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Reforming law enforcement starts with law enforcement

We have substantial ‘problems lying in wait’ in too many law enforcement agencies that we need to address

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Right now there is an unprecedented focus on law enforcement operations nationally and internationally.


The past few weeks have been incredibly challenging for law enforcement as calls mount for reform, defunding and even dismantling of police agencies, leading both new and veteran officers to question whether to stay in the profession.

We do have problems in law enforcement that need to be addressed, writes Gordon Graham in this article, but we need officers to be part of the fixing process. One officer who is helping to better connect cops with their communities is Ryan Tillman, who has authored a companion piece to Gordon’s article in which he argues why it is time to become law enforcement change agents.

Gordon Graham here with some thoughts on the current events in the United States regarding the police and their work. If you have been to any of my live programs over the last 40 years, you know I tend to ramble, so let me start with this: If you’re having doubts about your chosen profession and wondering if it isn’t time to throw in the towel, read this article first.

A Perfect Passing Record

My first year in high school was at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Mountain View, California. Needless to say, that career path did not last too long. I only spent a year there. My mother had some influence in the operations of the Catholic church and somehow (still a mystery to me) she was able to get me enrolled in the San Francisco powerhouse high school St. Ignatius. I reported there on the first day of my sophomore year.

But I was not the only student getting started there that day. There was another sophomore entering named Dan Fouts (although the Wikipedia article about him says he started SI in his junior year so perhaps my memory is off). Everything in a Catholic school is done in accordance with a system. Hence, alphabetical order dictated that I sat directly behind Dan in many of my classes for the next couple of years. I liked him. He was always kind to me, and we had some laughs.

If you are over the age of 50 or are a fan of the NFL, you recognize the name, Dan Fouts. He went on to play football at the University of Oregon and then the NFL, where he established many passing records. I have lost touch with him since we graduated from high school, but if you ever chat with him he will tell you this: “Gordon Graham has a better passing record than I do.” And that is true. Seriously – it is true. I, Gordon Graham, have never been intercepted. Not once have I been intercepted.

Why have I never been intercepted? Because I have never thrown a single pass in my life! I use this example in my classes on decision-making. If you make enough decisions, sooner or later you are going to make one you regret. If you stand in front of audiences for 40 years, sooner or later you are going to say something that someone finds offensive. And if you write enough articles, sooner or later you are going to write something that angers people.

As I prepared this writing in my head this morning on my daily walk up and down the beach here in Orange County, California, I said to myself, “Then why even write the piece if you know it is going to anger some people?” And my brain kept on telling me, “because it needs to be written.”

Pointing Blame

So here we go. I have read several articles recently – some by people I know and respect – that have a common theme: “Why would anyone want to work in law enforcement today? This job has changed so much. We used to be respected, now people hate us. We used to be believed in court, now everyone thinks we are liars. Because of the actions of one idiot in Minnesota, we are now all painted with the same brush. I am out of this profession and I would never recommend a career in law enforcement to anyone!”

Certainly, I can understand the thinking that leads to this type of statement. Things have changed dramatically (albeit slowly) since 1973 (my first year in the business) – in my opinion mostly for the better. But right now there is an unprecedented focus on law enforcement operations nationally and internationally. There is a lot of hate speech directed at law enforcement from external sources, including language to “defund police” and “eliminate police departments” and of course the whackjobs who encourage the murder of police officers.

Sadly, some people on the law enforcement side of things are responding in like manner, saying things that are not fully thought through. “This group hates us, these people hate us, they have never been a cop. What do they know, let’s go on a month’s boycott and see how they like that, let’s just drive and wave and not get involved in anything with them.” The reference to “them” is a unifying characteristic of these sentiments.

Even more regretfully, some people in the law enforcement community are convinced we are doing everything perfectly and there is no need for reform and “they” just hate us for no good reason and this is their fault and their fault and their fault.

If you are pointing the blame on external people and groups and think that law enforcement is perfect and nothing needs to change because “we know what we are doing,” I strongly encourage you to slow down and listen to some of the statements coming from external sources – really listen.

