Lessons Learned from Making Mistakes
Updated: May 11, 2021
Hello all. It has been a few months since I published my last blog post. Took the summer off to concentrate on, well, just taking it easy and figuring out content for this blog. I trust you all had a wonderful summer – I know I did. Now that I am back to writing this blog, I thought I would start out with something one of you asked me to write about – a time when I made a mistake as a cop and learned a valuable lesson from it. This lesson has stuck with me since the incident happened in 1979 so here we go!
As most of you know, I was a Police Officer for a few years, in Oakland, California in the late 70’s prior to joining CIA. The Oakland Police Department was a seminal experience in my life. I had always wanted to become a Police Officer since I was a little boy. I have pictures of myself at age 6 or 7, at one of my birthday parties, wearing a toy shoulder rig and a toy .38 caliber snub nose revolver.
Just like the ones I saw in all the detective and police shows I used to watch on TV. Those old enough to remember “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye” and “Peter Gunn” will know what I am talking about. Those who don’t, Bing these shows (have nothing against Google but I DID work for Microsoft for 16 years!) Joining the Oakland Police Department (OPD) was my first real professional job and was a testing ground for me.
I loved being a cop and the city itself a tough one to work in. We had a lot of crime including the usual cast of characters: pimps, prostitutes, armed robbers, burglars, thieves, murderers, rapists, juvenile delinquents, Hells Angels, etc.
We saw them all in Oakland. But, we were well trained and I was blessed to work with some of the finest men and women I have ever worked with in my life, to include CIA and Microsoft. I thrived in that environment. I was the first one out of our academy (outside of two other officers who had previous law enforcement experience prior to coming to OPD) to be cut loose from field training and allowed to ride in my own patrol car working my own beat that was assigned to me. Pretty heady for a 21 year old! I think I did my share of good there in my short time on the force. More importantly, this was my first time, in a professional sense, seeing great leadership up close and personal.
Now let’s get to the mistake and what I mean about “Lessons Learned from Making Mistakes.”
I mentioned the prostitutes and pimps that we had in Oakland. The beat that I worked in West Oakland had a lot of these folks working on one of the major streets in my area, San Pablo Avenue. It used to be kind of a cat and mouse thing where prostitutes and pimps and sometimes their customers or “johns” would be on a corner on the street, see a police car, and dash into one of the many ratty “hotels” on the street where they would hide until we left the area, or until we chased them into the establishments to arrest them. This is if they were completing a transaction where money was exchanged etc.
If they were just standing on the corner, there wasn’t much we could do other than park our cars in front of them, or get out and do a field interrogation, getting their names and ID for future reference. Notwithstanding the prostitution itself, there were a lot of bad crimes (robberies, drugs, shootings etc.) associated with this activity.
All of us carried large industrial sided briefcases which held our paperwork, flashlights as well as a copy of the California Penal Code. In the Police Academy, we went through a rigorous curriculum in the California Penal Code since it was the basis of how we made arrests legally. I was a student of the Penal Code and one day, was searching for a something in the code that would allow me to find another law to enforce this prostitution problem.
I found one code that I thought “aha! – I can use this one!” It was California Penal Code 408 “Unlawful Assembly.” It said that “two or more people assembling together for the purpose of a) doing something illegal or b) doing something legal but in a violent, boisterous or tumultuous manner. In my simple rookie cop brain, I thought I had found a viable law to arrest these folks. So, one day, I decided to test out my theory. I found two prostitutes hanging on the street and after identifying them, I proceeded to arrest them on Penal Code 408.
I remember to this day, one of the suspects asking me what that was? One thing I found out as a cop, most of your veteran criminals knew the penal code sections of the laws they were violating as much as you did. When I told the two ladies “Penal Code 408” they both looked at each other and then to me and said “what is that!”
I proceeded to tell them what the code said and they looked quizzically at me but went with the flow, no problem.
I thought I had been quite inventive when about an hour later after the arrest and the suspects were booked into the city jail, I received a communication from my Sergeant, a great guy named Nishihara, to meet him at a nearby location. (In those days, we were blessed with a Dept. of Justice grant that gave all of our patrol vehicles, early computers where you could run license plates and even send messages car-to-car.) That is how I got the notification from Nishihara to meet him.
When I got to the location, Nishihara was outside of his vehicle with a slight frown on his face. I thought “oh boy, what did I do?” Nishihara asked me about the arrest I had just made and I proceeded to regale him with my knowledge of the Penal Code with regard to section 408. Nishihara then proceeded to tell me that I had arrested the two prostitutes on what in essence was the “riot act.” He explained to me that the statute was meant to curb violent congregations of people, not for prostitutes loitering. He said they had to cut the two ladies loose – no charges.
At that point, I felt pretty low. I had made a mistake. One that meant that I had used a statute wrongly to arrest two people, and that they had to be cut loose. It didn’t matter (and shouldn’t) that we all knew the two persons arrested and that they had been arrested numerous times before for a variety of offenses in the neighborhood. Bottom line, I blew it. Now Nishihara could have done one of two things: a) Read ME the riot act, or b) Make this a learning opportunity.
I have seen many so-called leaders over my decades of management, do the former and very few, the latter. Nishihara did the latter.
He told me that he understood why I did what I did and that he knew I thought I was using the Penal Code correctly. He admonished me to check with senior officers in the future if I felt inclined to be “innovative” with my use of the Penal Code. But the bottom line is that he wanted me to learn from this.
He knew I wasn’t trying to abuse my authority and that in my rookie zeal, I was trying to find some lawful way to take these persons off the streets. That said, he reminded me that I still had a lot to learn, to come to him as well if I needed guidance in future and to go forth and do no more harm – smile.
Nishihara was my first real boss in the working world. The fact that I remember this incident over 40 years later tells you the impression this incident left on me. If Nishihara had done the former course of action, criticizing me and making me feel stupid, I would have remembered that as well.
He knew what all good leaders know. Your troops will make mistakes, guaranteed. Sometimes they will do it with the best of intentions. How you, as a leader, react to these mistakes, and turn the mistakes into lessons learned, will make a profound difference on your employee, for the good, or for the bad.
Had he reacted in a negative way, berating me and making me feel guilty, maybe I would have never been inclined to take chances again in my professional career. Good leaders must use these times to coach, mentor and build up your employees so they feel emboldened to continue to innovate and try new things without feeling like if they mess up, that is it for them.
I have never been perfect as a leader and am sure, in the course of my decades of leadership experience, I have gotten angry at an employee and have not made them feel good at all. But I have always tried to make amends, talk to the employee, forgive them, encourage them and help them move forward.
That is what I encourage all of you who are in leadership positions to remember. Nishihara’s response to my mistake has reverberated with me, positively, for decades. That is how profound your response is to one of your employees when he/she makes a mistake. Remember this. Thanks Sgt. Nishihara for being an awesome leader and for giving me the chance to learn from my mistake.
Until next time, keep on leading and please give me feedback on my blog and what things you may want me to cover in future posts.