Lessons in Leadership: Why cops shouldn’t judge a crisis by its cover
Effective crisis management and resolution rely on a different aspect of the situational awareness that keeps us alive
This article is part of a 10-part Lessons in Leadership series by Rich Emberlin. Click here to access all of Rich’s leadership lessons.
Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.
Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.
At first glance, the fresh-faced, twentysomething blonde looked right at home in the Hilton Anatole. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and black suit, she appeared ready for a business meeting or job interview. But the thick chains wrapped around her neck and binding her to a tree in the atrium of one of Dallas’s most upscale hotels told a different story.
It was the summer of 2014, and a group of protestors had gathered to disrupt an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) convention. As a detective in the Dallas Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, I had been on site for a few hours monitoring the situation. The woman and a man had chained themselves to separate trees, thrown away the keys and were hurling insults at convention-goers as they walked by.
Her anger was palpable as I approached with several patrol officers and a pair of bolt cutters.
“F—k you police!” she screamed. “Pigs! F—king murderers!”
What defines a crisis?
A crisis can be defined as many things – an unstable state of affairs, emotionally significant event, or situation that has reached a critical phase.
I learned early in my career that a crisis is a crisis, even if it’s not yours. In policing, it doesn’t matter if we perceive situations as trivial, irrational, incomprehensible or downright absurd. There’s always a catalyst that prompts the human behavior we’re witnessing. Figure out what it is, and you’ve got a head start in crisis management and resolution.
We cut the chains, handcuffed the woman and escorted her outside to the waiting patrol cars. I instructed one of the officers to remove the cuffs.
“You don’t look like someone who would be protesting,” I said. “How old are you?”
“F—k you.” She hated the very idea of me, and she didn’t even know me. I was just another cop to her.
“Listen, I’m respecting you, and while I wish you would do the same for me, I don’t necessarily care if you do or not,” I said. “But you better listen up because you’re arguing from a great disadvantage. Now, we are going to get through this or you can simply go to jail … which is what I’m supposed to do with you.”
In law enforcement, we have one-way conversations more often than we wish. I glanced over at the patrol officers, who were growing impatient. “I think you planned on getting arrested today, but I don’t want to put you in jail. I want to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
She started crying. “I hate police officers.”
Crisis is complex. There’s always more to the story than meets the eye. “Why?”
“They murdered my dad when I was 14,” she sobbed.
“What were the circumstances?” I asked, realizing I had just stumbled upon the catalyst.
She said cops in a nearby city had killed her father, covered up for each other and basically got away with murder. I knew a SWAT operator in the police department she was accusing and stepped aside to call him. He vividly remembered the incident; the suspect had been in the Trinity River bottoms that border Dallas, waving his gun around, trying repeatedly to provoke a lethal response (suicide by cop). But they never fired a single shot at him.
This young lady’s family hadn’t been truthful with her about the circumstances of her father’s death. It was clear now why her hatred of police was so deeply entrenched; it was motivated by a daughter’s pain over the loss of her father.
I chose my words carefully. “I spoke to one of the SWAT operators who was there that night. The story you got wasn’t exactly accurate. I’ll tell you this – the police didn’t murder your dad. You need to re-address it with your mother or go to the police department and file an open records request on the circumstances of your dad’s death.”
She started crying again. “Are you saying he killed himself? Why would they lie to me?”
“I’m not saying that.” I knew her world must be turning upside down. “I don’t know what your dad was going through. I’m just saying that it didn’t happen the way you’ve been told.”
She probably thought I was lying, but judging by the look on her face, I think she considered there might be some truth in my words.
“You know what? I’m not going to put you in jail.”
“You’re not?” Shock registered on her face.
“Nope. You’re going to go home.” I took some cash out of my wallet and gave it to her. “Take this and get a cab. You don’t owe me any money, but you do owe me this – ask your mom what really happened. Keep an open mind. What happened to your dad is tragic, but the police didn’t do anything to him. Promise me you’ll ask your mom.”
She looked bewildered, but nodded and thanked me.
How compassion can defuse a crisis
People who behave abnormally are usually in crisis. Not surprisingly, that’s when and why the police show up.
Something happened in their lives – whether 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago – that is a causal factor of the behavior they’re exhibiting in the present. It is completely irrelevant whether responding officers think the situation is a crisis, only whether the person in question thinks it is.
A willingness to accept this fact made me an infinitely better police officer. It put me in a different mental space that day – conciliatory and compassionate instead of confrontational and combative.
Certain situations will require officers to take the aggressive approach; hard-core criminals typically only respond to speed, surprise and violence of action. In other cases, compassion is often one of the best tools for defusing a crisis.
When we are conscious of others’ distress, and have a willingness to understand their thoughts and motivations, that opens the door for reducing tension and conflict. Simple acts of compassion paid huge dividends throughout my career; I was able to reason with 98 percent of people and ultimately gain their cooperation.
In many ways, effective crisis management and resolution rely on a different aspect of the situational awareness that keeps us alive. When officers conduct a routine traffic stop or chase a suspect down a dark alley, they are constantly processing the environmental elements and assessing the threat.
Similarly, a person in crisis presents a psychological environment that is full of inputs, outputs and variables to consider. An officer’s perception and comprehension of this dynamic psychological environment, along with real-time adjustments to his or her actions, can go a long way toward producing a peaceful outcome in any situation.
Author’s note: The Lessons in Leadership series contains stories about real people and actual events that are portrayed to the best of my memory. Dialogue has been reconstructed from my recollections, which means it may not be a word-for-word transcript, but the essence of what was said is accurate.