Listening to Police and Citizens

images-1[Ed. Note: I have taken the liberty of editing and abbreviating the following paper by Alex Salazar and John Mutz with their permission in order to make it available here.

Over the past few months, I have been in contact with them and other change-minded police officers – both currently in service and retired, from patrol officers to commanders and chiefs. I am encouraged by what I see and hear!

Alex Salazar has over 29 years of experience in law enforcement and professional investigation work. After serving in the United States Air Force as a security specialist, Alex joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).  As a rookie, he was assigned to the infamous Rampart Division where he was first exposed to the corrupt insular culture within law enforcement. After nine years of serving as an LAPD officer on street patrol and working in an undercover capacity to expose drug crime in the most blighted areas in Los Angeles, he resigned from the LAPD. For over a decade now, Alex has been traveling around the country speaking on the topic of police culture; the prevalent code of silence within the departments and much needed national law enforcement reform dealing with the topic of institutional racism. During this period of his activism efforts, he has been on the front lines in Ferguson, New York, Ohio, Oakland, and most recently in Baltimore.   

John Mutz has worked in local and State law enforcement agencies and completed a 25-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department with ten of those years as a command officer leading change. Since his retirement, he has served as a senior consultant for a large executive development firm for 15 years following his retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department. He recently assisted in a pilot project to design and implement a mediation program for allegations of racial profiling against  Los Angeles police officers. He is currently working on a book, “The Police Service In Diverse Communities: A New Paradigm.” John has a B.A. degree in Criminal Justice from California State University, Sacramento and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.]


Listening to Police and Their Communities: A Report From The Field

By Alex Salazar and John Mutz

July 31, 2015

The purpose of this paper is to identify a pathway for restoring trust in the police.  It draws from our collective experience in walking the streets in many cities that have experienced a break in trust with the police, in observing people, and in listening to many stories about their personal contact with their local police officers in settings like Ferguson, Montgomery, Cleveland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco.

While it is doubtful that aggressive crime suppression in communities of color has ever been truly effective, we don’t believe it can restore trust and repair a broken relationship between the police and those they serve. The feedback we have heard is loud and clear.  We continue to experience what seems to be on a weekly basis media coverage that exposes police use of deadly force involving young men of color.  We also have heard from many police officers who are deeply troubled by these events and are committed to finding a way to stop this trend and restore trust.

Many top media outlets feature experts hired to critique these incidents, and others warn viewers that these incidents are explosive and racially motivated.  Others convey their concern about this exposure leading to retaliation.  In our contacts with both officers and citizens on the streets of our nation we can validate the anger, frustration, and skepticism and have personally seen the tragic reactions in the form of arson, vandalism, and deaths of both community members and police officers that are a result of these incidents.

We recently appeared on a PBS television show focused on the topic of institutional racism in policing. One staff member said “this trend of  questionable police use of deadly force involving young black men will be with us for some time.  It is not going away.”  Sadly, we believe this is true.

Even though we have the recommendations of President Obama’s “21st Century Task Force on Policing,” the work of the U.S Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and huge damages awarded to families of young persons killed by police, we are still hopeful our nation’s police will emerge with better skills and abilities from the present crisis.

At the same time, we can point to many prestigious national commissions empaneled over the past four decades which have made important recommendations to improve our nation’s police, Yet few reforms remain.

In our experience and interviews, we attribute the present crisis to the so called ”war on drugs,” the presence of implicit bias, racism, sexism, classism, militarization of our police following September 11, 2001. Add to this poor leadership which has undermined input from rank and file officers, disregarding input from the community, and the existence of the “four obstacles” to police improvement which former chief of police David Couper identifies in his book, “Arrested Development” (2012) : anti-intellectualism, violence, racism, corruption, and discourtesy.

We heard from rank and file officers what we describe as the “I already know syndrome.” It is a negative leadership attitude that quashes listening and integrating new police practices without inclusion of rank-and-file officers. Today we feel it is critical to engage or re-engage police employees in a new leadership role which stresses asking, listening and developing a commitment to serve others above self.

