Where are the leaders?

The increasing cries for police reform today are not new, however there is probably a greater critical mass advocating for reforms than at any in the past 50 years.

Historically the police have a pattern that is playing out again today. There is a scandal or event involving the police that results in cries for reform; a commission is appointed to study the problem and make recommendations to address the problem; the task force or commission gathers information and writes a report suggesting changes; the commission is congratulated for their work and the report goes on the shelf. No significant, long lasting changes occur. The reports from past commissions are all available: The Wickersham Commission in 1931 issued a Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement; the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration issued a report on The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society in 1967; and in 2015 The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report on policing.

Each of these efforts led to small changes in policing, but did not change the culture that allowed the precipitating events to occur. For example, the Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing recommended that police move from a “warrior” to a “guardian” mindset, but for many agencies little progress occurred.

Many legislative bodies are considering legal changes to address some of the specific problems identified (for example labor arbitrators who overturn discipline, failure of officers to report misconduct by fellow officers, publishing disciplinary actions, etc.). These will not address the underlying problem that exist in the culture in many police agencies.

The only way to implement significant change, and address the cultural problems within police agencies, is through leadership.

Rosalinde Torres from the Boston Consulting Groups has a great TED Talk titled “What It Takes to Be a Great Leader. She says that leadership today is defined by the responses to three questions:

  • Where are you looking to anticipate your next change? (great leaders see around corners)

  • What is your diversity measure of your personal and professional networks? (a source of pattern identification)

  • Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past? (can you survive being told that your new idea is stupid)

This is exactly what is needed not only in policing, but in all of public safety today.

Today the police are often placed in an impossible position; they are expected to solve many problems that are societal problems. And they are ill equipped and unprepared to solve them. They are given the authority to use the criminal law, but many of the issues they are called upon to address are non-criminal in nature.

Take the example of people who are dealing with mental health issues. Forty to fifty years ago the move was to de-institutionalize people suffering from mental health issues. The out of sight approach of locking them up in institutions was not humane. But releasing them into the community without adequate support and services is a travesty. This is a societal problem that becomes a police problem, as there are typically few other services available. The police feel pressure from their communities to “deal with” the people with mental health issues in the community as the often impact the quality of life in the community.

The police are not adequately equipped to deal with people suffering from mental illness. If an officer is lucky, he or she has received 40 hours of “Crisis Intervention Team” training so they are better able to communicate and resolve issues involving mental health. How much training does a mental health professional receive in order to effectively deal with mental health issues? They usually have a minimum of a master’s degree in psychology or related discipline.

How about de-escalation skills? How much training do officers actually receive in the skills to de-escalate a hostile of volatile situation?

Police officers are not insensitive to the challenges they face, and the impossible situation they often find themselves thrust into. Officers develop “ad hoc” responses to these impossible situations, and these creep into police culture and become the norm in dealing with the impossible problems.

To address these challenges, and to implement real change, requires leadership. Go back to Torres’ three questions that great leaders can answer; can leaders in public safety honestly answer those questions? We need to develop the leaders at all levels of public safety organizations who CAN answer those questions for their communities.

Public safety organizations need leaders throughout the organization who are able to communicate and relate both internally (within their organization) and externally (within the community).

We need to start teaching leadership in the basic academy, to get people entering the professions to recognize their leadership roles. Los Angeles Fire Department has been doing this for more than five years, and they are starting to see some results as new firefighters are willing to step up and exercise leadership.

We need to develop leaders in line personnel; these are the people who see what needs to be done but often do not have an avenue to act upon it. I am working with a corporal in a police agency who is trying to develop a mentorship program within his agency to better prepare future leaders.

First line supervisors can exercise a critical leadership role. Do they know what the issues are facing their community? Their line personnel? Do they speak up and hold people accountable?

Public safety organizational leadership needs to listen; what does your personal and professional network look like? Are you listening in an “echo chamber” or to the variety of voices both in your community and in your agency?

We have traditionally taught management as people are promoted in public safety – how to best get the job done. This is also important to public safety organizations, but we also need to ask the question, “Are the right things getting done?”

In surveying new supervisors who are attending supervision training at the public safety academy in Oregon, they are asked “in your view what is the top factor that inhibits innovation and reform in policing?” The top four responses have been:

  • Resources

  • Culture

  • Resistance to Change

  • Leadership


Legislation can directly address the first factor and have some impact of the fourth one. However effective leadership can impact all four.

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International Public Safety Leadership & Ethics Institute
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Founded in 2005

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