What a Police Chief Deeply Learned During Her Career

Chief Sylvia Moir

Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) does a great interview with Tempe, AZ Police Chief Sylvia Moir on her retirement and what she has learned along the way. (PERF Daily Critical Issues Report, October 12, 2020.)

We need more of this career-sharing in the field of. policing as an inspiring and learning method for aspiring police leaders.

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Sylvia Moir is retiring today after leading the Tempe, Arizona Police Department for four years. She rose through the ranks with the Sacramento Police Department, leaving as a lieutenant after 18 years, and served as a commander in Menlo Park, California and as chief in El Cerrito, California from 2010-2016. She has also served as PERF President for the past year. Chief Moir spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler on Friday about her early experiences with policing, lessons she has learned throughout her career, and advice she would give current and aspiring chiefs.

Chuck Wexler: Did you always aspire to be a police officer?

Chief Sylvia Moir: I did not. I grew up mostly in Davis, California. I had one police officer in the family – my uncle was a sergeant with the Oakland Police Department. My father was an industrial engineer and my mother worked in public service for the city of Davis.

I didn’t really see my path as being a police officer until I was in college and went on a ride-along with a female police officer with the Sacramento Police Department. It was then that I identified this as something I wanted to know more about and pursue. I saw a disciplined, credible, compassionate, flexible, service-oriented human being, and that’s where the spark came from.

Wexler: Was there anything in particular about that ride-along that impacted you?

Chief Moir:  Several things struck me. She had incredible drive and compassion. As a female, I could identify with her and see myself doing the work. And there were several moments that captured my heart and soul.

One was when we went to a traffic stop to back up other officers. I was waiting by the patrol car while my ride-along host officer was talking to a training officer. The trainee was having a conversation with the suspect in the back of a squad car. I couldn’t hear it, but it was a heated exchange. I saw the trainee reach to open the door from outside the squad car, and I thought, “I wouldn’t do that.” When that trainee opened the door, the suspect kicked the officer in the chest, she went onto her back, and the guy fled past me. I tried to grab him and then started chasing him up the road. Imagine the horror of my host officer. I was chasing a bad guy in jeans and a sweatshirt. I was pretty fast in those days and closing on him. I had no plan or authority, but I knew that what he did was wrong and that he needed to be held accountable. We ended up capturing him, but only after my host officer yelled at me to stop.

My host officer was furious with me. She said she was ending the ride-along after we took the guy to the station, but she changed her mind after a while, when I helped her fill out some forms at the jail. Today that officer is my best friend, and I just spoke with her this morning.

That incident showed me I had a natural instinct to safeguard people and do something right. That really solidified my desire to pursue policing.

There were several other things that occurred that evening, including my host officer being compassionate with a woman who lost her husband.

I began my pursuit of policing. I changed my major in college and changed universities. I was all-in from that point on, because I saw the difference her service made and the collegiality between her and the other uniformed officers. I absolutely wanted to be a part of it.

Wexler: How were your early experiences with the Sacramento Police Department?

Chief Moir: I started as a police academy recruit with the Sacramento Police Department. I went from officer to detective to sergeant and left as a lieutenant.

Early in my time in Sacramento, I recognized that it was a learning organization. We didn’t call them after-action reviews or Sentinel Event reviews, but Sacramento PD did that kind of reflective work. We were at the forefront of community-oriented policing, and understanding the partnership between the community and the police. And it is a progressive and inclusive organization, even though I think it was more challenging as a woman. I was really proud of my time there.

Wexler:  Where did you go next?

Chief Moir:  2008 was an interesting time in my life, and I sort of put it out to the universe that I was open to opportunities. I came into contact with an executive recruiter about a position as second in command in Menlo Park [California]. That opportunity drew me away from Sacramento.

In Menlo Park I quickly realized I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay there. I was nudged to apply to be the chief of police in El Cerrito [California]. I served there for five and a half years.

Wexler:  Why did you then move to the Tempe Police Department?

