7 reasons the police culture is broken (and how to fix it)

The first step is to begin providing ongoing leadership training to people in all levels of the organization, starting with patrol officers

The law enforcement profession is an honorable one. The men and women of law enforcement are committed to making their communities safer, and willing to risk their lives to accomplish that mission.

However, some elements of the culture are broken, and in order to fix it, we need police leaders and police trainers to think differently.

Here are seven reasons why the police culture is broken with some suggestions on how to fix things.

Too many agencies still believe that putting someone in a leadership position makes him or her a leader.
Too many agencies still believe that putting someone in a leadership position makes him or her a leader. (Photo/Pixabay)

1. We do not provide enough leadership training

Too many agencies still believe that putting someone in a leadership position makes him or her a leader. We fail to provide leadership training, and then wonder why we have a leadership void.

The solution: We need to acknowledge leadership is never about rank, position, or title. Those put you in a leadership position, but they do not make you a leader. 

Next, we need to understand leadership can be learned and can be developed. We should be providing ongoing leadership training to people in all levels of the organization, starting with patrol officers.

2. We fail to celebrate successes

Law enforcement in North America still operates on the mindset that the only time you get called into the boss’s office is when you are in trouble. We have a culture where we do not celebrate our daily successes and justify it by saying, “I am not going to pat you on the back for doing your job.”

The solution: You can start by celebrating all the things officers do on a daily basis. Celebrate when they solve crimes, work with the community, enhance a training program, complete a critical project, help a fellow officer, or change the life of a young person. 

As the great leadership trainer Bill Westfall preaches, we need to “catch a cop doing something right.” This is not about giving people ribbons and medals for showing up. It is about acknowledging the accomplishments of the men and women in law enforcement with a small thank you or a pat on the back for a job well done.

3. We ignore dangerous behaviors

We will risk our lives to save a fellow officer while at the same time ignoring dangerous behaviors like driving too fast, not wearing a seatbelt, not wearing body armor, not calling for backup and not waiting for backup.

The solution: It is time to say “enough is enough.” We need to start by accepting that ignored behavior is condoned behavior. The next critical step to changing this culture and reducing line-of-duty injuries and deaths is to create a culture off courageous conversations. These courageous conversations need to be peer-to-peer and supervisor-to-subordinate. These conversations demonstrate that we care enough about each other to speak up and potentially save a life, a career, or a marriage.

4. We are quick to "eat our own"

We tend to be highly critical of other officers’ decisions and actions with limited information.

We do exhaustive investigations to get to the facts and reveal the truth for criminal cases but when it involves our own, we thrive on rumor and innuendo.

The solution: Be supportive of fellow officers. Seek to get all the facts and determine why the officer did what they did at that moment in time. Understand we are all human and sometimes we make less-than-desirable decisions, especially under stress.

5. We do not treat recruits with respect

Many academies still have a culture where they believe the way to teach new recruits respect is to yell and scream at them and punish them with pushups or other physical activity every time they do something wrong.

The solution: Teach respect by treating recruits with respect. Have high standards and create the expectation that recruits will have to work hard to succeed.

Boot camp mentality in training often results in three groups of students:

  • Those who know it is a game and play the game.
  • Those who learn that when you are in a position of power and authority, that is how you treat people.
  • Those who become subservient in similar situations.

Groups two and three cause issues for agencies when those officers make it to the field.

6. We think stress is the key to effective training

Trainers tend to think the key to effective training is stress. As a result, the goal of many drills is to create stress and push people outside their comfort zone.

The solution: Understand that training in context is the key to effective training, not stress. Putting people under stress may serve only to stress officers out and may also set them up for failure in the field. The goal of training should be to expand an officer’s comfort zone by instilling a sense of competence and confidence.

7. We see asking for help as a sign of weakness

Officers are told, “If you can’t handle the stress of the job, get out of the profession.” We still sell the lie that big boys and big girls don’t cry, so suck it up and soldier on.

The solution: Create a culture where it is seen as a sign of strength to ask for – and get – the help you need before it destroys your relationships, your career and possibly your life.

It is time for the law enforcement profession to think, act, train, prepare, lead and live differently. 

This article, originally published 06/04/2014, has been updated.

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