by Alan K. Flora
“ICAC is the toughest job in law enforcement.” “No one should have to see what we see.” “The weight of this job is almost unbearable.” “There is more to do than we can ever possibly get done.”
These are all statements that I’ve heard time and time again. Members of my task force have uttered these words, as have my fellow ICAC Commanders, and I hate to admit it, but so have I. Some of you probably nodded your head in agreement as you read those opening sentences. And one could make strong arguments that all of those things are true. The fact is, hearing such statements makes me cringe, and I believe that the best thing for all of us would be if we did not repeat those words ever again. I’m not suggesting that we don’t acknowledge the stressors associated with this work. To be resilient, we must understand and accept how our jobs can take a toll on our bodies and minds. The point I’m making is that the go-to phrases for describing our mission should be a little more uplifting rather than dwelling on the hard parts.
I supervise a state agency Computer Crimes / ICAC unit and serve as the Commander of our state ICAC task force. I became a fulltime ICAC investigator in 2007 and took on the Commander role in 2015. Something I learned very early in my ICAC career was that recruitment and retention were challenging. A lot of law enforcement peers would tell me they admired the work of our task force, but very few of them wanted any part of it. I imagine most of us have heard someone say, “I could never do what you do.” Shortly before I became the supervisor of our ICAC unit, we posted a vacant position for which no one applied, and it wasn’t the first time that had happened. At that point, I had eight years in the ICAC world, and I had seen many people come and go. Some of those had barely spent any time in it before they made their escape to greener pastures. But there was a handful of us who had served for a long time and remained very enthusiastic. I asked a lot of questions and looked closely at those around me to figure out why some remained engaged while others burned out so quickly. The key difference I observed was that those of us with longevity and enthusiasm were the ones who focused on the positives.
The initial meeting I held as the ICAC unit supervisor was critical, as it set the tone for everything I hoped to accomplish in the coming years. One of my first topics was the recent posting for the ICAC position that no one wanted. I asked the people in the room to tell me what they loved about their jobs. They mentioned rescuing children, helping distressed parents, making the world a safer place, and generally knowing that their work had made a difference. What they talked about inside our closed-door meeting were their wins. But I knew from experience that several of them weren’t sharing the same information outside of our team. Our culture at the time was to keep our operations a secret. When others would ask about our work, they frequently heard about how hard it was, and that we were understaffed. But no one talked about the fun parts. So, I challenged our ICAC unit to focus on the positive aspects of the job and to share success stories with their coworkers in other assignments. I reminded them that people want to play for a winning team. Recruiting the help that we needed was only going to happen if we exploited every opportunity to highlight our victories and tell others how lucky we were to be a part of such an exceptional mission.
I could not have known five years ago the considerable impact that meeting would have. My team didn’t just give me what I asked for; they far exceeded my expectations. In turn, I shouted their success stories from the rooftops to anyone who would listen. When we rescued a child or encountered a unique suspect, I didn’t hesitate to call my supervisor at night or send a midnight email. I didn’t share graphic details, just enough to convey that a good thing had happened. I became friends with our agency’s Public Information Officer and frequently forwarded news articles from all over the state for inclusion on our social media pages. My goal was that the ICAC unit would be the first thing the Executive staff talked about each morning, and we often were. It turned out that our work had been relatively secret for so long that others were starving for information about what we did. My supervisor and the PIO began to call for updates if a few days passed without me contacting them. They seemed to love telling our stories as much as I did, so we all shared in the wins. The excitement others had about our mission translated into higher morale on our team as they felt more appreciated. Before long, I was getting calls from people in other divisions asking if we had openings in the ICAC unit. When I reposted the vacant position a few months later, several people applied. The same has been true for every opportunity in the past five years. Multiple quality applicants now compete for our coveted positions. There was a time when we couldn’t give these jobs away, and now our only problem is that we don’t have enough for all of the great people who apply.
I recognize that not everyone reading this story has been blessed with the same opportunities I have. However, it is important to remember you do not have to be in a supervisory role to be a leader who builds enthusiasm for your ICAC program. The one thing we all control is our attitude, and positive (or negative) ones tend to be infectious. It’s highly likely that this is the most rewarding work of your career. Tell people that, and explain why. Look for opportunities to share the fun, and even funny parts of what you do. Sure, we see some terrible things, but if you’ve been at this for a while, you’ve probably got a story about a hilarious tattoo (on a suspect) that made you howl with laughter. If we ever meet in person, please ask me about “Made in England” and how that hidden ink put a man on the British sex offender registry. Or ask about my coworker who went to do a knock & talk in a sex offense case and found a sign in the suspect’s driveway that said, “Panty Bandit Parking.” Whatever it is that makes your job fun, share it. Whether you serve on a team of twenty or you’re a one-person show, it’s up to you to sell your program to those who don’t understand it. If you present it with enthusiasm, you might be surprised how many others will buy-in.
Alan K. Flora
Alan is the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Computer Crimes Unit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI). Since 2007, SAC Flora has been assigned to the SBI Computer Crimes Unit as part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. Since 2015, he has served as the Commander of the North Carolina ICAC Task Force.