Setting Realistic Expectations
The supervisor of a vice/narcotics unit from a medium-size municipal law enforcement agency asked me to address the issue of selecting personnel for specialty assignments. As he puts it, management is split between those who feel time in patrol should be the determining factor and those who believe additional preparation in addition to patrol experience is necessary.
Another reader is concerned about whether such assignments should be “forever” or of a fixed duration requiring officers to rotate to another assignment once the fixed duration has been met.
Nothing Is Forever
I firmly believe specialty assignments should not be “lifetime” assignments. Even those with a substantial learning curve should be of fixed duration because no matter how motivated we are in the beginning, most of us tend to stagnate in the same work situation after a period of time. When this occurs the individual and the department suffers. I need look only to one of my academy training officers to underscore my position that certain assignments like vice, narcotics and criminal intelligence units need to have relatively short assignment periods.
This officer was a poster boy for the department. A former Marine, he was as squared away as you could imagine. He had significant patrol experience and after serving as an academy “DI” for a number of years requested a transfer to narcotics and the transfer was granted. There wasn’t a mandatory rotation period and after a few years he went over to the other side — succumbing to the temptation of big money the dope trade presents. He stole and sold dope, and he gave up the identities of other undercover cops to the bad guys. This former Marine was fired, prosecuted and sent to prison. There are many similar examples that have caused me to always put a limit on the time my officers can spend in such assignments.
Proving You’re Interested
If traffic enforcement/accident investigation is a specialty assignment, I can see it requiring only patrol experience because most patrol personnel are involved in traffic enforcement and, at least to a small degree, accident investigation. But it would certainly show initiative and motivation if an applicant for a traffic slot had taken an accident reconstruction course or a traffic enforcement course at the local community college — on his/her own time.
Other specialty assignments may require more knowledge of a particular subject in order to be a strong candidate for selection. Using narcotics as an example, there are generally a host of courses available through community college channels that a serious applicant for a dope cop position could elect to take. In my book, the candidate who’s done so ranks ahead of the applicant who hasn’t, assuming both have enough street time in patrol to meet basic standards for consideration.
Within the departments I’ve run, I’ve found it helpful to put into writing several things regarding specialty assignments. One, list all specialty assignments within the department and list the duration of each assignment, as it will vary. For example, a detective position in property crimes might be for a 5-year period while a narcotics investigator might be just 3 years … for the reasons previously stated. Next, the “desired qualifications” for each position are listed. The property crimes position might require 4 years of patrol experience, including assignment as a field training officer. Completion of an advanced report writing class, competent or above evaluations since date of employment and completion of an evidence class could all also be requirements.
With this approach, officers who desire a certain special assignment can know — in advance — how long the assignment will last if they’re selected and what they can do to prepare for such an assignment. Then, when the opening occurs, the department must stick to its guns. Those who’ve acquired the desired qualifications should certainly be given preference over those who’ve simply done their time in patrol with little or no extra effort.
This approach isn’t perfect and the criteria used will vary from agency to agency. There should be some objective and specific selection criteria attached to each specialty assignment; it’s far better than the “it’s who you know” method or strictly seniority-based approach some still use today. If the expectations are realistic and known in advance, the outcome should be predictable. Those who’ve prepared and shown initiative can predict success at some point in the future. Those who’ve done nothing to meet the desired qualifications will have no legitimate cause for complaint when not selected.
Questions, comments and suggestions for future columns can be sent to Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org