Time for a New Police?

Towards the end of the 20th century, a number of us realized that if policing in America was to move forward, to continuously improve, we had to change the way in which we were leading the men and women within our organizations.

We needed a new style of leadership. One place it began was in Madison, Wisc. when we decided to implement department-wide (and beginning at the top) something we called “Quality Leadership.”

For a number of years, I taught this idea around the U.S. on behalf of the IACP. We believed it was an idea whose time had come. From that, a workbook was developed and has now been updated.

Years later, much of what we learned was incorporated within the IACP leadership program, “Leadership in Police Organizations” (LPO).

While these efforts have not eliminated top-down, abusive, and coercive leadership within the ranks of our police, I believe it has made an impact. Today’s educated police leader will not only know about efforts to do this in his or her own field, but also be knowledgeable about similar work within the fields of business and education. [I would note here, as examples, the work of Robert Greenleaf (“Servant Leadership”), Tom Gordon (“Leadership Effectiveness Training”), John Kotter (“Leading Change”), Steven Covey (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”), Jim Collins (“Good to Great”), Peter Senge (“The Fifth Discipline”), David Marquet (“Turn the Ship Around”), and the Harvard Business Review’s “Ten Best Reads” on Leadership, Change Management, and Emotional Intelligence. These authors, plus many others in the management field strongly argue against the “old leadership” of “my way, or the highway!” and “do it because I said so!”]

The next struggle I predict is discussing a need for a New Police. This struggle began a few years ago with talk about whether police are  “warriors” or  “guardians” and how police perceive their role in American society.

Along with that argument came Sue Rahr’s leadership in Washington State and Radley Balko’s book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” and the growing use of highly militarized SWAT teams in our nation’s cities and counties and local police departments procuring military hardware like MRAPs — Mine-Resistant, Armored Personnel Carriers.

From my perspective, the two major problems facing policing today are their inability to effectively and visibly control their uses of deadly force and, secondly, their unwillingness to treat every person they contact with dignity and respect (this is fully captured in Prof. Tom Tyler’s work with “Procedural Justice“).

The problem is less about policies and training and more about leadership — it’s about an “attitude” that currently exists about people that has come to infect the ranks in many of our nation’s police departments.

Let me explain. My sense is that since my early days in policing there has been an attitude erosion — it came about through a combination of many factors and events. I would highlight as examples the North Hollywood Bank Robbery in the 1990s, the subsequent development of SWAT teams, politically-motivated  wars on crime, drugs, and illegal immigrants.

When you add in more military equipment, camouflaged uniforms, and an attitude that combines “I fear, therefore I can shoot!” and “I have a right to stand my ground!” rather than one that stresses slowing things down, taking cover, assessing the situation, and using proven methods of de-escalation — particularly when confronting suspects who suffer from mental illness — you get what I call “The Attitude.”

This attitude has always been an undercurrent in policing since I entered it over 50 years ago. However, wiser, more seasoned cops, had a strong influence on us. More recently, The Attitude has been revealed in discussions about “warrior cops” and those cops who more appropriately call themselves “guardians.” Nonetheless, it’s about an attitude concerning the work police do and what they are expected to do. It’s not that cops should never be warriors — there’s a time for that, but it cannot let it become the primary orientation and attitude of our police.

We all must realize that the day-to-day job of a police officer is being a selfless servant; being guardian-like. Years ago, we recruited, trained and led police whom we said were, in fact, “social workers in blue!” For many of us, that’s what police do.

The community can never be the enemy — if it is, police have failed tremendously. The basics of effective community-oriented policing is being a guardian, acting respectfully with others, collaborating with community members on solving the problems they identify, and building long-term ongoing relationships with them. Cops with The Attitude seem to have chips on their shoulders, see themselves in an “us versus them” situation, and do not see  they have a primary role in preserving lives. These officers have no place in a modern police department. Period.

Can these “Old Police” be retrained and refitted for community-oriented policing? I think so. But police must first be able to admit there is a problem. Because if most police think nothing is wrong, then nothing will change.

This is where leadership (along with recruiting and hiring college graduates and providing them with high-quality training programs linked to an academic community) can make a difference.

Police leaders must be willing to strongly integrate themselves and their officers directly into the communities they serve. The current distance, particularly between police and communities of color, must be overcome and that will take honest, heart-felt work. But it can be accomplished.

When we do this we accomplish two important goals: police become more effective in their work, and as they become more trusted and respected, their work becomes safer. This was my experience in the past as a beat cop and I saw it work within my community when a was a chief of police. It is what needs to happen today, of this I am sure.