After observing violence and property destruction in several of the cities we visited, and considering the staggering amount of money awarded to victims of police misconduct, we, along with many others, are now calling for new and better ways to police communities of color.

We believe our country can no longer have cities where people do not trust their police and do not see them as a legitimate authority.   The process to lead change in our nation’s police service, which consists of over 600,000 police in 17,000 agencies, is a formidable challenge; one that has few examples.

While police officers may not be able to connect people to jobs, help them get access to education, or remove the myriad obstacles many people who are either poor or of color face today, they can do something and that “something” is this:

  • Police officers can treat everyone with dignity and respect and leave them with a sense they have been treated fairly.

We have listened sadly to those who have lost loved ones or friends at the hands of police, and we have also listened with deep regret to police officers who grieve for the loss of colleagues who were the subject of violent retaliation.  We hear from all sides that no one is satisfied with the present outcomes we are experiencing.

Unfortunately, in our experience, the process to improve these outcomes will be a journey rather than a destination.  We must begin now to lead this change with a new understanding, a new view, new approaches, and be willing to address the resistance that typically comes with advocating change.

It is clear to us that not all police officers will be able to make the kind of change we are talking about. It is also evident that some members of communities will choose not to engage police, and there exists a small number who will continue to threaten and jeopardize the safety of others including police officers.

We believe, as the research and experience indicate, that real community-oriented policing works; crime is reduced and the safety of police officers and other community members is enhanced as a result of police actions which are respectful and fair. That is one of the great gifts of this style of policing.

We believe that our journey to improve begins with a commitment to seek and understand the truth by extraordinary listening which is to engage others with an open mind and heart.

This is not the place most officers are at today. The qualities and skills that make this kind of engagement possible is not part of today’s police training or skill sets of their leaders. We believe that define and adherence to shared organizational values and connecting police leaders to those values is essential for police today and in the years to come.

It is, essentially, what Robert Greenleaf identified years ago as “servant leadership.” It calls for leaders to “walk their talk,” inspire others to follow them, encourage those they lead to act and reward them for their good work. Twenty-first century leaders challenge the status quo; how things are done and look for new and creative ways of serving. The primary questions for such leaders is to ask those whom they lead, “How can we continuously improve that which we do?” and “Who is it we serve?”

These leadership behaviors have proven effective in the literature and research done concerning effective leadership. These behaviors are not unheard of in policing, but often demonstrate the gap between what is said and what is actually done.

The interviews we have conducted around the country clearly establish the reality of this gap.  The truth is that only by collecting reliable and on-going feedback from those who are being led can leadership be improved.

We suggest that many police departments in our nation do not value the input of their officers and, instead, maintain hostile workplaces. A servant leadership style with workplace mediation in cases of conflict, could restoring the internal trust needed between officers and their leaders. We believe until this is reconciled it will be difficult to see the kind of extraordinary service the community is calling for.

Unfortunately, today there are few, if any, police departments that actually measures feedback from the community, let alone that of their officers. This is critical. We need to measure the efforts police make to restore community trust. “Customer surveying,” however, police are not known for their “customer surveying,” relying, instead, on reported crime data to justify themselves. However, customer surveying was conducted by police for a number of years Madison, Wisc. in the late 80s and 90s. The data, were obtained by a letter from the chief asking for help and a self-addressed stamped envelop sent to randomly selected persons (those arrested, victims of crimes, witnesses, recipients of traffic tickets, and so forth). Today, such a survey could easily be conducted by the use of online survey sites such as Survey Monkey.

We are also following  a California Assembly Bill which calls for additional police training in areas of de-escalation of force, mediation skills , procedural justice, new communication skills, and the identification of implicit bias. Further, a new interest in the impact of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on police officers is emerging, and the reality is that this condition may be significantly overlooked and may lead to undermining officer performance in high stress occurrences.

From our experience in the field, we believe PTSD plays a significant role in communities under duress as well. Without inquiry, curiosity, openness, honesty, and a deeper level of listening we will know how we can properly respond to this problem.

