5 Action Steps to Reframe Police Thinking for a Wise Transition Toward Becoming a 21 Century Policing Organization

By: Lt. Brian Ellis, MS, Sacramento PD  and Terry D. Anderson, PhD, Chief Leadership Officer, International Academy of Public Safety

Abraham Maslow once said that, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  All organizational leaders must understand that to be leaders they must have a comprehensive toolbox.  What best practices can police organizations utilize to effectively deal with society’s demands for increased public safety and public trust?  Leadership advisor C.K. Prahalad said, “There are no universal silver bullets…. all solutions become locally responsive.”

During searches for best practices, leaders often find themselves operating without basic principles of strategic management. One such principle is that it takes buy-in from all members of the police workforce to be successful with any agency-wide mission critical for success.  This agency-wide collaboration and concerted action does not occur without an enterprise-wide change management plan that is adopted by an implementation team that targets, monitors and reports change. As police leaders, we ask: how can we make our organization wiser to the compounding stresses and best practices that have recently surfaced?

It has been said that wisdom comes with age, yet there are those who are older and not wiser.  In the quest for “police wisdom” it becomes certain that to be successful employing community and problem-oriented policing, and crime reduction principles and practices, one must have a relationship with humility.  Humility allows people to self-reflect and to balance out our strengths and weaknesses, and allows officers to not fall victim to situations where “contempt of cop” festers.  With humility, officers have greater range of the already vast depth of discretion afforded to them. As a manager of a police organization, the question comes up of how to deliver learning opportunities that are later actually applied.  After all, it is wisdom and discernment that can better equip officers for situations they face in the street and in their shift meetings.

Policing is filled with learning opportunities that require rapid decisions based on limited information.  As an officer is exposed to more and more police work, he/she gains experiences they use in subsequent encounters.  The dangers surface when officers become complacent, apply “universal silver bullet” frames of thinking, or perhaps worse, a “my way or the highway” approach to people.  This approach creates citizen complaints and demoralizes fellow officers and employees.  It becomes easy to treat situations the same as you did in the past based on seemingly similar events.  In addition, new law enforcement training prepares officers to utilize a systems approach to events such as barricaded suspects and perimeters, as officers are familiar with “going through the numbers.”  While protocols are resourceful, they should never dismiss critical and innovative thinking.  Therefore, to maximize leaders’ abilities to be true leaders throughout every layer of their organizations, and create best practices, consider using the following five action principles to build organizational wisdom and humility daily.

  1. Learn continuously

Progressive police agencies are creative with ways they deliver training, which subsequently are aligned with organizational values.  High leverage training, as described by R. Carnevale in Strategic human resource management and sustainable competitive advantage, is the ability to link strategies and goals, thereby ensuring that the training provided to employees is effective for the organization as a whole. Be cautious to not allow training and experiences to be the only vehicles of learning.  Educational opportunities are abundant, such as a quick debrief in the field, or a roll call training to talk about an incident that happened within the region.  It is up to police leadership to connect the dots of learning often by giving one another what Marshall Goldsmith calls “feed-forward.” Rather than focusing on the past and “calling” someone on their mistakes, the focus is on improving future performance without blaming others for mistakes or shortcomings.  This kind of positive, future-focused feedback is easier to give through a simple co-coaching philosophy that can be adopted by your agency.

  1. Develop the capacity for empathy and emotional intelligence

While some police skeptics might think the topic of empathy is a little touchy feely, empathy is an essential ingredient of a successful leader and officer.  Empathy should not be confused with sympathy as Greg Osterstuck pointed out in his article Empathy and Sympathy…Don’t Mix the Two on the Job.  Empathy is a communicative tool to better understand what is going on so you are poised to effectively problem solve.   Empathy is the foundational quality and skill set that counselors and social workers get training and certification to perform. For the first time, this training is available online for all public safety and law enforcement personnel so that they are more effective at home, at work and in the community.

  1. Keep a positive attitude

Attitudes set the tone for behavior both in organizational and personal life.  Healthy attitudes can shape the way officers handle dangerous situations while keeping them safe and effective (Leland, 2012).  Because of the profound positive effects of a positive attitude, is should be an expectation in the workplace.  Leaders must constantly search to positively impact employee attitudes by setting the tone, expecting the right behavior, and rewarding the right attitude.

  1. Never stop paying attention, always reinforce

“Men stumble over pebbles, never over mountains.” – H. Emile Cady

Leaders should never stop paying attention to the small things that make a big difference. By constantly teaching and putting employees in a constant state of thinking, leaders create an environment where employees can search for innovative ideas.

  1. Take leadership, team and organization development seriously

Police must now not only enforce the law, but develop their leaders so that they are able work with members of the community to make communities safer.  This requires team leadership skills and expertise.

By providing educational reinforcements, and boosting empathy along with attitude, police strengthen their ability to deliver the right services for the right reasons.  All of these principles provide opportunities for enhanced wisdom as well as character development.  Leaders cannot forget the advice of former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard contained within the Nobility of Policing by Nila and Covey, “Every action we take, every interaction with a citizen, every moment we’re visible is a commercial for our profession.”  It is this notion that will set the stage to take every opportunity to set the bar of excellence.  For if we don’t, any shortcomings we have will most certainly be advertised and championed by critics of our profession.  That is not a luxury we can tolerate or afford.

About the authors:

Taking up the challenge of making organizational change happen is the call we have given to police in our book, Every Officer Is A Leader.  For the first time, officers and professional staff can now learn leadership ethics, history, theory and these necessary team and organization development skills online and at a low cost:  www.sheriffsicld.org.

Terry Anderson is the Chief Leadership Officer at the International Academy of Public Safety. He leads a cadre of senior level consultants and coaches who can certify officers in Credible Leadership. He provides executive level strategic consulting and coaching services for business and police executives. He has also served as a researcher and professor of leadership, problem solving, coaching and mentoring in Criminal Justice university programs for four decades.

Brian Ellis is an 18-year veteran with the Sacramento Police Department. Lieutenant Ellis has worked in a number of specialized assignments including with the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, Parole Intervention and Career Criminal Apprehension Teams, Narcotics and Robbery/Burglary divisions. He is currently a watch commander for the East Command. Brian earned his undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from California State, Sacramento and has a MS in Organizational Leadership from National University. Brian is a life-long student of leadership, and passionate about helping others. He has written articles for several publications including: Law Enforcement Today, Peace Officers Research Association of California, PoliceOne, The Oxford University Press, The Journal of California Law Enforcement; and been published in two academic textbooks with IGI Global Publishing where he has contributed to chapters. Please follow him on Twitter @BrianEllis10