To be fair, I don’t agree with everything coming from the external sources. Doing away with police departments is a very stupid idea. Defunding police is a very stupid idea. Those who call for the murder of cops are terrible, terrible people.

Problems Lying in Wait

My frustration is turning to anger, and this is the paragraph that will cause some of you to send me some hate mail. I have been on the national and international lecture scene for 40 years and while my programs have matured over time what has not changed is the fact that we have substantial “problems lying in wait” in too many law enforcement agencies. We need to address them.

I do not stand alone when I say this. I have close friends who also present programs to cops and they too are frustrated. I will present an eight-hour lecture to a group of cops and the evaluations will be excellent and very complimentary, but do the attendees do anything with the information when they get back to work? At the start of every program I deliver to law enforcement people I say, “If nothing changes in your department in the 30 days following this program, I have failed here today.” And sadly, in too many agencies, nothing changes.

You will hear some talk about “civil service” over the next few weeks – I guarantee it. I fully understand the need for civil service rules and regulations, but in too many organizations civil service breeds mediocrity. “If I learn something here today in this program and go back and write it up and try to make things better, I will get paid X. If I don’t do anything with the information I receive in this program, I will get paid X.” So why do anything?

Occasionally I get calls (never emails – we would not want a record of this conversation) from well-meaning cops who tried to recommend a change after attending training but are attacked. “Who do you think you are?” “We have always done it this way.” “Remember, you are just a cop and I am a Captain therefore you are an idiot.” When faced with these attitudes, why should they raise their hands and do something?

By now you want some examples. OK, here we go. Several of the speakers on the lecture circuit have been talking for years about hiring standards. Does anyone listen? So we have a scared cop who shoots and kills someone who approaches him – and then we learn the involved cop is a stone-cold idiot who failed most of the tests at the academy but somehow is graduated and made a cop. Geez, I wonder how that will work out for the involved agency?

Or you have cops who wander from agency to agency to agency – constantly incompetent. They are told, “If you don’t resign I will fire you, but if you do resign I will give you a favorable recommendation when the next department calls me.” Please do not tell me this is not going on.

I have spent enough time studying the final reports of police tragedies and I regularly read about cops who had reputations for consistently screwing things up and the attitude that “rules do not apply to me.” Yet they have five years of performance evaluations saying they’re excellent in all categories.

Training, Supervision, Discipline

Let me ask you a question about training in law enforcement. You get hired into any police department in America. You get off probation and you choose not to promote. When is the next time you are trained and tested on the shooting policy or the pursuit policy or the carotid restraint policy? In too many agencies, the only test we give people is the incident itself. And if you don’t know what you are doing, the agency is facing a tragedy.

For years I taught a class on search and seizure in California. I would start the day with a 25-question test – not multiple choice. Life on the street as a cop is not multiple choice. “Well officer, you got me stopped. Here are your six options, pick the best one.” No, life on the street is not multiple choice, so I made the test fill in the blanks, and the scores were shocking. Way too many cops failed to answer a single question correctly.

One of my big worries is supervision. In a full-day program on this subject, I put a 3x5 card on the table in front of each seat in the classroom. I start the day with my welcoming remarks and then say, “You are all in-service supervisors. Please use the card in front of you to write down the primary mission of a supervisor in your department.” I then collect the cards. Most of them are blank and on the ones that do have a response, too often I read sheer idiocy: “My primary mission is making sure the AC is on early on hot days.” “My primary mission is improving morale in the department.”

The primary mission of a supervisor is the enforcement of the organizational policy. And if a chief or sheriff promotes people who can’t or won’t enforce policy – that is a problem lying in wait.

Let me quickly talk about employee discipline because I guarantee that you will be reading about this over the next week. Too many agencies subscribe to the theory that “all is well that ends well.” You have a pursuit in which involved units violate the policy (e.g., too many units, motor cops involved when policy says no, excessive speeds) but the pursuit ends up OK. In agencies where “all is well that ends well” the policy violations aren’t addressed. Eventually, the deviation from policy becomes the norm. Then we have the pursuit that ends up in a triple fatal – so now we take discipline?

