“Star”Chiefs and Police Reform

How Some Police Chiefs Are Like LeBron James and Why That’s Bad for Cities

Former Baltimore Commissioner of Police Anthony Batts, PhD.
Former Baltimore Commissioner of Police Anthony Batts, PhD.

Last week, Mayor Rawlings-Blake replaced her police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts. She acted just hours after the police union issued a report critical of the department’s response to the riots set off in April by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

The mayor appointed Batts in 2012 after he had resigned as the police chief in Oakland, Calif., amid criticism of his handling of civil unrest there. Similar criticism awaited him in Baltimore after the April unrest. The city’s police union released a report also on Wednesday that was highly critical of the department’s handling of those disturbances.

This brings up on important leadership topic that was recently discussed in Vice News this week. They had called me for comment on an article they were writing about “star” police chiefs. I said, “Good chiefs should try to stay in one place as long as possible.”

I feel very strongly about this and have written extensively about the importance of perseverance, “stick-to-it-iveness” in leading change in a police department. I learned very early on in my career that if the men and women I lead did not perceive that I was there for the long run what I was leading would simply not “stick;” would not be sustained.

In the organizational world there is a term for those who are (again) experiencing change in their workplaces: BOHICA — “Bend Over Here It Comes Again.” Without commitment, passion and perseverance, changing police is but a fleeting effort. I went on:

“In my day, a star chief was committed to local, democratic policing, but now things look a little different,” Couper said. He became chief of police in Madison just as the Vietnam war was winding down, and relations between the city’s anti-war student body and its conservative police force hit a low point. To mend ties between police and the community, Couper knew he’d have to settle in for a long haul. “I said to everyone: ‘I ain’t going nowhere,'” he recalled.

Couper kept his job for the next 20 years, and is now credited with transforming the Madison Police Department, making peace between students and police, and easing tensions with the city’s black community. “It took 10 years before I was able to start making real changes,” said Couper, who has since retired.

Read the full article HERE.

That leads me into the discussion about peripatetic police chiefs and why they are bad for police reform.

What our nation needs is an educated, trained cadre of senior police leaders. As much as this has been tried from time to time (See Senior Police Management Institute), it just has not taken root in a system that equates “star” police chiefs more like politicians than competent organizational leaders.

The underbelly of all this is the police union. They are organized. They are a vote-influencers and few police leaders can stand up to them. When the Baltimore police union (Fraternal Order of Police) put out their critical report, the Commissioner was gone the very same day.

[Side note: If you read the criticism by the union it is about who gave the order for the police to stand-down and not stop the looting. Now sound police practice would dictate restraint in these situations defining which is more important — protecting life or property? If police were given the go ahead that night I suggest there would have been a high death toll. But then, police do not like to back down — and that’s why they need strong leaders.]

I wrote this about leading organizational change back in 1991 (Quality Policing: The Madison Experience).

“The (five) most important ingredients for successful organizational change are the following:

  • Having a clear vision of where you are going.
  • Having a strong, unyielding commitment from the chief executive.
  • Empowering employees and permitting them to participate in the direction and decisions of the organization.
  • Developing the skills and abilities of leaders as well as employees in the organization and continually training them.
  • Operating the organization for the long-term with persistence and patience.

All these factors take both time and commitment. A leader cannot get “street creed” from rank and file police officers without being there — doing hands-on leadership — walking your talk!

Unless cities are able to hire police leaders that are willing to stay the course, do the work, struggle with the union and lead them to a better future, it will simply be “BOHICA” from the inside the organization and the development and improvement of our nation’s police will continue to be arrested.

  • Read more on the Batts firing in Baltimore HERE.
  • Still more on the Baltimore firing HERE.
  • And meet the new Interim Commissioner, Kevin Davis HERE.