CHAPTER 14: HOW TO LEAD DURING CHALLENGING TIMES
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You have almost certainly heard it from your subordinates, and you likely have said the same thing yourself: there has never been a more difficult time to be a law enforcement officer in America.
Previous generations of police officers probably have said the same. But today’s national atmosphere, which includes a widespread sense of general anxiety, does indeed feel a bit more extreme than the situation yesterday’s cops experienced. And that is not a good thing.
If you have been in law enforcement for quite a while you have seen this before, even though your young officers probably have not. The proverbial pendulum continues to swing. One year the police are the heroes and the accolades and television cop shows proliferate. The next the police are the villains, for at least a noisy segment of the population. Ugly anti-cop rhetoric proliferates and good guy cop shows disappear. The pendulum continues its arc from right to left and back again and all law enforcement officers are impacted by the changes in public sentiment. What, exactly, is going on here and how are you, the police leader, expected to deal with it?
In addition to the other, expected challenges of the job, law enforcement officers today face the figurative and, occasionally, literal attacks of violent street protestors, opportunistic politicians, self-appointed police “experts” and a segment of the national news media. The latter are often only too happy to carry and amplify the often-hostile rhetoric of the police critics. In this inflammatory environment at least some of the American public is left to wonder if the trust they have placed in their uniformed peacekeepers is misplaced.
Sometimes the anti-police fervor has followed a well-publicized incident or series of events involving actual law enforcement malpractice, not infrequently involving racial minority victims. With today’s social media platforms, these episodes of police behaving badly, sometimes criminally, are flashed almost instantly across the country, often with the editorial comments of those making the posts attached. Others viewing the images then contribute their own take on what they think they have seen. Activated by these well-publicized incidents of poor police work, the anti-cop activists, far-left politicians, and amateur police tactics analysts have a field day – all at the expense of good law enforcement officers who had nothing to do with the featured event.
Other times, well-publicized reports of alleged police misconduct turn out to be anything but. Actual events and the images thereof turn out to be depictions of what is, in fact, entirely appropriate police work. In the meantime, however, a huge national audience has been deluged with yet more purported evidence of “bad” cops.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that a few of your fellow officers in one locale or another have actually committed dumb and, in some instances, criminal acts that have brought justified criticism on themselves and their guiltless colleagues across the nation. (Remember, there are a few bad doctors, priests, teachers, and attorneys, too.) These characters do not deserve your sympathy, because not only have they done wrong, they also have just made your job harder. That is because, unfortunately, some elements of the media, some politicians, and a segment of the population tend to paint all law enforcement officers with the same, broad brush. This does not make actual misconduct by law enforcement officers any less despicable. It simply points out that the playing field is not always level for you, your colleagues, and your subordinates.
The quickest way for you to lose your credibility as a law enforcement leader is to take the position that cops can never make mistakes or do wrong. The public knows better than that, and so do you. You and your people can build credibility and gain support from the watching public by recognizing and admitting that law enforcement in some places has, in the past, facilitated and engaged in the mistreatment of others, especially racial minorities. Certainly, racial injustices have been perpetrated, at one time or another, by criminals wearing badges. Almost certainly, there are places and instances where these injustices still occur. Obviously, you are personally disgusted by such acts and condemn those who commit them. But you still end up battling the assumption that “all cops are alike.” How much more ironic could it be: law enforcement officers are too often the victims of the same stereotyping that they are routinely accused of practicing.
The good news is that the majority of your community members who are being assailed by biased “bad cops” tripe are able to differentiate between their officers and an alleged bad apple with a badge somewhere else. Most are still willing to give you the opportunity to prove that you and your people are the good guys and not those guys that they may have seen on the news. That puts the burden on you to prove beyond a doubt to your taxpayers that you and your troops are good and honorable public servants. Your citizens and their kids safely can turn to you when they need help.
Yes, your citizens expect a lot of you. They have a right to. At the same time, your subordinates have a right to expect some things from you, too.
