During my 38 years in law enforcement I was able to work several specialized units. I found specialization offers both positive and negative aspects. An understanding of both of these perspectives will enable you to emphasize the positives and take practical steps to eliminate or reduce the negatives.
After working over five years in uniform as a generalist, I was assigned to work a special-problems unit focused on heroin addicts. Heroin was the drug of choice at that time. Our leadership reasoned that since most heroin addicts committed crimes to sustain their habits, removing them from the streets should lower crime. Our mission was clear and narrow. An experienced street officer who knew most of the addicts in our precinct taught me the ropes. He clued me in to the addicts telltale behavior, hangouts, paraphernalia, language and symptoms of being under the influence. We worked in plain clothes in a plain car, and were rarely given calls for service.
Soon we were arresting 25-35 hypes per month. At that time, the Los Angeles court system enforced a 90-day mandatory sentence for heroin addiction. Property crimes dropped dramatically in our precinct. Most of the heroin addicts were in jail. We actually had one month where there were no reported house burglaries. In short, we experienced some of the positive aspects of specialization:
- Our attention was narrowly focused;
- We developed expertise;
- Our efficiency improved;
- We became very effective in accomplishing our mission; and
- It was fairly simple to measure our effectiveness.
As a consequence of our successes, our morale was high. There were drawbacks, however:
We were less flexible. Because of our plain-clothed status and unmarked car, we were not as capable as a uniformed generalist to accept some assignments, such as traffic control.
We could easily miss the big picture. It was easy to focus solely on our mission to the neglect of our department s other objectives. We needed constant reminders we were members of a team with an overall mission.
On occasion, we failed to coordinate with other units. We found it necessary to attend roll call with the generalist to communicate about our mutual concerns, accomplishments and planned actions.
We began to develop an elitist attitude. It was easy to feel that we were special and not subject to all the demands and requirements of the rest of the organization. We needed incentives to encourage self-discipline and accountability.
We needed supervision. But, some supervisors shy away from examining specialists because of their own lack of expertise. Actually, we were encouraged when supervisors asked questions about our work and showed an interest in how we performed. We were proud of our accomplishments, and we welcomed scrutiny.
My first assignment in our detective bureau was investigating crimes involving autos. Our precinct had a district where car clouts (i.e., auto burglaries) were endemic. One day, when my partner was testifying in court, I spotted a suspect fitting the profile of a clouter. Soon, I saw him pick his target. As he walked around the area scanning for police, I positioned my plain car close by and lifted the hood, giving him a reason for my being there. I simulated working on the engine. He broke into the target car, and I made the arrest. After hooking him up, I walked across the street to a motorcycle officer staked out on a nearby traffic signal. I asked to use his radio to summon a transportation unit. I explained the thief had broken into a car clearly within his view. He replied, Hey, I m a traffic cop. That s not my line.
Recognizing the downsides of specialization can be the first step in preventing them from adversely affecting your performance as a specialist. Former LAPD Chief Ed Davis used an analogy of a restaurant to call attention to some of the potential problems of specialization. Upscale large restaurants often utilize several specialists. A maitre d seats patrons. A cocktail server invites a variety of pre-meal drinks. A waiter takes the order and serves. A wine steward suggests the best vintage to compliment the meal. A bus person clears the table. Their special knowledge and function can enhance the whole dining experience. But a well-run restaurant will address the negatives of specialization. The specialists are trained to be flexible, and they communicate with each other. The maitre d is not above bringing a cup of coffee if requested to do so. The wine steward should refill the water glasses if needed. The waiter will remove the dirty dishes if requested to do so. No one should miss the primary mission of pleasing and serving the customer.
In law enforcement, no one should miss the primary mission of protecting and serving the public. Specialization should never be an excuse for failing to be flexible when needed, neglecting to coordinate activities with the rest of the organization, developing an elitist attitude or creating a difficult supervisory problem on point.