How to take a values-based approach to policing

By emphasizing your department's beliefs and demonstrating them on every contact, officers' efforts will be recognized in your community


This article originally appeared in the November 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Values-based policing | Building empathy | Educating the public, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

By Greg Winkler

My career in policing was short, but the memories and lessons learned stayed with me as I found my calling in education. Watching the news cycle today brings concern about my former profession. I see parallels from my coaching career that can carry over and improve police relations across the country.

Police performance is currently being questioned and coming under fire. Police departments are under great scrutiny and respect for the profession appears to be at the lowest in years.

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If "respect" is a core value in your agency, what does that look like? (Getty Images)

How can law enforcement agencies change negative public perception? One approach is through establishing, teaching and holding each other accountable to a set of core values that are communicated throughout the department and the community.

How is your department perceived in the community? There doesn't have to be a glowing problem to implement a set of core values. It may be that you have a great department, and no one appreciates or notices. By emphasizing your department's beliefs and demonstrating them on every contact, officers' efforts will be recognized in your community.

Commit to a value-based approach

Whether you have an athletic team, a business, or a values-based police department, you commit to emphasizing the values you think are important.

If, say, "respect" is a core value, what does that look like? How do your officers treat the people they come into contact with? What communication skills are officers using to defuse stressful situations? Respect extends also to the building custodian, administrative assistants and the people officers see throughout the day at the station. Values, once identified, are taught and expectations set.

When a department decides to adopt a values-based approach to policing, that approach needs to start at the top. If the expectation is for the patrol officers to demonstrate these values in the community they serve, then police leadership must also model that behavior within the department.

Determine your values

Once a department decides to adopt a values-based approach, the real work begins.

Present a plan to your mayor or city manager and meet with department management staff to start forming a values list. Next, meet with each department within your agency to add to your list.

Determining what your 3-5 traits will be is unique to every department. There must be meaningful discussions with all stakeholders. Choose values that will be visible to the community.

Listed are a few examples:

Balance, caring, courage, diversity, equality, ethics, excellence, fairness, gratitude, honesty, integrity, justice, kindness, loyalty, patience, reliability, respect, responsibility, security, service and trust.

Take your initial list (could be 30-40 values) and begin to narrow it down. Choose your final 3-5 core value traits. Define those final values. What do they "look" like? How do you teach them? How do you evaluate them in action?

Promote your brand

Once your department decides on implementing a plan, it is essential to promote your brand throughout your community. Your core values should be the first thing the public sees on your agency's website. Your department patch should include those values, and they should be on your vehicles.

You may look at your department and see some of these values posted around the building. The question then becomes, are they just words, or do you live by them? When officers are evaluated, core values should be part of that process.

Every stakeholder must hold each other to higher standards. It takes tremendous self-control to handle situations that start to go off the rails. Many problems need a level-head or a calming presence.

Officers have many contacts throughout a shift; many are routine and handled efficiently. As a supervisor, think about the officer contacts, arrests, or complaints that required action from you. If you reflect on some of these actions, the way an officer communicates to a subject and the choice of words used can ignite a situation. Handling every case with respect and self-control can impact every encounter.

People make poor choices, and those choices can lead to problematic consequences. They already feel guilty and disappointed in themselves. An officer who shows respect and demonstrates empathy can handle the incident and possible arrest without further complications.

If we want a values-based department, a precise, reliable and consistent message must be communicated. Training and practice of communication skills and de-escalation techniques must be ongoing, and your values must be practiced, evaluated and modeled.

Push your values-based policing program within your community. Promote stories of your officers who are performing positive actions in the city. Highlight an officer weekly or monthly. Write the story and present it to the local media.

Enhancing a police department's perception takes a concentrated effort from everyone who is a representative of that department. The time and energy put into making a positive change will reap immediate and long-term rewards. Putting character and core values at the forefront will make not only the department stronger but also the community.


About the author

Greg Winkler has a degree in education and a master’s degree in sports management. A former patrolman for the City of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He left police work to pursue his passion for teaching and coaching. After a Hall of Fame coaching career, Greg's focus is on leadership and character development. He is the author of "Coaching a Season of Significance" and "The Transformational Coach." Contact Greg at gregwinkler10@gmail.com.

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