7 habits of successful departments

Successful departments place officer safety concerns and winning on the street at the forefront of their mission

After three decades in the most dynamic assignments of policing – high-crime patrol, street narcotics, gang enforcement and SWAT – nationally known police trainer Kevin Davis has honed some specific notions about what makes a policing agency “successful.”

At an ILEETA conference during a session on dealing with hyper-violence criminals, he enumerated seven characteristics he believes are shared by the most effective departments. These qualities, he says, result in “fewer complaints, fewer injuries to officers and suspects, and better protection from dangerous offenders for the community at large” – the earmarks of agency success.

His observations have evolved not only from his personal street experience with a medium-size municipal department in northeast Ohio, he told Police1 recently. He has also spent more than a decade studying “positive and negative ways agencies act” across the country as a contract consultant on firearms, use of force and other training issues. This checklist for success, he declares, is “what works best.”

See if you agree.

1. Supportive Mindset

“Successful departments place officer safety concerns and winning on the street at the forefront of their mission. All else flows from this mindset,” Davis said. “So much of effective law enforcement revolves around how an agency treats its people. A department can equip personnel with uniforms, weapons, modern communications equipment and good patrol vehicles, but if it doesn’t recruit, train and support its officers properly, it has lost the war.

“Many officers know if they get involved in a shooting with political implications, they are not going to be backed by their agency. The attitude is that if a shooting occurred, something must have gone wrong – it wouldn’t have happened if the officer had done the right thing.

“The truth is that most times a shooting is exactly what needed to happen for the officer to go home alive at the end of his or her shift. In urban areas especially, a certain segment of the population is going to think that police shootings should never happen.

“A good, professional agency will investigate, of course. But where the circumstances are clean, the administration needs to say emphatically that the involved officers did what they could to avoid shooting, but their ultimate decision was right and we support them.”

2. Recruitment for Aggression

“For years,” Davis said, “too many agencies have used personality tests to purposely screen out potentially hard-charging recruit candidates as being too aggressive. They prefer Officer Friendly types who are good at smiling and waving and kissing babies. The problem is that passive officers don’t respond well when the chips are down. They’re mentally ill-prepared to deal with violent suspects. I’ve seen officers chased around their patrol cars by suspects and ones that go the other way instead of responding to hot calls.

“Successful departments don’t want non-aggressive people. They reward aggression instead of penalizing it. I’m not talking about inappropriate, naked brutality, but professionalism that’s dedicated to giving maximum effort and isn’t hesitant in confronting challenging situations. Proper aggressive actions can save lives.

“Good agencies raise the bar for recruitment. They make it harder to get in. If you have a professional agency, the right people will want to work for you.

“I think hiring returning military veterans is a good trend. They’re used to tough times and to discipline. They won’t give up if someone punches them in the mouth.”

3. Streamlined Force Policies

“An agency that has a use-of-force policy that’s 22-pages long should use it to start a fire,” Davis said. “Officers can’t understand or remember something that detailed, and they’ll be hit over the head with it in court.”

His agency’s force policy, by contrast, covers five pages, “most of it is guidelines for investigating and reporting a force incident. The real policy is just a couple of sentences that mirror the law.”

The essence of a good force policy, he says, should be a brief statement that reflects Graham v. Connor: the amount of force used to control a subject should be objectively reasonable at the moment it is applied, given the totality of circumstances.

“Some agencies want black-and-white certainty regarding force when it’s really a grey area,” Davis said. “The Court has said there is no precise definition of objective reasonableness. It can cover a range of responses, depending on the situation. Policies should allow for this and then follow up with training so that officers learn to make and defend reasonable decisions on their own, rather than try to micro-manage officers through excessive verbiage.”

4. Realistic Rewards and Punishments

“When inappropriate decisions are made, the officer involved needs to be told what he or she should have done, even if the encounter turned out OK," Davis said. "Officers who are not applying force when they need to should receive remedial training.

“By the same token, agencies should be proactive in requiring additional training for officers who over-use force. Some agencies just bide their time with ticking time bombs, figuring, ‘When they finally screw up bad enough, then we can get rid of them altogether.’

“A good agency responds properly when there’s a problem either way. And good administrators understand that while using force is a necessary part of law enforcement, it’s a lot like making sausage: Even when it’s done right, it usually doesn’t look good.”

5. Dedicated Training

“An agency that insists on training that’s relevant, realistic, and repetitive and sticks to that commitment even in times of shrinking budgets demonstrates care for its officers and boosts morale,” Davis said.

“Some administrators say, ‘Because of the economy, we don’t have the money to train.’ I say, ‘You don’t have the money to afford not to train. You’ll pay for an officer’s funeral if you have to and for a lawsuit, if you have to.’”

He concedes that lean times may demand thinking outside the box. “Maybe you have to replace some live fire at the range with Airsoft scenarios in an abandoned building at virtually no cost or incorporate brief training exercises into roll call. But in a successful agency, training standards are set far above minimum qualification requirements, and they are always a primary priority.

“There are absolutely no negatives to a good training program. All the negatives lie with poor training or no training. If you don’t train officers properly, they will screw up in an actual incident, because under stress we all automatically revert to what we’ve been taught.”

6. Weapon Flexibility

“Having the right tools to do the job is an essential ingredient for winning,” Davis said, “but ‘right’ doesn’t just mean being equipped with state-of-the-art weapons. Successful agencies allow for adaptations to fit officers’ personal needs.”

For example, he says, rather than issuing rigid mandates, departments should permit each officer to choose a sidearm that best fits his or her hand, along with personal preference of holster and caliber of ammunition. “There is no increase in liability for having different options,” he says.

The key is “solid training to master whatever your weapons system is, so you can deliver accurate fire in a superior ballistic pattern on the street.

7. Tactical Emphasis

“It’s easy to get complacent because you deal so much of the time with compliant suspects or those who just try to run away,” Davis observes. “But successful agencies emphasize an ongoing concern for good tactics so their officers are ready when they encounter violent suspects who are determined to hurt them.

“This requires frontline supervisors who are skilled in the tactical realm because they’re the ones who see what really happens on the street. They need to be actively discouraging bad tactics, like prop searches and crossfire positioning, when they see them and debriefing with officers after an event on how things might have been more tactically proficient.

“Good agencies work to cultivate ‘clutch players’ – officers who consistently perform well under pressure. And good officers seek out opportunities to improve their tactical performance. They understand that suspects are constantly evaluating us and our tactics, techniques, and procedures for weaknesses. Exercising proper tactics can help seal the chinks in our armor.”

Davis stresses that he’s not talking about developing any exotic practices. “So-called ‘advanced’ techniques,” he says, “are just the basics mastered.”

Kevin Davis can be reached at https://kd-forcetraining.com/.

This article, originally published 10/13/2010, has been updated.

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