Time to Push the Reset Button?

“Because health care professionals are not permitted to attack, shoot or otherwise harm patients, they have been forced to develop techniques for de-escalating potentially violent situations.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if culture could be changed as easy as technology? You know, like pushing the reset button when everything seems to be getting screwed up. But culture is about people, and technology about things. And culture is not so easily changed.

It would also be nice if we could go back to the “basics” in policing; like asking police to articulate the following question: “WHY do I do what I do?” Not How, or What, but Why police do what they do. But of course, engaging in such an exercise among over 600,00 police in 17,000 police agencies would be a gigantic, herculean task. So, in the meantime, if we are really going to be in the business of improving policing in America it is going to have to happen officer by officer, police department by police department.

So, what is the “Why” of the police in your city? (You might want to this short piece by Simon Sinek on “Why”) Do police act like “warriors” and not  “guardians” (an important issue today)? Realistically, police have to be both, but with a primary, first response as guardian. That reminds me of a Native American teaching:

“An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Perhaps that aptly applies to the “warrior-guardian” argument in policing. Which do you “feed” through training, attitude and practice?

Do police see themselves and are trained as guardians — protectors of human life, “life savers,” and defenders of your civil rights? You should really have a public discussion about this. (It might be helpful to look at an early publication of mine, How to Rate Your Local Police and the checklist provided.)

But what about this as an approach? In yesterday’s New York Times, “What Hospitals Can Teach Police” (April 22, 2018) described efforts made in the healthcare field to correct mistakes by identifying certain events as “Sentinel”; taking an intense “no blame, no shame” approach to preventing these kind of errors from ever happening again.  Also by creating a “Just Culture” environment within their hospitals and clinics. They rely on one of the strongest principles of medicine – “to do no harm.” Is that possible to incorporate that within policing today? It’s worth a read and serious consideration.

Here’s some highlights from that article:

“Hospital workers often come into contact with volatile people: agitated drug users, panic-stricken accident victims, the hysterical parents of sick or injured children and so on. Those workers report nonfatal violence-related injuries at many times the rates of members of other occupations, including law enforcement (though police officers have higher rates of fatalities).

“Because health care professionals are not permitted to attack, shoot or otherwise harm patients, they have been forced to develop techniques for de-escalating potentially violent situations. [Such as] infrastructure changes like installing closed-circuit TV and silent alarms [and] teaching a de-escalation course to hospital staff members, showing them how to detect early signs of agitation and pre-empt aggression…”

“’There is also a cultural obstacle to overcome, says Chuck Wexler, the executive director of Police Executive Research Forum: a warrior-like mind-set that an officer should never retreat. ‘We’re not advocating walking away from a situation… But if something fails it’s O.K. to step back, have a tactical pause and come up with a Plan B. The sanctity of human life should trump everything.’ In other words, first do no harm.”

 Could this become a driving value, a principle, among our nation’s police? I think it’s possible. Take for example the recent shooting death of a young black man, Elijah James Smith, in West Valley, Utah. Smith was being pursued as a theft suspect when he ran into an occupied residential home and became trapped an attached garage. Officers pursued him into the confines of the garage and determined he might have had a weapon and shot him.

For years now, police have been trained to use loud “command” voices: “Stop. Get down on the ground now!” and so forth. Is that the only way to “command” a suspect? What does it do to mentally ill or other emotionally disturbed people? Was it necessary to immediately enter the garage? Should this have been slowed down? This is were de-escalation can come into play within a background of “do no harm.”

Could this event now be evaluated in the light of learning something from it? If the dominant value in policing was to “do no harm,” protect everyone’s life, put safety over control, would the outcome have been different? Yes, we are talking about a mind-set here and a mind-set that must also be fortified and supported by an organization’s culture.

While it is easy to second guess these intense, emotinal events, the question needs to be asked, would it have been better for the officers (and for Mr. Smith) if the pursuing officers backed off? After all, they now had the suspect trapped in the garage. What if they shut the door, established a perimeter, and then attempted to quietly talk him down? To de-escalate the situation; that is, to use what is called a “tactical pause?” Can we talk about these incidents without rushing to judgment or defensiveness?

And if police individually or collectively were to determine there are better ways to handle incidents like this could that learning be shared without blame, shame, or fear of legal action; making it a Sentinel or Just Culture event?

My point and experience leads me to say this, I believe police can learn from errors and mistakes and can put their learning into improving the things they do. This is not going to be easy, but I take comfort in the fact that if you and I and others are concerned (and committed) to help police improve and continue to press these issues forward, one day all this will change and a better and much-improved approach and orientation will develop within American policing.

But it will not happen if citizens and community leaders leave these matters alone to the police. This is a “we,” not “they” matter. We can no longer be caught up in “blue lives matter” or “black lives matter” arguments. The fact is that all lives matter and the incidents today involving police use of deadly force can and should be reduced in number.

Why? It is simply the right thing to do. President Calvin Coolidge shared many many years ago how improvement in government happens:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” 

Will you join me and others in pressing on? Let’s look at what medical practitioners are doing to de-escalate conflict and violence and how that learning might apply to the difficult task of policing a free society.


  • P.S. I thought I would add this from a previous post of mine on Just Culture.

Guiding Behaviors

(With slight adaptations for policing)
  1. We support one another in serving our citizens and communities.

We are all imperfect human beings who make mistakes. When we commit a human error, we may console our fellow employees. When we drift from safe to unsafe behavior, we may coach each other on how to make safer choices.

  1. We communicate openly, honestly, respectfully, and directly.

You will be in a place where you are respected and heard, and the team will have greater success in learning about the near misses or good catches.

  1. We are fully present.

We need to ensure we take the opportunity to clearly hear and see risks around us every day. We need to speak up in helping citizens and our teams see the risks that can cause undesired outcomes.

  1. We are all accountable.

It is a culture where we hold all leaders and employees accountable for their behaviors and the quality of their choices. We are all accountable to create the kind of workplace where people can count on one another.

  1. We trust and assume goodness in intentions.

As we trust our leaders and one another and assume goodness in intentions, we will allow for a true learning culture to develop.

  1. We are continuous learners.

We need to be open to continuously learn about how to manage the risks in our organizations. We can start by sharing the risks that we see in one another and our leaders.

[Trinity Health University, Livonia, Michigan]


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