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Finding purpose amid reform: Navigating the evolving landscape of law enforcement

By embracing trauma-informed practices, understanding our criminal justice role, staying proactive and leading by example, we can chart a brighter future for law enforcement

Multiracial policewoman talking with girl and mother

The future of policing lies in our ability to adapt, support one another, and stay committed to our core mission of serving and protecting our communities with integrity and compassion.

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As law enforcement professionals, we are no strangers to change. Yet, the seismic shifts brought about by recent societal reforms have posed unique challenges, testing our resolve and reshaping the very fabric of our profession. In the summer of 2020, amid calls for police reform and defunding, I found myself at the forefront of this transformative wave.

Transitioning to a new station as a middle manager, I was tasked with leading a team of investigators against a backdrop of uncertainty and dwindling morale. The weight of increased workloads due to staffing shortages, perceived lack of support and a shifting legal landscape cast a shadow over our once unwavering sense of purpose as an agency. However, in the face of adversity, I was compelled to seek strategies to reignite our collective spirit and resilience.

Here are five key approaches that proved instrumental in navigating these turbulent times:

1. Embrace a trauma-informed approach

Amid reforms, prioritizing the needs of crime victims became paramount. By fostering a culture rooted in empathy and support, we elevated our investigative efforts and rekindled our sense of purpose. Implementing best practices such as trauma-informed interviews and leveraging victim advocates empowered us to pursue justice with renewed vigor.

A trauma-informed approach begins with the understanding that every victim’s experience is unique, shaped by their personal history and the nature of the crime. This understanding drives our interactions, ensuring we provide a safe and supportive environment. Training our officers in trauma-informed techniques, such as recognizing signs of trauma and practicing active listening, has been crucial. Additionally, collaborating with mental health professionals and victim advocates has allowed us to offer comprehensive support, from initial contact through the judicial process.

2. Recognize your role in the criminal justice system

Understanding our place within the larger criminal justice framework was essential. Like components of a machine, each stakeholder plays a vital role in upholding the integrity of the system. By embracing our role as the engine driving progress, we maintained our commitment to serving and protecting our communities while recognizing the interconnection of our efforts.

Our role is not isolated; we work in tandem with prosecutors, judges and social services. Recognizing these connections helps us see the bigger picture and understand how our actions impact the entire system. By fostering strong relationships with other stakeholders, we ensure a cohesive and coordinated approach to justice. Regular meetings with district attorneys and community outreach programs have been instrumental in aligning our efforts and building mutual trust.

3. Stay informed and proactive

Do not wait for your agency to provide you with the information needed. Adapting to evolving legal landscapes required vigilance and adaptability. Keeping abreast of policy changes, particularly those surrounding bail reform, enabled us to navigate legal complexities with confidence. Proactive case assessment and informed decision-making ensured that justice was served swiftly and effectively, despite the challenges posed by reform.

The legal environment is dynamic, with frequent changes in laws and regulations. Staying informed means continuously educating ourselves and our teams about these changes. Workshops, seminars and ongoing training sessions have been critical in this regard. Additionally, fostering a culture of continuous learning within the department encourages officers to stay curious and proactive. By anticipating changes and preparing accordingly, we can mitigate the impact of reforms and maintain our effectiveness.

4. Lead by example

Recognizing the importance of fostering a positive work environment, I made a conscious effort to lead by example. Despite the chaos surrounding us, I maintained a positive mindset and prioritized mentorship and guidance for my team. By leaving a legacy of resilience and camaraderie, I aimed to empower the next generation of investigators to thrive in the face of adversity.

Leading by example involves demonstrating the values and behaviors we wish to see in our team. This includes maintaining composure under pressure, showing empathy in interactions, and being transparent in decision-making. Regular team-building activities and open-door policies have helped create a supportive and inclusive environment. By celebrating successes, however small, and providing constructive feedback, we nurture a culture of continuous improvement and mutual respect.

5. Exemplify leadership in adversity

As a middle manager, I understood the profound impact of leadership during times of crisis. By embodying resilience and determination, I inspired confidence and motivation within my team. Through unwavering commitment to excellence, we weathered the storm of reform and emerged stronger and more united than ever before.

Leadership during adversity means being a pillar of strength for the team. This involves clear communication, setting realistic goals and providing the necessary resources for success. During challenging times, it is crucial to be visible and approachable, offering support and guidance. By fostering a sense of shared purpose and maintaining a forward-looking perspective, we can navigate crises more effectively. Reflecting on our journey, I am proud of how we turned challenges into opportunities for growth, solidifying our unit’s resilience and unity.


Navigating the murky waters of reform demands unwavering commitment and resilience. By embracing a trauma-informed approach, recognizing our role within the criminal justice system, staying informed and proactive, and leading by example in times of adversity, we can chart a course toward a brighter future for law enforcement. Though the road may be fraught with obstacles, our collective efforts and unwavering dedication will guide us toward success. As I reflect on my career, I am grateful for the opportunity to have led such a remarkable team. Together, we weathered the storm of reform and emerged stronger, solidifying our reputation as a premier investigative unit within our agency.

The path forward will undoubtedly bring new challenges, but with the lessons learned and the resilience built, we are better equipped to face them. The future of policing lies in our ability to adapt, support one another, and stay committed to our core mission of serving and protecting our communities with integrity and compassion.

Matthew Stegner is a retired Senior Investigator with the New York State Police, bringing decades of experience and a deep commitment to victim-centered investigations. His journey began when he honed his skills as a trained forensic interviewer, dedicating his efforts to supporting abused children in western New York. The trajectory of Matthew’s career evolved significantly when he took on a pivotal role in the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Unit. Here, he extended his impact to the college population, demonstrating an unwavering dedication to ensuring justice for survivors. His professional journey reached its pinnacle as a field supervisor for the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce in Erie County, New York. Recognized for his expertise, Matthew played a crucial role in designing trauma-informed training for the New York State Police. His passion for education and advocacy led him to become a sought-after speaker, presenting at numerous seminars and conferences. Matthew holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Albany, a testament to his commitment to continuous learning and professional development. He further contributes to the field as a master instructor for the Division of Criminal Justice Services in New York State.