Criminal Investigations Through the Lens of Complexity & Design Theory

When I was transferred last year to supervise a detective squad, I knew one (1) of my missions was to nurture a mindset that appreciated complexity and design. 

Complexity is a word that most police detectives and analysts use quite frequently. It's usually used to describe criminal cases, trends, or gangs that have a large number of variables. But that's not how I see it. Those would be things that are complicated. Now at the risk of sounding like a Cynefin kool-aid drinker (to which I openly admit that I taste from time to time), please understand that I specifically separate complicated from complex.

A huge financial crimes scheme tends to be more complicated than it is complex. It requires a structured, analytical, methodical mindset to seek and fit the pieces to see the whole puzzle. Detective solve these cases in sorta the same general methods. We even share labels for certain financial schemes that tightly fit specific patterns.

For the detectives out there, you can all imagine the guys and gals in your unit whose mindsets match up well with financial crimes. They have certain technical traits, skills, and ways of looking at the world. Hint: It is not generally through the lens of complexity theory.

Street gang crime tends to be more complex, though it is also complicated. It's complex because of the mobile, unstructured, mob-mentality of these groups. (Theorists might replace my words with: interactions, organic, or emergent. We are practitioners, so I'll do my best to spare the consultants' high-dollar and often trademarked buzzwords.) It's complicated because of sheer size, numbers of variables, volume of incidents, and overall amount of data on locations, associations, times, and people.

Detectives who do well in this environment are those who notice new and subtle patterns. They see commonalities. They see networks. They see trends.

And they develop theories. Multiple theories.

But these detectives (and analysts!) also know how to share this information. They appreciate the finer points of "design thinking." They know how to format intelligence bulletins so that others can see what they see. And think what they think. Or is it...think HOW they think? Hmmm.

Police reports are filled with fill-in-the-boxes, lists, checkmarks, and long play-by-play narratives. They do well with technical aspects, but very poor at conveying complexity, theories, open-loops, networks, associations, and matched clusters. We need a medium to supplement these white-paper reports. But what?

I have a theory: Get some of our paperwork to more closely resemble a restaurant's kids menu. Or an infographic. Or LEGO instruction booklet. Or an Apple event announcing a new iPhone. Or a tourist's museum map.

What?!?! A kid menu? Toy instructions?


We need ways to literally draw connections. And move them around. We need our people to better understand link analysis & social networks. We need tools to help our people better share the things they see and believe. And these "products" tend to look much more juvenile than typed, stuffy academic, professional white papers. My unit has experimented with different formats of intelligence and briefs and supplements. The feedback has been positive. Mostly.

Some folks are simply feeling threatened by these changes. Their apple carts are disrupted. They like the boxes and lists. They are comfortable in what they've done for years. And many have seen good results.

The theories of design thinking are frighteningly missing from police investigations. And where they do exist, we don't do a good enough job of bringing them into the spoken-about conscious levels.

But first, I believe we have to adjust our language to better convey these ideas. In my time as a supervisor, I've tried to bring in a new vocabulary. A new way to discuss what we see and believe and think. New words are being used to more clearly describe complex crime and patterns.

And not everyone is comfortable communicating in these new terms. They like talking like they've always done. With rhetoric. Platitudes. Boilerplate language.

I also fear the US crime intel analysis community is taking a wrong turn in attempts to reduce complex adaptive environments to merely industrialized models. It collects tons of data, but the connections seem to be reduced to closed-loop algorithms. Maybe I'm cynical or ignorant here, but like I said...seems to be a bad slide. How do you see it?

My team has been doing really great things. I consistently see them at the center of information. Being used as resources. Making connections. Seeing clusters. Reaching out. Sharing. And their results are something to be proud of. Can I definitively attribute it all to complexity and design theory? I can not rightly do that. But it's certainly my theory!

We are operating with gross volumes of information and tech. Video surveillance. License plate readers. Facial recognition. Cell phone records. Databases. Social media. And of course...street intelligence. How will we weave this all together?

Through humans. Doing old school knocking on doors. Walking sidewalks. Taking to people. Sharing ideas. Seeing things that a computer cannot.

It's through a lens of complexity and design theory.

At least that's how I see the future of police criminal investiations right now.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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