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Q&A with Lee Lofland, Police Investigation

CriminalJusticePrograms.com interviewed Lee Lofland, former police investigator and author of Police Procedure and Investigation. His career in law enforcement has included a variety of roles from a corrections officer to a police detective, and he has solved cases involving homicide, robbery, murder-for-hire and more. Lofland has consulted for Slate Magazine, Spike TV and others and has appeared on BBC, CNN and NPR. He shares his experiences in law enforcement on his popular blog: The Graveyard Shift (www.leelofland.com/wordpress).

Below he talks about the realities of working in law enforcement.

Q: How did you get started in law enforcement?

I started as a corrections officer supervising maximum security inmates in a state prison system, and ended as a police detective working major felony cases, such as murder, rape, narcotics, and robbery. In between those positions, I was fortunate to have served as a sheriff's deputy, patrol officer, K-9 officer, undercover narcotics officer, police academy instructor and instructor trainer, and as supervisor for a street crimes unit, among other positions.

As an avid reader of mystery and thrillers, I was fascinated by the puzzle-solving that goes hand-in-hand with unraveling criminal cases. So, I set my sights early and went for it. I didn't stop until I raised my right hand and swore to uphold the law. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I pinned a badge to my shirt for the first time.

Q: How important is a degree in advancing someone's career in law enforcement today?

It's been a long time since dating the mayor's son or daughter, being able to bench press 300lbs., and possessing a G.E.D. were the basic requirements to attain a job as a police officer. In this day and age, a solid education is a must-have. First of all, many of today's criminals are very well-educated and their crimes are often more complex than the offenses of even a few years ago. Laws and procedures are written to meet current needs and standards; therefore, officers must be able to comprehend, interpret, and even analyze any recent trends and/or changes in procedure and criminal activity. In the old days, police work was basically a reaction to an event. Today's police departments are more proactive - stopping crime before it starts. And that takes planning. Realistically, the knowledge and skills needed for today's officers are first learned in a classroom, or through other means of higher education. Many agencies require a degree before a promotion past line officer. In fact, many departments now require a degree for new hires.

Q: What are some of the top misconceptions in the media about law enforcement?

Entertainment writers portray an officer's job as non-stop action with gunplay at every street corner. And the good guys always come out on top without a scratch. After all, how many people would watch a show or read a book about a man or woman who drives around for eight hours stopping only to break up a fight or two, recover a stolen bicycle, and change a flat tire for someone who never learned how to?

There's plenty of action associated with a career in law enforcement - too much at times - and the job is more dangerous than ever before. But, exploding cars, chasing bad guys while wearing heels, and DNA results in mere seconds don't just happen like that in real life.

Q: How can new officers prepare themselves for some of the more dangerous aspects of police work?

Easy answer: training and education.

Here are a few basic tips:

  • Always expect the unexpected.
  • Don't take anything for granted, and keep your guard up - the well-dressed man with the million-dollar smile just might be the next Dahmer, Bundy, or D.C. sniper.
  • Search every suspect thoroughly before placing them inside the patrol car. And don't be shy when conducting a search. Criminals are very creative when it comes to hiding weapons and other contraband.
  • Always have an escape route. There's no shame in a retreat. A dead hero is, well, dead.
  • Sure, the job is important, but never let it come before your family!

Q: What are some of the best aspects of working in law enforcement?

I don't mean to dish out cliches, but there's certainly a huge amount of pride and integrity associated with wearing a badge and uniform. And, there really is an extreme amount of personal satisfaction that comes with helping others.

Assisting citizens with their troubles is a huge part of the job, and cops help people so often that it becomes almost as natural as taking a breath. I once received a small card in the mail. The sender's name and return address on the envelope weren't familiar to me. Neither was the handwriting. I opened the envelope and read the handwritten text. The message was quite touching. It was a brief note, obviously written by a child - large block letters penned in green crayon. It read:

"Thank you for saving my Mommy and me. You are my hero."

