The Great Silence

Ever wonder who speaks for our nation’s police? Is it the Director of the FBI? The president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police? I wonder, because I don’t hear much from anyone about the need to improve our police.

Years ago, a friend of mine, Gary Hayes, was instrumental in forming what we thought would be a police “think tank” — the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). I was a member for years and remember the excitement of those early years when we all were working to improve police and bring research into the police field.

Then, like most change-oriented, creative organizations, it became mainstream. And mainstream in policing is not pushing the edges of, or thinking outside of, the box.  Instead, it is maintaining the status quo. The same thing happened to the Police Foundation. Good intentions at first, then poor carry-through. And, oh yes, those federal dollars — they sure can turn a fellow’s head.

Any improvement we see today seems to be coming not through the actions of police leaders, but rather through the actions of the  federal court. They are taking action in response to what has been demonstrated to them as patterns of abuse and questionable conduct by police. Currently, New Orleans, Seattle, and Oakland are under court review. Other cities, like Newark and New York, are also being considered as needing federal court oversight. This process is slow and costly and gets mayors and police chiefs “off the hook.”

What we are experiencing is what I call the “Great Silence.” It is the reticence of police leaders in our nation to stand up and speak out — an abdication of their professional responsibility. The job of a top leader like a chief of police is to lead needed change and improvement rather than wait for outside action to occur and then, when it happens, to resist it.

I have worked in the police field for over 30 years and have observed it for another two decades — a half-century of leading and watching police. I have always strongly believed that top leaders should speak out as to what needs to be done — to be the leaders of necessary change. Police could be so much better.

A top leader envisions a great future; hires the best and the brightest to serve; properly trains, leads, and listens to those in the ranks, as well as members of the community. Leadership is about continuous improvement — forever. Evaluating the work of a police department is more about developing and nurturing positive and trusting relationships with the community than juggling “reported crime” numbers and blocking open records requests.

Police chiefs must remember that while they are appointed to be the head of the police department, they also are to be the people’s chief of police as well — to represent and serve them as well. And that means speaking up and breaking the “Great Silence” when they know things are not as they should be, taking responsibility when things go wrong, and fixing that which is broken.

For more on the seven important improvement steps that police must take to move forward, see my new book which both personal journey, police history, and improvement manual for change.