Find Your “Dash”

I am tired of writing now and I am frustrated. I love my profession and I am so proud to have been an active part of it for 33 years and still involved now for 47 years. But we have some problems that we have created ourselves – not “them,” or “them” or “them”!

It is now time to make my point. If a smart, motivated, ethical, courageous young woman or man came up to me today and said, “I am thinking about becoming a cop. What do you think?” My response would be, “Absolutely! Yes there are some current major issues but young women and men like you may well be the agents of change who will do well in training, take their job seriously, never strive for anything short of excellence, treat people well, promote, write, train, mentor and ultimately run your own copshop.”

Let me close with three thoughts. First, if you send me hate mail don’t send it from Kinko’s – send it from an address where you and I can chat out our differences. Second, read the accompanying piece to this article by my friend Ryan Tillman. He is a young man I am proud to know and although “short” in tenure, he is already making a huge positive difference in our profession.

And third, I am closing in on my 70th year on this earth. The sad news about getting old is you go to more and more funerals. The ultimate compliment from a dying person is, “Gordon, will you do the eulogy at my service?” What do you say to that, “Sorry I can’t, I’m too busy”? I just can’t say no to these requests to honor the decedent, so over the past few years, I have done a bunch of eulogies.

I build my eulogies based on Linda Ellison’s great poem “The Dash.” Copyright law prevents me from including the poem here, but I encourage you to read it or the book by Mac Anderson about the poem.

Go to any cemetery in America and look at the gravestones or head markers. You will see a date of birth followed by a date of death. In between those dates is a dash. The drift of the poem and book is, “What will your dash be? What have you accomplished between those two dates?”

This is why I was a cop, why I encourage smart, motivated, ethical and courageous young men and women to become cops, and why I hope all of you serving today will not become discouraged and give up. I cannot think of any other profession where every day you work you have an opportunity to change the life of another person. Some of you reading this are sex crimes investigators. You arrest a serial rapist and get a conviction. How many rapes have you prevented by arresting just one serial rapist? That is your “dash” right there.

You are working a juvenile detail and you run into some kid who is headed in the wrong direction in life. You do something to get this kid going the right way. That is your “dash” right there.

I was just a simple motorcycle cop (although we all know that motors are the backbone of American law enforcement), but I arrested a ton of drunk drivers. I wonder how many lives I saved because of my relentless search for impaired drivers. Perhaps that is my “dash.”

I could go on and on and on but my editor told me, “No more than 3,000 words.” Here is my bottom line: You are part of a noble profession. We have some problems in our profession that need to be fixed. You need to be part of the fixing process and making things better in your department. Excellence needs to be the norm, not the deviation. We need to get and keep good people in our profession – you are part of that. We need to build and maintain good policies that focus on the preservation of life. We need to make sure we are fully and adequately trained to perform our rightful work. We need supervisors behaving like supervisors and executives behaving like executives. When rules are not followed, we need to address that deviation, notwithstanding the lack of nasty consequences.

And each of us needs to try to find one good woman or one good man every day and convince them to be part of this noble profession that is so important in our society. If everyone who reads this article makes that their goal, we will have a wide, broad and deep applicant pool where we can pick and choose and get the “best of the best” who are smart, tough and look like the community we protect and serve.

Read Ryan’s words before you send me your hate mail. Thanks for reading this and please work safely.

Gordon Graham has been actively involved in law enforcement since 1973. He spent nearly 10 years as a very active motorcycle officer while also attending Cal State Long Beach to achieve his teaching credential, USC to do his graduate work in Safety and Systems Management with an emphasis on Risk Management, and Western State University to obtain his law degree. In 1982 he was promoted to sergeant and also admitted to the California State Bar and immediately opened his law offices in Los Angeles.