7 tips for leading during the anti-police crisis of 2020

Proactive leadership is required to counter detractors who continue to pressure agencies to make hasty policy reforms


By Travis Norton

"If you're going through hell, keep going"Winston Churchill

Law enforcement agencies are under the microscope, and influential leaders are vital to guide officers and their departments through these dark times. While many officers and leaders are fatigued and frustrated from working long hours, dealing with protests and receiving unclear direction from politicians, now is not the time to be in reactionary mode. Detractors are not resting and will continue to pressure agencies to make hasty policy reforms meant to cripple a department's ability to carry out constitutional policing. 

Officers need leaders to discuss what is occurring in their jurisdictions and address any uncertainties. (Photo/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)
Officers need leaders to discuss what is occurring in their jurisdictions and address any uncertainties. (Photo/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

Countering these detractors takes proactive leadership and effort at all levels of the organization. Additionally, officers need leaders to discuss what is occurring in their jurisdictions (de-policing, citizen review boards, and other legislative and policy changes) and address any uncertainties. Moreover, protests will continue, which means planning for the next round of these incidents using lessons identified from recent events. 

No matter your position in the organization, you can help with these challenges. Motivating and leading is not dependent on rank, and officers in lower- and mid-level positions can greatly influence what can be achieved. [1] The following seven tips will help leaders to meet these challenges and steer their agencies through these difficult times and beyond. 

1. Become a student of history

In a recent podcast, Police1 columnist Mike Wood describes the current anti-police climate as history repeating itself. Mike points to the late 1960s and early 1970s to shed some light on what is most likely ahead for us and he provides insight into what has already happened. Mike suggests reading “Days of Rage” by Bryan Burrough for a deeper dive into this period. History is the repository of all lessons learned, and historical information is there to learn from and apply to the present-day crisis.

2. Lead up

Police administrators sometimes have difficulty articulating their agency's use of force policies and training programs to the public and groups who look to discredit law enforcement. Leaders can help educate administrators by providing clear and concise evidence-based information on these topics. 

For example, several agencies were unprepared to properly address the claims of the 8 Can't Wait Campaign and made errors in their response. While the campaign has several valid points, others are fraught with issues, including the demand for a force continuum – an idea that has been tried in policing, and had to be abandoned as unworkable. Additionally, emblazoned on the campaign’s website are several troubling phrases, including "fully defund the police."

When these groups appear on your agency's doorstep, ensure you take a critical look at their agenda, and provide administrators with accurate information. Analyze the research these groups base their claims on, the organizers and their goals. An in-depth analysis will provide the information required to answer these groups' demands in an educated and professional manner.

Some organizations are capitalizing on the anti-police rhetoric by bullying law enforcement agencies into adopting their policy agendas. These groups cannot be allowed to force agendas that will break apart years of research, legal decisions and case law. These are attempts to manipulate established law.

3. Educate yourself

Leaders need to improve their ability to explain the "why" factor as it pertains to use of force incidents and policies. Learn how to conduct evidence-based research, critically think and ask disciplined questions of those who make statements not backed by facts. These skills can help dispel myths and ill-conceived demands. Attend webinars and talk with experts and other law enforcement leaders.

4. Talk with departments that responded to riots and looting

Glean lessons identified from recent protests, riots and looting incidents across the country. If your agency responded, ensure you write after-action reports.

Research the after-action report written by the opposing force that attacked the Minneapolis Police Department's Precinct 3. These anti-government factions use lasers, fireworks, loud vehicles, medical staff, paintball guns, and many other tactics and equipment to counter law enforcement officers. Developing countermeasures to these adversaries is a priority.

5. Update your protest plans

Expect more protests, looting and riots around election time and political rallies, and after officer trials, no matter the verdicts. History shows that these types of events are the trigger points for violence. Update your protests plans to include clear rules of engagement and incorporate any lessons identified into planning. Now is the time to contact business owners and provide them an honest assessment of how much protection your agency can give them during a wide-scale looting event. A review of recent looting incidents shows that when business owners were in front of their businesses, the looters moved on to easier targets. 

6. Communicate with officers

Morale is at an all-time low, and leaders need to address officer's concerns and keep them informed about what is occurring internally and externally. Furthermore, rumors run rampant during a crisis unless leaders are in front of their officers addressing their concerns.   

Officers who have a hard time emotionally with current events may need to be spoken to individually about their concerns and encouraged to maintain a healthy outlook. Another way to help officers and mitigate the risk of a controversial incident is to outline rules of engagement. Specifically, prohibit officers from pursuing suspects who have committed property crimes. Lawful use of force incidents are being mischaracterized in the media, causing a backlash from groups with agendas. Until communities decide what they want from their departments, pursuing a suspect for a petty theft that results in a lawful but controversial use of force is not recommended.

7. Train officers to be good decision-makers

When use of force and deadly force incidents are analyzed, it is always the decisions that are most conspicuous. Help officers make sound decisions in these events through the use of decision-making exercises (DMEs.) The human brain is like a Rolodex, and when officers see a problem they have never seen before, the Rolodex is empty, and poor decision-making can occur. DMEs fill the Rolodex and create what is called artificial experience. Research indicates that artificial experience can help officer decision making in situations they have not previously been involved in. [2] DMEs are easy to deliver in a briefing setting or the field and do not require an extensive amount of time to complete. [3] 

In the future, public opinion of law enforcement will improve, and anti-police groups will slow their demands for radical reforms. In the interim, police leaders need to provide strong and courageous leadership to help guide officers and their departments through the current crisis. Using the seven tips outlined here will help ensure your leadership skills can meet the challenges ahead. 

References

1. Marcus L, McNulty E, Henderson J, Dorn B. You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2019.

2. Heal C. Field Command. New York, NY: Lantern, 2012.

3. Norton T. Decision-making exercises: Make problem-solving in a crisis part of your training. Tactical Edge, Fall 2016.


About the author

Lieutenant Travis Norton is a 20-year veteran with the Oceanside (CA) Police Department. He was on his department’s tactical team for 14 years and is currently a watch commander, manages the Crisis Negotiations Team and is his department’s emergency planner. He teaches tactical science for Field Command and SWAT related topics and critical incident management for NTOA. He is on the CATO Board of Certification for SWAT operators and is the team leader for the CATO After Action Review Team. Travis also holds a master’s degree from Cal. State Long Beach in Emergency Services Administration and is currently working on his doctoral degree in Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. 

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