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9 ways police leadership can navigate change

When considering best practices, law enforcement models of the past do not provide solutions for today’s problems


In this March 22, 2012 file photo, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee speaks to the the media during a news conference as city manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. listens at left, in Sanford Fla.

AP Photo/Julie Fletcher, File

By Lieutenant Benjamin A. Kelso, P1 Contributor

Law enforcement leaders are currently facing myriad challenges. New officer applications are down, while agencies struggle to adapt to emerging trends in the field that are demanding change in how we police our communities, emphasizing the role of community policing and importance of procedural justice.

Addressing challenges while enforcing change is not an easy process. One way law enforcement agencies can make strides is by coming together as a community to work together and collectively embrace change.

PERF helps agencies navigate ‘defining moments’

A few weeks after the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police leadership from around the nation convened in Chicago for a conference hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to discuss how to navigate “defining moments” in law enforcement and develop strategic practices to help police leaders better deal with the contentious and rapidly shifting landscape modern law enforcement faces.

Many times, police leadership tends to resist or reject change in favor of maintaining the status quo. This thought process has shown itself harmful to the professional reputation of modern police agencies who must answer to communities demanding transparency and collaboration.

In February 2015, PERF published its findings from the conference in a report titled “Defining Moments for Police Chiefs” as part of its Critical Issues in Policing Series. (The report is available in full at the end of this article.)

Below are 9 ways law enforcement leaders can navigate “defining moments” and develop a strategy for change as outlined in the PERF report.

1. Understand the value of transparency

Release information as expediently as reasonably possible. People need to know something, even if you do not have much to offer. Give what you can and offer to provide more information once it becomes available. Some information is better than no information. This includes releasing the names of officers involved in controversial incidents once they’ve had time to tell their own families first, and there are measures in place to protect the officers against credible threats.

2. Consider the optics

Evaluate the appearance military surplus or military-like equipment present to the public. That is not to say agencies should not use it all, but consider the optics when evaluating the necessity of such equipment. There are times when the equipment may be vitally necessary, but understand communities are deeply concerned about military imagery.

3. Review use of force

Consider evaluating opportunities for officers to utilize de-escalation or disengagement and minimize deploying force. This may not be possible in all cases and may even be dangerous to officers. There are also times when it is safer for everyone for the officer to step back and discontinue rather than press forward in action.

4. Apply lessons learned

Pay attention to and learn from past experiences. This doesn’t mean engaging in Monday-morning quarterbacking, but evaluating objectively to see where improvements may be made in the future.

5. Ensure officers reflect the department’s vision

Accept, adapt, train and assess community-policing philosophies to build and enhance relationships between the community and the police. Do you evaluate your police officers on how strongly their actions reflect valuing community-policing strategies? Do your promotions reflect the value? As agency leaders, your promotions should reflect what you value.

6. Have good union relations

Develop and maintain a good rapport with your police union. Failure to do so will present challenges to your vision and mission. That is not to say the union has the final say or runs the agency; rather understand that the union leadership offers legitimate questions and concerns. There will be times when chiefs must stand firm with their vision and communicate this to everyone while remembering a relationship with the union is mutually beneficial to all.

7. Speak the truth

Speak truthfully to all, including employees and the community even when the news is discomforting.

8. Create a legacy vision

Develop a vision legacy that outlasts your tenure as chief of police. If your vision, values and agency practices survive your leadership, then you have established a legacy.

9. Work with the media

Be available and cooperative with the media. If you do not present your agency’s version of events to them, they will eventually attach a “version” to you. If you are not using multiple social media platforms to communicate, you are not taking advantage of the best practices to communicate with the public. Assign people to push out information on social media. Doing so gets the agency’s side out to the public.

Next steps

This list is not all-encompassing, and there is no one-size-fits-all option. When considering best practices, law enforcement models of the past do not provide solutions for today’s problems where the average citizen has access to information at a moment’s notice and can influence the hearts and minds of the public on the legitimacy of police activity.

Agencies applying this list will define themselves as the new contemporary leaders in the field, increasing trust and building bonds with the communities they serve. The stronger the relationship between law enforcement and communities, the better equipped law enforcement leaders will be to lead their respective agencies and the communities they serve through the next defining moment.

Defining Moments for Police Chiefs Report by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

About the author
Benjamin Kelso is an executive board member of the San Diego Branch of the NAACP and a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department with over 28 years of experience. He is an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego’s College of Professional and Continuing Education, Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership Program, and holds graduate degrees in Organizational Leadership and Criminal Justice.