Chief Moir:  I was at a point in my evolution as a student of policing to feel ready for another opportunity. I was aware of the talented folks at PERF who conducted national searches, and was nudged into looking at Tempe. I never thought I would move to Arizona or be in the desert, but I learned Tempe was a college town, just like where I grew up, and that it is open and inclusive. When I came here, I found that I was the right fit at the right time in the right environment to help with the growth of the Tempe Police Department.

Wexler:  Do you see differences in the agencies where you’ve served?

Chief Moir:  I think there are three different levels of policing.

There’s what we do in policing. In local policing we provide generalized and specialized service to safeguard our community, and that’s universal.

There’s why we do it. It’s that noble, highest calling. We don’t like bullies, we believe in justice, and we believe in safeguarding people. All those reasons why cops are cops are universal.

So the “what” at the bottom and the “why” at the top are universal. But the “how” in the middle is different. How we carry out the work. How we influence the internal culture. How we engage in procedural justice internally and externally. How we police. How we use tools and tactics. How we do policy. How we train. How we deploy. That’s where you see the differences from agency to agency. 

Wexler:  You did an excellent TED Talk. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Chief Moir:  I was asked to do TEDxSoMa to shine a light on some of the things we’re doing with mindfulness and resilience through meditation in policing. I had been inspired and saw the results of what meditation is promising for policing, which is to address the acute and chronic toxicity and suffering of policing.

We had been doing some work on this in California, and I brought it here to Tempe. That involved mindfulness and meditation as a practice to build resilience and get officers to a place where they could take in more information and “reset” between calls for service. They can be more situationally aware in the short term and make better decisions. And they can have stronger resiliency for both their career and their life.

In 2001, I was in the California Supervisory Leadership Institute for police sergeants and we read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl describes his life in a concentration camp, and it was the most meaningful book of my life. One of the things he says is that between stimulus and response lies space. It’s in that space where we have our freedom and where we choose.

There are so many things that are stimuli for us, both as executives and in all levels of the organization. It’s between the stimulus and response that we can choose how we engage. That applies in a tactical, strategic, policy, administrative, or investigative environment. In all those environments we can learn to better influence our response, so that we’re not just reacting, we’re genuinely responding.

Tacticians throughout the military and special forces, where tactics are important, are finding promise in mindfulness and meditation. It’s tactically sound and it’s right and proper for cops. I believe it in my soul.

Wexler:  What are your takeaways from everything that’s been happening in policing in 2020?

Chief Moir:  The distinguishing characteristics of this time period are that we have multiple crises laid at our feet and people are being cancelled, cast aside, and devalued. The depth of anger and reaction is like nothing I’ve experienced, and I’ve been in policing since July 1988. I’ve been a cop through Rodney King, 9/11, and other crises. Never have we seen so many simultaneous crises.

My Mom used to say, “It doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty, somebody still has to wash the glass.” She told me to be that person.

I’m optimistic because we in policing have demonstrated that we can handle all these crises without breaking. We can find the real meaning or story through all this noise. We are the clear-minded, strong-valued, noble people who can get through the chaos and make sense of things. And we can still advance, learn, serve, and do the daily work of policing that our communities deserve and our cops want to do. We’ve demonstrated that we have an incredible capacity to handle all this stuff with strength, courage, and nobility.

So I’m inspired about the future. There are challenges, but we’ve demonstrated that we can survive. We are important, necessary, and the right people at the right time to carry out the work.

Wexler:  What advice would you give prospective chiefs?

Chief Moir:  For anyone who is considering growing into an executive position, you have to connect with people who can help you develop a greater capacity for the rigors of the work. You have to rely on organizations like PERF for research, stories, and recommendations. We need to raise our visual horizon and find people who can help us with our grounded compassion, our intellectual curiosity, and our evidence-based practices. I would urge everyone to expand where you get your information and how frequently you connect with people, so you have the endurance to carry out the work.

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View her TED Talk… See how she led this radical change; that is, introducing mindfulness techniques into her department.