Monday, December 24, 2012

Grokking Your System

A couple of years ago, I was asked to submit a post to a new crime analysis related blog. That blog is now defunct but I think there is still some value to be gained from the post so I am reposting it here.
  grok - To understand. Connotes intimate and exhaustive knowledge. When you claim to ‘grok’ some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity. - The Jargon File, version 4.1.0, retrieved 3/14/2010
I was having a phone conversation the other day with a crime analyst from another agency. During our conversation, we were discussing the topic of hiring crime analysts and qualifications for analysts. During this conversation I told him that I have become convinced that what makes a crime analyst most valuable to their agency is their knowledge of their agency's system. To put it another way, a crime analyst must "grok their system".

The word "grok" originally was coined by a science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in one of his books. It later became part of the vernacular of geeks in the early days of computer science. It's a good word to use here in this context because it's probably the only word that really describes the level of knowledge that crime analysts should aspire to.
 
Defining The System?

While we're at it, let's dissect this assertion. What constitutes an agency's system? Your first thoughts are likely your department's computerized records management system or RMS. In fact, some agencies hire analysts with a computer science background. Today's law enforcement is heavily computerized.

Dispatchers use Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems to record calls for service and Mobile Data Terminals (MDT) to dispatch officers to calls. When officers complete offense reports, they are entered into an RMS, when they book people into jail, information is recorded into another database. In fact, nearly everything we do is entered into one database or another. Being able to extract information from all this stored data is important. But these databases are just a small part of your agency's "system".

Your agency’s procedures are also a part of the system, this includes both written policies and procedures and the unwritten practices. In fact, for many agencies the unwritten practices may be just as important if not more important. Knowing where to find a certain type of information may heavily depend on identifying the places that data is likely to be captured.

On a similar vein, knowing the personalities within your agency and how they fit into the system is also important. In practical terms, knowing who to call to find a piece of information is just as good as having that piece of information. The same thing applies to other law enforcement agencies and other departments within your own governmental body.

Why This Is Important 

It’s not just your book knowledge that makes a crime analyst valuable to their agency. While job descriptions for crime analysts often list things like knowledge of SQL, skills with a particular brand of GIS or the ability to administer a certain RMS they don’t list skills with agency’s system holistically. The reason for this is that this skill is a lot harder to quantify.

But because how much you grok your system is hard to measure, doesn’t mean that it can be ignored. A crime analyst is probably one of the few people in your agency that gets to see the whole picture. The Patrol guys are focused on Patrol functions, the detectives are focused on their casebook, and the administration is focused on providing resources. Crime analysts are or should be measuring and analyzing nearly every part of your department’s workflow. This clear view of the big picture often makes them the “go to guy” or gal in their agency.

As a crime analyst you should make sure that you completely understand your agency’s workflow from the moment someone calls 911 till the criminal case is disposed of in the courts. Anything less is not truly grokking your system.

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