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IACP 2023: Changing culture in a police organization

The culture within an agency significantly influences its effectiveness and accountability, as well as the wellbeing of both its officers and the communities they serve

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Culture defines how an organization is perceived, both internally and externally. To flourish in today’s policing environment, leaders must be intentional in creating adaptive cultures that respond to the needs of their team and community. Without intentionality, cultures can default to toxic environments where relationships suffer and personnel are left feeling unsupported or under-appreciated.

During a presentation at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Undersheriff Chris Hsiung of the San Mateo (California) County Sheriff’s Office and Chief Jack Cauley of the Castle Rock (Colorado) Police Department addressed a packed house about innovative approaches to building organizational culture.

Here are some key takeaways from their session:

1. Policing needs “chiefs of culture”

The field of policing has been gifted the opportunity to evolve, but the responsibility lies in the hands of police leaders. It is time to take charge and become “chiefs of culture” because organizational evolution occurs from the inside out.

2. Know your why

What is the mission of policing and why do people become police officers? The speakers argue that understanding the answers to these questions is critical for change. The current profession of policing lacks the guiding principles needed to create healthy cultures. The speakers firmly believe “police exist to protect the vulnerable from harm” and police culture must understand and reflect this.

3. Avoid culture by default

When police leaders aren’t intentional about their organization’s culture, it can create a toxic environment where personnel are mistreated. New hires can be hazed and made to feel less-than. Top-down, fear-based, directive leadership styles rule through intimidation and demoralization. Favoritism takes the place of meritocracy and officers are pressured to make quotas. This environment leaves personnel feeling undervalued and under-appreciated. There is no psychological safety or trust between leadership and staff and competitive silos form that further degrade professional relationships.

4. Embrace culture by design

Positive cultures don’t just happen, they are intentional. Every police leader must work to ensure they have a culture by design. The first step for any police leader when changing culture is to listen. This means listening to personnel and the community. The speakers suggested “listening sessions” where leaders simply listen to staff and community members express issues and concerns. From there, start with small, intentional changes so people believe you are dedicated to listening and enacting meaningful change that improves the work environment. Allowing your team members to be heard empowers them and allows them feel valued and appreciated.

5. Metrics vs. purpose

What value does the community experience when officers are forced to write a certain number of tickets? If community trust is already an issue, writing extra tickets only further degrades trust. Instead of traditional policing metrics, why not instead focus on problem-solving?

Undersheriff Hsiung illustrated this point with a story about a community member who brought pastries to the police station to express her gratitude. At a traffic light, an officer pulled up next to her and explained that her tag was expired and she should fix it. Since he wasn’t relying on traditional policing metrics, he never wrote her a ticket, and instead he earned her trust by showing concern for her best interest. The woman was so impressed by the interaction that she wanted to express her thanks to the entire department.

6. One-by-one policing

The Castle Rock Police Department has adopted the mission to serve communities as individuals and “create environments where people can feel safe, secure and can thrive.” As Chief Cauley explained, this mindset begins within the organization with the chief’s commitment to treating each team member as an individual and helping them thrive. His goal is to create psychologically safe and secure environments through empathy, listening and problem solving. He wants his personnel to feel comfortable addressing organizational challenges. Most importantly, he understands that when police leaders model the type of behavior they want to see, their officers will then model that behavior in the community.

Some benefits from the One-By-One Policing initiative include increased trust within the department and community, a culture that favors de-escalation, better resilience among individuals and the department, improved recruitment and retention, and higher quality policing.

7. Lead from the heart and model the way

Both speakers emphasized the importance of leading by example and leading from the heart. They suggested leaders attend training and learn alongside their staff. Learn the jobs of different personnel so you better understand the unique challenges they face. Throw on your sweats, get dirty and work with your people.

They also discussed the value of allowing staff to see leaders as humans by being honest, vulnerable and relatable. Voice and tone matter, so they ask their officers to call them by their first name during relationship-building activities like listening sessions and book club meetings where officers read a book chapter together. Approaching staff not from a position of authority but as a person builds trust and creates meaningful relationships. Both speakers also emphasized the importance of openly discussing failures, fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities. Officers appreciate leaders who can speak informally from the heart, and they will model this behavior with their own staff as they grow professionally.


Undersheriff Hsiung told the story of one of his officers who was struggling and making mistakes. Hsiung had to suspend him, but he sat him down for a heart-to-heart conversation. Hsiung understood that it was his responsibility to create an environment where this officer could succeed. He asked the officer to commit to working hard and Hsiung would commit to constructing an environment where he could thrive. Both agreed, and that officer has since become one of the most valued members of Hsiung’s team.

The need for police leaders to prioritize and nurture a healthy organizational culture cannot be overstated. The culture within a law enforcement agency significantly influences its effectiveness and accountability, as well as the wellbeing of both its officers and the communities they serve. A positive and inclusive culture fosters trust, transparency and collaboration, leading to improved officer morale and public relations. Conversely, a toxic or negative culture can erode public trust, increase misconduct and hinder the overall mission of law enforcement. By recognizing the paramount importance of organizational culture and actively working to shape it, police leaders can lead their agencies towards greater success, resilience and ultimately, safer and more harmonious communities.

NEXT: You can’t legislate culture — here’s how to really implement change

Dr. Michelle Gundy is a researcher, consultant, veteran and SME in the fields of communication, trauma and policing (both civilian and officer trauma). She is a doctor of education in organizational change and leadership with graduate and undergraduate degrees in communications. She educates members of law enforcement on the emotional, physical, neurobiological and physiological effects of trauma and how it relates to the field of policing.