Our belief is that the new generation of law enforcement officers is largely composed of committed, dedicated men and women wanting to serve, to make a difference and who demand a larger role in leadership.

Unfortunately, many excellent police officers who push for improvement are being branded as “problem officers.”  These officers are more likely to expose organizational misconduct and talk openly about the negative aspects of the police sub-culture, which is heavily influenced by the infamous “blue wall of silence.”

It is well known that those who report the negative aspects of policing, including misconduct and illegality, pay a severe cost which ranges from shunning to personal threats. While most states have some kind of protection for those who step forward as “whistle-blowers,” those protections are hardly adequate for those in policing who depend on fellow officers for their safety on the job.

While many whistle-blowing officers have been awarded damages they will, most likely, never again be able to work in law enforcement. We believe that until officers are encouraged, protected, and rewarded for exposing misconduct, much will be lost in the effort to insure fair and honest policing.

One example of leading change is contained in the highly charged story of Kevin Murphy, the former chief of police in Montgomery, Ala. We chose to share Kevin’s story for the significance of its setting in the historic city of Montgomery, Alabama, a city that was at the center of the civil rights movement and referred to as the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

The police department’s history during the Civil Rights Movement was clearly racist and violent toward black citizens. One of the Movement’s icons still today is Congressman John Lewis. He experienced first-hand the violence in Montgomery when he was attacked and beaten by city police as he participated in a peaceful protest there nearly a half century ago.

As chief, Murphy required officers to attend the Rosa Parks Center to learn about the struggle of the African Americans in the South and the civil rights movement. It included learning about the dark history of the department during this period.  Some officers expressed value in this experience and others did not.  Murphy made it clear that those officers not willing to support his vision of a new Montgomery Police Department (acknowledging past wrongs, commitment to equity, fairness, and respecting all people) were not to undermine his efforts.

He worked and was successful in creating more diversity in the department.  He also established a reputation for holding officers accountable for a high level of professional behavior.  He also discovered that some areas of recruit training did not reflect the values he espoused on how all people were to be treated.

Murphy believed if officers are required to treat community members with dignity and respect they must also be treated in that manner in the academy. Predictably, complaints began to emerge from some officers about his efforts to lead change and the expectations he set.

Murphy decided on his own that he would appear at the annual meeting of the “Freedom Fighters” who gathered during March, 2013, in a Montgomery church to honor the memory of those who participated in this great social movement.  Congressman Lewis was present at the gathering.

Murphy approached Lewis and introduced himself as the police chief  and told him he wanted to apologize for the conduct of the Montgomery Police Department years ago when he and others were beaten and abused.

Murphy told Lewis that while he could not change what had happened he could apologize. He went on to tell Lewis that his department now stood for justice and service for all.  He then gave the Lewis his badge as a token of his sincere apology.

Lewis was stunned and moved to tears by Murphy’s actions. He said he had never received an apology from the police, and was deeply appreciative of Murphy’s gift.

We later learned that Murphy was terminated by the mayor. However, he was quickly hired by the newly-elected sheriff of Montgomery County as his top assistant. The Sheriff was asked why he hired Murphy, he stated he wanted someone he could trust and that he admired Murphy’s leadership. Murphy remains in his new position today. He does not speak publicly about his relationship with the Mayor.

We believe there is no one way to lead change. However, it does take courage, particularly when the old ways no longer work. Maintaining organizational “old ways” are often ineffective and will not result in improving trust and support from the community.

We do believe, however, there are some common threads in the change process:

  • Understand the need to change.
  • Know that which is driving the need to change.
  • Invest both inside and outside the department in an honest inquiry as to what needs to be done.
  • Create an actionable plan and why change is needed.
  • Enroll others (allies) in the change — inside and outside the department.
  • Persist and lead into the future.
  • Check progress and report accomplishments.
  • Sustain the improvements.

Those who do this model the kind of police organizations that are needed today and in the future. Being a model helps other police departments. It shows them the way forward.

We know there are many examples of good police practices throughout the country.  We hope to find and report on them.

You can read their unabbreviated paper HERE.

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