“How Can I Lead Change When I’m Not the Boss?

“Every police officer a leader!”

A good question recently came up during my class at UW-Platteville on “Police Leadership in Changing Times:”

“How can I lead change when I’m not the boss?”

Leading change is never easy whether you are in the ranks or the boss! While there are effective and time-tested steps that can be taken by formal leaders such as casting a strong vision, being persistence and passionate, a young police officer often has to survive in an atmosphere of always having to maintain the status quo; and never asking why, “Why? that’s the way we’ve always done it around here!”

In thinking more about this question, I consulted with a friend of mine who recently retired as a commander from a large, west coast police department. How did we manage to negotiate (survive) in a police subculture that often violated our core principles? Our experiences were quite similar.

For me, the adage “every police officer a leader” is true. Even police officers just out of the academy must be able to practice leadership in order to implement true Community-Oriented Policing and engage in effective neighborhood problem solving.

But how does a rank-and-file police officer lead change among even more senior colleagues? My experience is that you do it by first knowing who you are and what you stand for – the kind of a police officer are you going to be! Think about that before they pin a badge on you!

Secondly, young police officers need to become tactically proficient, ask for assignments in units in which officer integrity is not a problem, and seek like-minded allies.

Above all else, actively practice that which you say you believe. For me it was being proficient, practicing an Asian martial art (and volunteering to be a defensive tactics instructor), willing to help other officers become better, showing respect to all sorts of citizens (even, as they say, the “dirt bags!”) and keeping calm in the faces of danger.

Officers can also organize around their values — that’s what we did. We organized a chapter of the national law enforcement fraternity, Lambda Alpha Episilon, now called the American Criminal Justice Association, around officers who had college degrees or were attending college. This was, of course, in contrast to our police union which, at the time, was interested only in increasing wages and benefits, not raising entry standards. We became active in both organizations.

As rank and file officers, and under the auspices of a national professional fraternity, we began to speak out about police issues that we believed needed to be addressed in our city. This, of course, created tension and some political conflict.

Nevertheless, we began to build allies in our community, such as journalists and civic leaders who supported our efforts. Our members joined organizations like the Jaycees, Rotary and other civic groups that had never had a police office as a member. We took the 1967 President’s commission on policing as our playbook as their recommendations found a foothold in the community. We kept the commission’s recommendations in the public eye.

Whenever a new mayor was elected in our city it meant a clean-sweep of the department command staff. With no preparation or training, politically active union members became chiefs and inspectors. In fact, our union president at the time, a detective, was elected mayor (but that’s another experience I relate in Arrested Development and how he derailed my appointment as our university’s chief of police!

We campaigned for such things as college tuition assistance, qualifications and a contract for the police chief, and for the department to engage more strongly in relations with our growing African-American community.

Many of us gravitated to the tactical squad because its night hours permitted us to attend day classes at the university. But bringing together a group of college-oriented cops not only help balance work and our educations, it gave support to those of us who were working for change in the department.

While few of us early rank-and-file reformers rose to command rank in our own department, a number of us went on after graduation to lead police departments in our metropolitan area and in nearby states.

My sense is that if we did a history of “college cops” in America during this era we would find the same kind of things happened in other cities. At least I would hope so.

So, to those young officers and criminal justice students I would strongly encourage them to begin leading NOW! The kind of leader I champion, write about, and teach should not be unfamiliar to anyone who is studying or practicing democratic policing — men and women who are well-educated, mature, honest, compassionate, highly-trained, tactically proficient, culturally and racially sensitive, respectful to everyone, emotionally mature, a practitioner of Procedural Justice, controlled in use of force, and willing to work collaboratively with community members. (Whew! Yes, being a police officer in a free society is difficult and demanding and only the very best among us should seek to serve.)

When police practice these traits, every officer becomes an informal leader not only in their own department, but also within the communities they serve.

When this becomes the standard of policing, we will have no problem selecting leaders who have the character and ability to move our nation’s police forward in the right direction. Press on!