WHAT YOUR PEOPLE EXPECT
Your employees are watching and listening to the all-too-often hateful rhetoric being spewed at them and their profession by ill-intentioned or simply ill-informed people. They rightfully expect that their employer and its leaders will represent their interests and defend them when the accusations are directed their way. Inasmuch as you are part of the leadership corps of your organization, your cops are going to look to you to stand up for them, as required.
What can I do, you may ask? After all, you are not the chief or the sheriff whose job it is to take the lead in speaking for your agency. Actually, there is quite a lot you can do to help when your agency and your people are under assault. Just what you can (and can’t) do will be covered next.
WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T DO
You would not stand by and do nothing if your officers were under attack by a street mob. Your ethics and just plain decency require that you also must respond when the means of the attack are the printed and spoken word as opposed to rocks and bottles. At such a time you cannot remain silent on the sideline, nor would you want to. Your team members and the supportive members of the public (and there are a lot of them) expect you, a leader in your department, to do or say something. But what?
Your first response is to be found in the attitude and demeanor you project in front of your troops – and the whole world. It is something that your people and everyone else needs to see, hear, and feel when law enforcement is under unjust attack. It is your job to display a consistently upbeat posture in the face of criticism, whether national or local in origin. You may not feel all that positive because, frankly, you are sick and tired of the negativism from the uninformed police critics and self-anointed law enforcement “experts,” but you must work hard to remain visibly upbeat all the same. Most if not all your employees admire you and will mimic your behavior, to one degree or another. As a result, you must never come across as a defeated, woe-is-me character. People are depending on you. This is another of those times when you must project that you are in charge and everything is going to be alright.
Stay close and highly visible to your team members when the anti-cop rhetoric is at its loudest. Your people value your experience in many areas. They assume that you have seen this before. You can truthfully assure them that you have and that the noise will pass, or at least diminish in volume. It is going to be alright.
During such times of criticism and controversy you need to be visible and active even beyond your team. This is especially true if your own agency is the focus of attention for something it allegedly did or did not do. Once more, this is an opportunity to lead. This does not mean you should get into back and forth, “tennis match” arguments over what happened. It is more important that you simply make yourself available to talk earnestly about what cops do and why. You can do this among non-police friends and acquaintances and elsewhere in the community where you are known and respected. If you have an earned reputation for credibility and competency there (and you almost certainly do), you may be able to defuse rumors and correct untrue versions of what actually transpired. You can accomplish these things through a lot of one-on-one contacts, but do not hesitate to set the record straight with any civic clubs or other community groups where you might be presenting. (Naturally, first be sure your department is alright with your divulging whatever details you plan to relate.) Public education is often a legitimate task for a law enforcement leader, and that is never more true than when there is controversy afoot.
Do not hesitate to talk about the very real challenges and dangers of police work. Let your audience of two or two hundred know that the harsh cries against law enforcement make their own officers’ jobs more difficult – and less safe. Let them know how much their vocal support means to their officers.
Always keep your public comments appropriate and professional. Remain above back-and-forth debates on social media or elsewhere. As a matter of fact, it is a very good idea for you and your people to decline to engage in social media posting and counter-posting via social media regarding police actions, whether they occurred in your community or elsewhere. As you probably already know, sometimes the social media universe can smell like a cesspool of misinformation and bad conduct. That is a pool you do not need to swim in. More than a couple of law enforcement officers have lost their livelihoods over questionable posts they made on their personal social media accounts. Getting into a back-and-forth with a foul-mouthed cop hater who is spitting his venom through social media is not something you want to do. Steer clear and keep your advocacy for law enforcement on a professional level. Remind your troops to avoid the social media trap, too. There are plenty of smarter ways to make your feelings known.
FRAMING YOUR MESSAGE
As you know, it is your job as a leader to speak up for your people and your profession when either or both are being unfairly maligned. That holds true whether you are addressing one person or a whole host of listeners. When doing so, it is absolutely necessary that in order to protect your credibility you acknowledge the reality that law enforcement officers can and do make mistakes – occasionally criminal ones. A sometimes-biased news media is already shouting that fact to the world, and you will look like a fool or a liar if you deny it. But it is equally important that you stress how rarely those mistakes happen. In other words, out of hundreds of thousands of contacts between the public and law enforcement every day, very, very few end badly. It is vital to keep things in perspective. At the same time, you must acknowledge that a serious mistake by a public servant given legal authority to apply lethal force can have tragic consequences. That is why your agency selects, trains, and supervises with care.
