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How can leaders ensure a culture of self-policing and accountability in their agencies?

“Culture will eat policy all day long if you don’t train constantly on the demand for personal accountability both within yourself and your fellow officers.”

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Police1 asked law enforcement leaders to share how they develop a culture of accountability at their agency. Here’s some of the advice they shared:

Culture is created through example

Ensuring a culture of self-policing and accountability does not have a finish line that once crossed signifies achievement, but is a continual feedback loop of reflection, policy implementation, training and culture-reinforcing.

While the chief of police is ultimately responsible for ensuring that this process is ongoing, to be successful it means that the head of the organization must first be willing to have any principles that are applied to the organization apply to themselves as well. The head of the organization must be willing to abide by the highest ideals of the Police Officer’s Code of Conduct and be accountable not just to their boss, whether it be a mayor or city manager or board, but also to the personnel of the organization they lead. Culture is created through example.

Reflection comes in a variety of forms but can be formalized through directed activities that encourage this process. In our organization, a yearly command staff leadership workshop is a time we use to reflect on self-policing and accountability principles through intentional activities and projects, and opportunities can also be found in staff meetings and through myriad one-on-one conversations among supervisors. One of the purposes of this directed reflection is to hold ourselves accountable as an organization. Where can we do better? How do we get there?

Policy implementation does not end with releasing the policy to the impacted personnel. It should also be incorporated into the reflection process: Is this policy achieving what it is intended to achieve? Policy loses value if it ends with distribution, but to be effective should be incorporated into training and reinforced with retraining.

“Duty to intervene” is an important component of self-policing that is a frequent topic in public discourse. All officers should be aware of their duty to intervene if they observe another officer engage in excessive force or other misconduct, but do we provide training on how to intervene? Do we acknowledge the social challenges that can exist in all professions in addressing the potential misconduct of a colleague? Do we train an officer how to step in if someone of greater rank is engaged in improper conduct?

We recently went through the process to join the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project through Georgetown University. This free train-the-trainer project trains selected officers to instruct agency personnel on a curriculum designed to prevent misconduct, avoid police mistakes, and promote officer health and wellness. While we are in the early stages of joining this project, the goal is to provide training on a concept that officers know well by written policy but which we, as a profession, have historically provided little formal guidance.

When we have made intentional choices to embrace self-policing and accountability, have policy in place to enforce it, train on that policy, and then promote those principles through our values and reflect them in the actions of our leaders, we’ve begun the journey of creating a healthy culture of accountability. When we make it a continual process, we’re on our way.

— Christopher Mannino serves as chief of police of the Park Forest Police Department in suburban Chicago. He has served in a variety of law enforcement roles throughout his career, including assignments in the patrol division, investigations division, administration division, special operations, as the field training coordinator and as a team leader with a regional Mobile Field Force.

First-line supervisors play a critical part in shaping culture

Every police agency in the nation has policies that dictate acceptable and unacceptable practices. Many policies are mirrored by state and federal law, yet we still know some departments have officers who will not intervene or hold other officers accountable when they observe misconduct.

When I was a new officer, I was taught to hold “the thin blue line.” It was abundantly clear; the thin blue line was the first line of defense for the police to keep the public safe. The thin blue line represented a small number of people carrying a massive responsibility. These days, too many refer to the thin blue line as a code of silence held among officers to not tell on each other.

The first step police leaders can take to ensure a culture of self-policing and accountability is to understand the dynamics that have existed in the law enforcement profession since its inception. We know every department has an informal hierarchy. Officers with more time on the job, especially those with strong “type A” personalities, can have more influence over less tenured officers than those who hold formal rank. The informal leader will be exposed to other officers far more than anyone else in the department.

It is not that all senior officers are problematic. Most of them are great informal leaders genuinely teaching and mentoring those who join the ranks behind them. However, one negative informal leader will almost always have more influence on staff than 10 positive ones. This is a major factor that contributes to officers engaging in acts of misconduct shaped by culture that can go unchecked for decades.

As leaders, we must understand that our first-line supervisors are the most critical component in shaping our culture. The negative senior officer only exists because a line-level supervisor has condoned the behavior – in most cases by ignoring it. To ensure our first-line supervisors are shaping the desired culture, we must demonstrate accountability at the top – starting from the chief of police and downward. The police chief must hold command staff accountable for their conduct. If that occurs, command staff will hold the line-level supervisors to account and so on. Accountability does not always equal discipline. Sometimes it means having the courage to tell someone they are off track and need to get back on board.

If equitable accountability does not begin at the top, it only breaks down from there. The only way to shape a culture where our officers take pride in self-policing and holding colleagues accountable is to show them how. The days of “do what I say and not as I do” are a recipe for failure. Why would police officers intervene when they see those above them turning a blind eye? Sometimes conversations with others can be uncomfortable. You know what is more uncomfortable, is the shame of your agency and colleagues in national headlines and knowing you could have avoided it.

Nick Borges is a deputy chief with the Seaside Police Department in Monterey County, California.

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Our values must align with what our community values

Economist Thomas Sowell, who I believe is one of the smartest people on the planet said, “When you want to help people you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” I use this quote because I am going to tell you the truth and not what you may want to hear.

I would argue as a profession that we have been very good at ensuring a culture of self-policing and accountability within our agencies. We already have well-established accountability frameworks in place, we just need to change the values we enforce.

