Monday, January 13, 2014

What makes a good BOLO?

One common task for crime analysts is the creation of BOLOs. BOLO is an acronym for Be On the LookOut and is a bulletin that may be distributed within an agency or to multiple law enforcement agencies. BOLOs are commonly used to highlight Wanted Persons, specific crimes or officer safety information. BOLOs usually contain sensitive law enforcement information and are not distributed to the public.

But what makes a good BOLO? In my 23 years in law enforcement I've seen some good BOLO's, some mediocre BOLOs and some that fall somewhere in between. 

Before we get to the elements that make a good BOLO it will probably be helpful that we talk a little about what makes good design. A well designed publication is attractive and easy to read. It draws the eye to important details. But most importantly good page design doesn’t get in the way of what you are trying to communicate. 

About twenty years ago I read a slim but outstanding book The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. No, not Robin Williams the comedian but the designer and author. Her slim volume opened my eyes to what makes good page design. In her book she says there are four basic principles of page design. They are:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

Contrast draws our eyes to the page by reducing monotonous elements. Think book chapter titles that use different fonts, thickness or colors from the page text. Repetition unifies design elements across multiple pages. Kind of like a logo or header that is on every page of a document. Alignment and proximity help to group like items together and connect the different groups to make one coherent document. 

Since I have been both a reader and producer of law enforcement BOLOs and have been for quite some time I have some thoughts on what else makes a good BOLO. 

Make your BOLO visually appealing. Include a picture, map or other graphic to catch the reader’s attention. For a Wanted Person BOLO this is pretty easy, include a picture of your wanted person. If your BOLO is about a crime or crime series, a still from surveillance footage or crime scene photo will work. In an Officer Safety BOLO you can either use a suspect’s photo if the BOLO is about a person or a picture of the seized weapon or evidence. If all else fails and you have no other photos or graphics you can always fall back to a map of the area you’re talking about in your BOLO. 

It helps to learn some basic photo editing skills such as how to crop a photo to remove extraneous elements, or how to adjust brightness or contrast to make the photos or graphics look better. 

Keep your BOLOs to one page whenever possible. Keep in mind that your officers have limited room in their patrol cars and a whole lot of other crap to carry. Keeping a BOLO to a one pager makes it more likely that your officers are going to read it and keep them handy. They won’t read a novella length BOLO no matter how pretty it is. You may have to ruthlessly edit your BOLO to get it down to only the most essential facts to keep it to one page. To quote Sgt. Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is perfectly OK because you’re going to include information on how they can contact you for more info. 

Think about branding. This means that you include a patch or badge logo that readily identifies the BOLO as coming from your agency. This will help officers from other agencies recognize the origin of the BOLO. You also need to include your contact information. In addition to giving readers a person to contact for more info, this will also help you to establish a reputation as a resource for your agency as well as for other agencies. 

You also need to include a statement or disclaimer that indicates how or if this document can be redistributed or protected. I know that seems like a no-brainer but I’ve seen law enforcement sensitive bulletins with sensitive criminal intelligence information posted on public social media sites or even forwarded to the media. 

What software you should use to create BOLOs? I avoid using word processing applications such as Microsoft Word for BOLOs. Instead I use a page layout application like Microsoft Publisher. The reason is that a page layout application gives you much greater control on where you can place layout elements on a page than a word processing application. If you don’t have publisher you can use an open source page layout application like Scribus. In a pinch you could use a drawing application like LibreOffice Draw. I’ve even seen folks with limited options use a presentation application like Microsoft PowerPoint. All of these types of applications will give you much greater control over the placement of page elements. 

Lastly, if you distribute these files electronically, use a standard file format such as PDF. Nearly any computer, tablet or smartphone can view PDF’s without having to have any additional software. If you send it in a proprietary format such as a Microsoft Publisher file, you run the risk of the recipients not being able to view your BOLO. 

The image above is a mock BOLO I created for this post using the open source software Scribus. It’s modeled after the actual BOLO template I use I normally use for BOLOs at my agency. Don’t be afraid to copy, modify or mash-up my design when you create your next BOLO. 

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