It is also worth pointing out that malpractice by a law enforcement officer is the equivalent of the “man bites dog” news story. It is news because it is very unusual. If police misconduct was the norm, it would not be news. It’s important for you to emphasize that because it is true.
Additionally, you might note that broad-brush condemnations of any group of people are unjust in the extreme. Hopefully, no one would be so biased as to claim that all members of a particular race are “bad.” It is equally irresponsible to say something similar about law enforcement officers.
Most people want to believe that “their” cops are unlike a bad cop or cops they may have seen, heard, or read about somewhere else. You should acknowledge that this is, in fact, true. Your community’s officers are human beings with names and faces. They are members of the same community who may go to the same churches and have kids who attend the same schools as everyone else. They are not clones of cops from anywhere else. The same holds true for entire law enforcement agencies. Yours is not exactly identical to a department two miles or two thousand miles distant that has just been in the news for bad behavior. It is key that you point that out, too.
It also may be helpful for you to mention the difficulty and complexity of your officers’ work in today’s world. As you know, even in the era of “instant information” there is a massive amount of misinformation out there about what cops do and why they do it. You can help address that problem through your public education efforts, even if it is via one-person-at-a-time interactions. Stress to your conversation partners the complicated and multi-faceted work that your people do every day. Let your fellow community members know that your officers regularly deal with the homeless, the drug-addicted, the profoundly mentally disturbed, and the dangerously violent criminal in addition to all the other citizens they may encounter on any given day. Your cops must be counselors, surrogate parents, social workers, general problem solvers, crook catchers, and sterling role models. All these roles they must fill with limited resources while being urged to get on to the next, pending call for help. The people who want to support you need to hear these truths from you, someone that they know will tell them the truth.
If you take on the role of outspoken advocate for your people (and you certainly should), you may occasionally end up in some contentious “discussions” with cop critics who vehemently disagree with you. Whether the exchange takes place in person or online, you must always remain courteous and professional in your comments, whether written or oral. A special word of caution: more than one or two of your peers have seen their careers end over frankly dumb things they did or said on social media. Stay above the line, even when someone who wants to joust with you does not. You are better than that.
One additional word of caution: it would be a good idea to let your boss know if you have been involved in contentious discussions with cop bashers, online or otherwise. You do not want your supervisor to be surprised if your “discussion” draws a lot of heat. By doing so you also will get a good idea as to how much “leash” your boss is willing to give you in your public efforts to defend your people and your department. Hopefully, you will be granted a great deal of leeway as long as you keep it professional.
Your message, in short: “You all, as members of our community, have some very good people working as your law enforcement officers. Yes, they make mistakes on occasion. Everybody does. But when that happens, your uniformed guardians try hard to fix it. No matter how many rocks are figuratively or literally thrown their way, they will continue to serve you to the best of their ability. Count on them to be there when you need them.”
That’s not a bad way to represent your hard-working officers.
No thinking person could deny that these are very challenging times to be a law enforcement officer. But you very likely have faced and bested difficult times before. Positive thinking leaders often look at such times as opportunities to speak up, speak out, and lead in an effort to make things better – for their people and their profession. You must be one of those leaders.
Your people need to see you representing their interests during difficult times. Those times may come as a result of a national police-involved controversy or a local issue or event. Regardless, your troops need to know that you have their backs.
Your team members also need to see you demonstrating a positive attitude when verbal assaults are being directed at your people and your agency. By refusing to see doom and gloom everywhere and instead continuing to carry on “business as usual” you set an excellent example for your people to emulate. You are leading in a time when strong leadership is especially needed. You are, in every sense of the word, a leader.
NEXT: Police1’s leadership development series