“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale
The forced resignation of the police chief in San Francisco caused a bit of a stir in law enforcement circles recently. Chief Suhr follows a string of such actions, including the high-profile Superintendent in Chicago, and Chiefs in Baltimore and Ferguson. Chief Suhr and the others had long and distinguished careers by many accounts, and it is not my intention to disparage or throw stones at these men personally. However, it seems painfully obvious that doing business according to the status quo that has existed for decades is no longer working—for cops or the community.
In these contentious times, we need communication and leadership above all else. Policing in a democracy means change will always come as the public’s attitudes change over time. That’s reality. Law enforcement must always be flexible to adapt to those shifts, and leadership is supposed to drive change in a positive way. For instance, the 1966 Miranda ruling radically changed the rules for questioning suspects. No doubt, the chorus of doomsday predictors back then asserted that cops would never get another confession or make another case. Wrong. We worked smarter, adapted and got better at our jobs. We were fast and loose with stop and frisk, touting ever-increasing arrest and ticket numbers, but now we have to refocus on quality not quantity. Changes in pursuit policies and a host of other issues hasn’t ended law enforcement as we know it.
Our current reality is the proliferation of videos in our technology age that can celebrate outstanding police work, but also unfortunately exposes bad police behavior for the entire world to see. It’s not that those minorities of officers weren’t always there in our ranks, it’s just now harder to hide or ignore. That’s where we are today. So, law enforcement leaders have two choices: Rise to the occasion and drive positive change or lash out at anyone remotely questioning procedures and reinforce the status quo. Sadly, too many in leadership positions have chosen the latter.
The law enforcement leaders railing against any suggestion of change are not helping to bridge this divide with the community. I’ve seen these public servants say things like, “cops are afraid to do their jobs”, “cops are in a fetal position”, “cops are going to start sitting under trees”, or really incendiary things like “the mayor has blood on his hands”. Even the FBI Director has inferred that crime is rising because cops feel under attack. I have to shake my head. Some of these same leaders are the ones who sold the myth of statistical utopia, which pitted street officers against the communities they serve to begin with. Yes, these are difficult and stressful times, but fanning the flames and giving excuses to reactionaries who resist any change is not the answer. Lashing out against anyone who questions policing is not the answer. That’s not leadership.
Leadership requires honest self-examination and assessment for growth. Leadership requires that we reach across divides and listen to the communities we serve. Leadership urges the best officers to continue to do their best in spite of the noise around them, by reaffirming support for good work. We can’t partner with citizens if we continue to only look for blame externally rejecting any suggestion of self-critique or improvement. Criminals do kill more black citizens than police ever will. Yes. But that doesn’t excuse any cop from crossing the line. Law enforcement leaders need to re-evaluate and address our own shortcomings, not just whine about exposure of what we’d rather not have the public know. It is a shame that some in high-profile positions take such small-minded and defeatist attitudes. Their public statements pander to the worst behaviors, rather than the highest ideals of our profession. It’s lazy and wrong.
Forget leading from behind, that’s leading from the bottom.