Lessons in Situational Awareness from Columbo

The painting by Jaroslav Gebr of Peter Falk as Columbo from Season 9, Episode 1: Murder, A Self PortraitColumbo was an American crime drama television series starring Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The show aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 and on ABC from 1989 to 2003.

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In the series, Columbo is a seemingly every-day homicide detective who wears a rumpled beige raincoat and projects a casual, polite, warm, charming, respectful, humble, deferential, patient, soft-spoken, and unassuming demeanor, all of which are a disguise for extremely shrewd and intelligent situational awareness. He often leaves a room only to return with the catchphrase, “Just one more thing” to ask a critical question.

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Along with another keenly observant detective—Sherlock Holmes—Columbo embodies an innate, probing, and continuous curiosity about his surroundings. He is an excellent model for us to emulate in how to be unceasingly alert when we are in public.

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Two glasses of ice cream soda scene from Columbo Season 8, Episode 2: Murder, Smoke and ShadowsTake for example the 1989 Season 8, Episode 2, “Murder, Smoke and Shadows,” in which Columbo spots a couple of ice cream sodas left on the counter in the murderer’s office. Colombo explains what he deduces from his quick surveillance:

“Take these ice cream soda glasses. If I’m on a homicide case, sir, and I had to work with these glasses, well then, I’d have to find these two glasses interesting. I’d have to say that you used all this recently: two ice cream soda glasses, straws, spoons,….” [he tastes the contents in one glass] “I’d say chocolate, sir; chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream, what we used to call a ‘black-and-white.’

One glass of ice cream soda scene from Columbo Season 8, Episode 2: Murder, Smoke and Shadows“And the way the cream has hardened along the rim, I’d say maybe this morning, but you wouldn’t use ice cream in the morning, so I’d say maybe sometime yesterday. I’d have to say the two of you were enjoying two ‘black-and-white’ ice cream sodas. But not really enjoying them, because one is hardly touched and the other one is only half-finished. So you might have been interrupted. Or maybe the two of you were very busy together. Or maybe something upset the both of you and you just left them there. As to who that other person might have been, I’d say it’s probably a man: no lipstick marks.”

Practicing acute observation skills in the fashion of Columbo everywhere we go will contribute to acquiring rich information for clear threat assessment, better decision making, and prepared problem solving.

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