A Note to Police Leaders

In the firestorm of recent American politics, and living in this post-Ferguson era, you are going to have to assess where you are now and where you want to be in the very near future. (Side note: it’s going to take courage to get there.)

There is no doubt that trust and support from people of color has waned since Ferguson. Why should you be concerned about 10 or 15% of your community? Because most of your “business”  involves these folks. There are also a number other vulnerable people in our society; the poor, homeless, addicted, or those who suffer from mental illness. The reality is that these citizens are your major “customers;” those who are most likely to receive, or be the subject of, your “services.”

There are two ways in which you can go. You will either willingly choose one or be the brunt of the other. In familiar words we have often used: “You can either go the easy way or the hard way. Which one do you choose?”

Unfortunately, the easy way is not without its hardship — but it’s the hardship of courage.

  1. You will have to demonstrate greater openness and accountability to your communities (and I use the plural because you know your city is not a community but a number of diverse populations).
  2. Your communities will expect you to be more restrained in your use of force; especially deadly force.
  3. Your communities will expect you to practice Procedural Justice in all your interactions with them including collaborating and working hands-on with them to solve crime and disorder problems in their neighborhoods.

If you begin to do visibly take these steps, trust and support will rise and you will be more effective in your mission and your officers will be safer in those neighborhoods.

There is a second way. This way appears to be the easy way, but it isn’t. It is the old, familiar and comfortable way: Stay put, hunker down, be defensive and hope it all will go away. (It is being frozen in place because maybe Attorney General Sessions will dismantle the recent Task Force on 21st Century Policing and those nasty interventions by the DOJ that have accused other police departments of engaging in a “pattern of civil rights violations.”)

Now I know you most likely don’t see yourself as that kind of police leader, but I have to say that your failure to visibly LEAD your officers and your community through this crisis in the legitimacy of American policing is to be a member of the Second Way.

I have written before about what I think are the most important recommendations of the Task Force. Review them again and then you might want to use social media and your website to engage the community in each of the Six Pillars as the St. Paul Police Department and Camden County Police have done.

Democratic policing is an honorable and essential, participative profession in our country which claims to be a free society and honors the rights embodied in our Constitution.

Never forget that you, as a police leader, matter greatly in all this. Leadership during uncertain and changing times is very difficult; it is not for the faint-hearted, it takes immense personal courage and the ability to discern who you are and where you are going. It involves “walking your talk” 24/7. Carry on. You can do this. American policing can be one of those eternal lights upon a hill that others will choose to follow and emulate.

A warning: If we choose today not to do this I am afraid history will not be kind to us in the future.

  • One of the best speeches on leadership was one delivered by to West Point cadets by William Deresiewicz (The American Scholar, 2010). It bears your reading and digesting… “Leadership and Solitude.”