I had no idea who'd written the note and I didn't have a clue what I'd done to deserve that child's praise. I thought back to recent events and realized the card could have come from a number of people. Perhaps it was from the little girl I'd helped out of a locked car on a sweltering summer afternoon. Or, it could've come from another little girl, one I'd rescued during a hostage situation. Her father, high on alcohol and methamphetamine, held the girl and her mother at gunpoint, threatening to kill them if they didn't do certain things he demanded of them. When I arrived at the scene he'd already fired several shotgun blasts into the walls, doors, and ceiling of the house as a means of intimidating his captive family members. The girl was seven years-old at the time.

As I sat there recalling those incidents, and many others, I suddenly became aware of how many calls of that nature we'd all responded to over the years. And sometimes, what's considered a significant event in one person's life is just another day at the office for a police officer.

I've thought about that card many times over the years. In fact, it still hangs on a bulletin board in my office as a reminder that an officer's actions, no matter how insignificant or routine to them, can be life-changing for others. And, yes, I still wonder what happened to that little girl and her mother.

Q: What are some of the challenges in the field?

One of the most frustrating things about police work is how children perceive law enforcement officers. It's sad to see little kids run away the second they see a police car enter their neighborhood. Or, to hear a six or seven-year-old look up from playing with his toys and curse you as you pass by.

It's important for officers to take the time to show kids that they're the good guys and that they're there to help, not to harm the kids or their families. Community policing is a must. Proactive law enforcement begins with personal and positive contact with citizens. Stop, get out, and talk to people.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about law enforcement as you started out in the career?

Yes. I was totally shocked by the amount of on-going, in-service training that's required. I was also surprised by the need to keep up with the ever-changing laws, policies, and procedures. A good officer needs to stay a step ahead of the bad guys, and one of the best ways to do so is by reading and studying.

Q: How has law enforcement changed over the years - in terms of responsibilities and day-to-day tools for the job?

The responsibilities of police officers basically remain the same - to protect citizens and safeguard their property, and to enforce the laws applicable to their individual jurisdictions.

Tools of the trade? There's no end to the ever-evolving officer toolbox. Nowadays, an officer's duty belt is loaded with everything from latex gloves to cellphones and Tasers. There are mini-flashlights, semi-automatic pistols that hold 16 rounds of ammunition with an additional 30 rounds tucked away on the belt (that's nearly an entire box of bullets), radios, extra cuffs, remote control devices that open car doors (K-9 officers), an ASP (expandable baton), pepper spray, and the list goes on.

Today's officers have an array of tools to assist in the performance of their duties, such as corner shot rifles that allow an officer to literally shoot around 90-degree corners, lights that temporarily blind and disorient a suspect, robots, night vision, thermal imaging, listening devices, helicopters, airplanes, and even armored assault vehicles. Maybe tomorrow will bring Star-Trek-like cloaking devices and Dr. Who-style time travel. Who knows?

Q: What inspired you to write Police Procedure and Investigation and why is it an important read for aspiring officers?

I had begun writing a novel, a thriller, when a group of mystery writers approached me asking questions about real-life cops and robbers. They wanted to know if what they were writing was realistic. Long story short, one thing led to another and I decided to briefly put the novel on hold so that I could write a handy little manual for my writer friends. I compiled all the questions I'd received from authors and answered them within the pages of the booklet - my one-stop cop guide written especially for writers.

It soon turned into a major project with me visiting police departments, morgues, attorneys, forensics experts, etc. all over the country. In a very short time I had sufficient information to write a real book, not just a little manual. It's used in many schools and universities as a research tool in criminal justice programs; it's on the shelves of many police departments and forensics experts; writers all over the world use it while conducting research for their books, television shows, and films.

Q: Any other recommendations for aspiring law enforcement officials?

Sure, a big one - honesty. Never lie about anything. A simple, tiny fib can ruin an entire career. Honesty, however, will garner tons of respect and will shine like a beacon hovering above your head.