Column: In the wake of tragedy, building our police team through an unorthodox mystery

Deputy Police Chief Patrick Gallagher [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — Recently, members of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Investigative Division sought to solve a “puzzling” mystery.  

Trained investigators volunteered to be locked in a room with only their intuitive skills to help them solve challenging clues within a one-hour time limit.  

In an “escape room,” people seek to challenge themselves as a form of fun adventure.  Students, families and a host of other social groups gather to partake in this national obsession to “break out” and boast about their skills as a modern day Sherlock Holmes.   

What possible value could be gained by exposing police investigators to the same experience? How would a homicide, robbery or burglary detective gain needed skills to accomplish their job by spending a demanding hour trying to figure out how to escape from a puzzle filled room of riddles? 

Detectives typically attend very objective training that focuses on evidence collection, interview and interrogation skills, Fourth Amendment case law, crime scene management and a host of other skills that are specific to criminal investigative demands.

Is the escape room experience a waste of time for a police investigator? I’ll answer that question in a moment.

First, indulge me.

The men and women of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Investigative Division have been exposed to the worst 280 plus days in the history of our great department.

The past eight months since the Friday, May 31, mass shooting have been extremely stressful, and many of our investigators have worked more hours in pursuit of the many investigative tasks then at any time in the past. 

To say that our investigators have been asked to shoulder more work is an understatement.

The men and women of the VBPD’s Investigative Division have weathered the storm based in no small part due to their commitment to the mission, the leadership of the Detective Bureau and Special Investigations and a heightened sense of positive morale.     

Our investigators are called to some of the most horrific crime scenes at all hours of the day, night, weekends and holidays. The work that the Detective Bureau accomplished in managing the mass shooting would be enough of a challenge, and then there are the other day to day challenges.

The Forensic Services Unit has faced these same challenges, in addition to the need to add new staff to replace several experienced personnel who left for retirement and other opportunities. 

Undercover special investigations detectives have been incredibly busy as they continue to advance some of the most complex, long term investigations into human trafficking, gangs and opioid distribution.  

Our leaders have done great work at all levels. Although morale is high, when possible, we seek to advance every reasonable effort to improve it through meaningful training and team-building opportunities.

This was the framework that created a unique opportunity to provide the staff with an “out of the box” opportunity for training. At first glance, this training may not appear to be very helpful or meaningful. But a brighter picture emerges when one considers the deeper implication of this training.  

Teambuilding is less about individual skill sets but rather on fostering the innovation and creativity of the group. It exposes the need for creative communication skills, a need to accept possible alternative perspectives that are not limited when filtered through a single individual’s perceptions. Teambuilding fosters diversity of thought and promotes inclusion of the uniqueness that each person can bring to a challenge.

Teambuilding also produces the intrinsic values found in networking, socialization and the ability to rely on the strength of the team rather than on the narrow shoulders of one individual. From a leadership perspective, teambuilding can demonstrate that the individual is valued through the collective inclusion of the whole team.

One final thought – teambuilding, if done correctly, should be challenging, rewarding and, most importantly, fun.  

The collective leadership within the Investigative Division, through the management of three lieutenants and the supervisor of the Forensic Unit, worked together to ensure the objectives of the project were met. A training curriculum was established with objectives that included: set common goals, build trust, improve cohesion, improve morale and reinforce esprit de corp.

More than 135 employees were teamed into groups ranging in size from four to 10 members. Six dates were chosen to minimize the impact of the staffing who were still engaging in the day to day operation of the Division. All the training was conducted on-duty to minimize the impact on overtime. And each session was coordinated through the lesson plan and briefings and debriefings were completed to help facilitate lessons learned.

Prior to the adoption of this project, the Virginia Beach Police Foundation, a charitable nonprofit, was solicited to help cover the cost of this training. Through a very generous donation, the Police Foundation covered the entire cost.  

Lieutenants within the Investigative Division were tasked with locating a suitable vendor for the training. After a great deal of effort, Puzzle Quest in Chesapeake was selected, and a message was sent to the entire division:

“The leadership within the Investigative Division hopes that every member will gain something from this experience. The bottom line, we want everyone to have fun.”

The first group began its challenge in February.

So, is the escape room experience a waste of time for a police investigator?  No.

The Investigative Division is not unlike corporate America, a sports team or any other organization that seeks to advance and improve their methods of operation and improve their business model by becoming more efficient and effective.

The team-building experience doesn’t focus on the individual, their skill sets or their strength. Rather, what matters is how the collective skill sets and strengths make us successful as a team. We were able to reach that objective by working through a different kind of mystery together. 

The stakes may seem lower than what we face in our everyday work, but the goal of performing better as a team is important, too.

Deputy Chief Patrick L. Gallagher oversees the Virginia Beach Police Department Investigative Division.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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