Having overseen internal affairs during my career I can say most of the self-reporting has been for violations of organizational norms such as being disrespectful to co-workers, not handling calls correctly and targeting officers who simply didn’t fit in for whatever reason, whereas behaviors such as disrespecting citizens are not often reported. To ensure a culture in which a broad spectrum of self-policing and accountability is ensured I suggest the following:

  • Alignment of neighborhood values and organizational culture: Whatever your neighborhood defines as “respect” is the core value of your community and should become a cultural and organizational norm of the police department. Cultural norms are self-policed within all organizations, not just law enforcement, and if the core values become the cultural norm, self-policing and accountability will naturally take place.
  • Leadership must reflect neighborhood values and always demonstrate those values: I say all the time that those of us in leadership have someone who is an imitation of us. You are fooling yourself if you think you don’t because you had one of those in charge when you were coming up through the ranks. The good part about this is you get to control the imitation people have of you. If the leader imitates neighborhood values in public and behind closed doors, they become cultural norms and self-policing naturally occurs. If you think this is not true just look at the companies that are consistently rated as the top places to work by their employees. They typically have one thing in common and that’s a leader who exemplifies organizational values in public and behind closed doors.
  • Provide clarity of cultural values: This may be the most important of the three suggestions. To have a culture of accountability, it must be clear to everyone where the lines on the field are. When this clarity is not in place, confusion exists, which in my opinion is how we got where we are in the first place. Those in law enforcement are rule followers but, when the rules are not clear and don’t apply to everyone, it’s difficult to achieve a culture that self-polices in a manner the public expects.

We already have the framework in place to self-police and promote accountability. We need to make sure our values are in alignment with our neighbors so our culture of self-policing and accountability is reflective of what both our neighbors and we should expect from the noblest profession on the face of the earth.

Booker Hodges currently serves as assistant commissioner of law enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. He is the only active police officer in the history of the NAACP to serve as a branch president.

4 essentials to develop personal accountability

Culture will indeed eat policy all day long if you don’t train constantly on the demand for personal accountability both within yourself and your fellow officers.

Law enforcement leaders must instill within their men and women from day one the criticality of holding themselves and their peers accountable. Doing the right thing all the time, even when no one is looking, must be a part of police training from the very beginning and always.

Policy regarding accountability will never be effective unless it is unwaveringly enforced. There are four parts to this:

  1. Train and condition your people to always do the right thing.
  2. Always set the example of integrity and honesty in everything you do as a leader. And by the way, every deputy is a leader.
  3. Monitor your people (not in a micromanagement sense, but in an ever-trusting sense of a leader who has high expectations of his or her subordinates).
  4. Hold yourself and everyone within your sphere of influence accountable.

There must be a culture in place where not only is it acceptable to bring light to anything that is broken within an organization – or any wrongdoing on the part of others – but that it is the responsibility of the individual regardless of rank to do so.

As part of this culture, it must be fully understood that one is never to break the honor code, one is never to disgrace the badge or the uniform. If a deputy crosses the line, it is the responsibility of the other deputy with knowledge of that “crossing” to bring it out into the open. Moreover, they must know that not only is it expected or acceptable to do so, it is the only honorable option.

When you raise your right hand and take the oath, you are swearing to something that is forever obligatory and binding. Just like the military. We are no different. If someone does something wrong and they get away with it, they will not only continue to do it, but it reflects poorly on the badge and the uniform worn by everyone else. The badge and the uniform are everything. You as the law enforcement leader are responsible for holding yourself accountable – and again all deputies are leaders – and for holding others accountable. That expectation must be unassailable.

Richland County (South Carolina) Sheriff Leon Lott is the National Sheriff’s Association’s 2021 Ferris E. Lucas Sheriff of the Year.

Lead by example

When a young child is taught by his parents not to steal, it is usually a theme reinforced through observation and example. Actions speak louder than words so a child would be confused if his father told him not to take what doesn’t belong to him but then watched his dad shoplift a pair of pants at a clothing store. A kid’s eyes will betray what his ears heard.

The attention given self-policing and accountability – particularly in the area of an officer’s duty to intervene such as when observing another officer using excessive use of force or falsifying police reports – is certainly important. Police leadership can help achieve this by developing and maintaining a culture that respects the rule of law particularly in the area of department policy and regulations, as well as placing an emphasis on police ethics. But it is one thing to talk this talk but another to walk the walk.

If a new officer learns in the academy to use force within constitutional limitations and is taught by his department field training officer that excessive force is unacceptable but then listens in roll calls as officers laugh about a beating on a suspect, that officer is receiving mixed messages. And then if that officer actually observes an abuse or violation of any sort, they may be confused on what course of action to take. The department talks like they care, but do they?

Reinforcing the importance of self-policing and accountability through training and other innovative measures has its value, but if an agency has a culture that values discipline, respects the rule of law, builds relationships with those they serve, and treats its customers with dignity, even the ones who break our laws, their officers are in an environment where they will in fact WANT to hold themselves accountable. They don’t need to be constantly told to self-police because they are already doing it with each tour of duty.

Chief Tom Wetzel is a 32-year veteran police officer and currently leading a northeast Ohio suburban police department.

NEXT: Building an agency culture that embraces a duty to intervene