort of greyed-out in my memory.

The other day His Publisherness, Roy (who also spent time on various specialized units) and I were talking about, well, specialized units. I found myself complaining about how they “… robbed from field units, sometimes leaving patrol short-handed.”

And they do.

Up until, say, the middle 1980’s, it was common for patrol units to handle virtually anything coming up in the field. Most agencies had a SWAT team of some kind, or shared a countywide mutual aid arrangement, normally had various detective units (vice, property crimes, crimes against persons), and if they were big enough, maybe a juvenile unit. Sometimes if they were lucky, they’d have a couple of officers on motors and maybe, just maybe, a traffic unit or two. Since I worked San Diego, a big-little city, we had all of that — and more.

It’s the “and more” that often caused me to rethink things, even then.

For some reason, during the late 1980’s and 1990’s and into today (where it’s even more popular), a multitude of special units seem to get dreamed up on every agency of any size. The regular detective units don’t seem to be enough anymore. If there’s a transient problem, you need to steal a few cops from patrol to form a special task force to tackle the transient problem.

You also need to design a special logo, shoulder patch and hat, authorize a special uniform of some kind and come up with a snappy name the local newspaper can use in headlines. “Middletown’s police form Anti-Transient Taskforce Augmenting Civic Kindness (ATTACK) team to address downtown transient issues.” I’m sure you’ve seen similar headlines.

So why is that a bad thing?

Sometimes it’s not.

But keep this in mind. Back in “the day,” regular patrol cops were tasked with handling all the problems on their beats. From transients (we called ’em bums, remember?), to hookers, to burglary series, intersections with chronic traffic violations — you name it, street cops handled it. For some reason, we’ve morphed into thinking we need these special units to tackle things commonly handled by beat cops before.

As police agencies continue to deplete patrol officer staffing to form specialized units, it puts a bigger burden on those remaining patrol units to take up the slack. Routine reports, crashes, general calls for service and the thousand other daily chores making up a day in the life of a beat cop still happen in spite of lower staffing levels. And that sort of service is the face of any agency. It’s what the public sees first, so shouldn’t you put your best face out there?

While the specialized units often get the press, wear the cool uniforms and all-too-often generally goof off (don’t tell me I’m wrong there, because I’ve been there), the poor patrol slugs are grinding out the work, taking the reports, getting yelled at by irate old ladies who got their garden hose stolen, are writing the handicapped parking citations, taking the shoplifter arrests at Walmart and the no-suspect-info auto theft reports — and rotating shifts.

The really bad part of all this, the part really sticking in my craw, is the fact that all-too-often the patrol grunts are looked down upon by the “special unit” types. Who, by the way, two weeks before, were behind the wheel of a beat car, remember? You know what I’m talking about here. While the “Bicycle Advance Deny Anti-Signage Section” (BADASS) team, formed to “combat” graffiti, ride their $1,200 mountain bikes around downtown (wearing special cop-biking uniforms, with rad-dude sunglasses of course), all formed with a grant from a federal anti-gang unit — the patrol pukes are slugging it out, trying to keep up with their beats. I’ll be the first to admit some specialized units are needed, and we should staff them with highly qualified officers.

But what’s wrong with helping the patrol cops handle what patrol officers can — and should — be handling? Give them the tools, grants and the skills, and staff up your beats to where they should be. It’s amazing what happens when patrol cops have the time, freedom and backing to actually arrest bad guys and put them in jail.

Crime goes down. It’s been proven again and again. Imagine that.

Robert Heinlein said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

And that goes for patrol cops too.

I’m just sayin’.
By Suzi Huntington

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  1. Great spot on article. Believe it was O.W. Wilson who proposed that Specialization is the death knell of a police department. Kudos on having the stones to tell it like it is.

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