Opinion: 'We can do better!'

This phrase should be the hallmark of law enforcement leadership, not only when the waters are rough, but also in times of calm

“We can do better!”

The words hung in the air as the audience visibly shifted in their seats and some leaned in to whisper to those seated next to them. The speaker was a seasoned and highly respected law enforcement leadership instructor. The attendees were senior law enforcement leaders representing over 220 agencies across the U.S. and more than 20 countries. The time frame was the immediate aftermath of the events in Ferguson as the law enforcement profession was buffeted by criticism from many angles.

The audience received the instructor’s words in distinctly different ways. Some, having grown weary of the criticism, bristled at the statement. Others heard it as the speaker intended, not a criticism but rather a challenge. A challenge for law enforcement leaders to examine how they do business and implement changes to take the profession to the next level.

The law enforcement profession is a noble endeavor, overwhelmingly led and staffed by men and women of high moral character.
The law enforcement profession is a noble endeavor, overwhelmingly led and staffed by men and women of high moral character. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The setting was the FBI’s National Academy, the premier leadership institution for law enforcement leaders. During my time as chief of the FBI National Academy, I had a front seat view of the challenges faced by the police leaders who came to Quantico to grow as professionals and learn new methods of leadership in a rapidly changing world. The instructors at Quantico had no magic formula for effective leadership, but what they did with an incredible degree of skill was open the minds of the attendees to question long-held practices and to consider better ways of doing business. Most graduates return to their agencies with a renewed sense of purpose, intent on making positive changes in their agencies.

The perils of resisting change 

The recent violence and destruction on our streets that permeate the news cycle overshadow and co-opt the more pure-hearted intent of peaceful demonstrators motivated to bring their grievances to the attention of their government. In a similar vein, the media coverage of the abuse of power and misapplication of force by a few officers overshadow the commitment, professionalism and love for their communities by the larger law enforcement community.

The tendency to protect the status quo and resist change and innovation is not unique to law enforcement, but rather is a characteristic of any bureaucratic organization, most visible in government agencies. In the private sector, bankruptcy is the price for intransigency in the face of changing market conditions. In government, the price is the slow erosion of the public trust and increasingly difficult work conditions for those who serve on the front line.

Challenging the status quo

Many agencies have gone above and beyond to challenge the status quo by building effective leadership teams, setting high ethical standards, and seeking the resources to train and equip their officers, all while remaining steadfastly committed to their communities. Some, in the face of increasing external criticism – much of which is unfair and inaccurate – fail to take a good look at their practices and miss the opportunity to improve the cultures within their agencies.

Ultimately, our democratic society will determine the standard by which future law enforcement operates. But those demanding change must first understand where law enforcement came from and the reality of the mission through today’s lens. Any contemplated changes to law enforcement policies, procedures and practices must be anchored upon a firm understanding of the consequences to the public’s safety and security.

A real-world role to maintain social order

If the debate is driven by extreme elements that resent the mere existence of law enforcement or espouse the weakening of the ability of agencies to train and grow through defunding mechanisms, productive solutions will remain far out of reach. Rather, the discussion must be predicated on the truth that the law enforcement profession is a noble endeavor, overwhelmingly led and staffed by men and women of high moral character, with a real-world role to maintain the social order and hold back those who would prey on the weak and disadvantaged.

Law enforcement leaders, community leaders, political leaders and union representatives must all come together in an atmosphere of trust and respect and cast aside their tendency to protect their organizations and personal self-interests. The public rhetoric must be left outside the conference room doors, away from the lunch table and other locations where the struggle for common ground will be found, and everyone must listen to opinions that may run counter to long-held positions. Only then, can a good healthy debate take place, and plans formulated to improve the effectiveness of our profession, and more importantly the overall health of our society.

The police alone cannot solve societal problems

Even though law enforcement leaders must step up and do their part, there are limits to how much they can and should do to impact social and economic issues well beyond their mission or responsibility. The current difficulties facing the country are a highly complex mix of factors that cannot and will not be solved solely through changes in law enforcement leadership, policies and procedures. Many of those who criticize law enforcement, especially the political class, do so to deflect criticism for their failure to “do better” in their responsibility to lead and unite. Many of these political leaders who take to the street to protest “the system” clearly don’t get it, as they are the people’s direct representatives and have been granted the power to influence and institute change within that system.

Nonetheless, “We can do better” should be the hallmark of law enforcement leadership, not only when the waters become rough, but in times of calm. In the same vein that leaders attending the FBI National Academy had the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of their peers, contemporary leaders must always strive to break through the comfort and apathy of the status quo and do better!

NEXT: New academy focuses on foundational leadership skills to achieve consistency in supervision

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