Leading from the front: The Chief sets the tone
A Chief shows that a key to good police leadership is holding yourself to the same ethical and disciplinary standards as you’d hold your officers
Picture yourself in this officer’s boots. It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, the sixth day worked in a long work week, and you’re in the town’s trailer court – where very few residents speak English – located on private property, and accessible by a single entrance.
“It was not turning out to be a very happy day in the trailer court,” Rob Hall tells PoliceOne. Hall, Chief of Police for the La Crosse (Va.) Police Department, recently recounted an incident that took place in that trailer court involving the aforementioned officer ...and how it provided a “teaching moment.” It won’t ruin the story to tell you now that at the end of that day, the officer had been given a two-day suspension without pay.
There had been problems in the trailer court. A small, recently arrived group of individuals from one country had recently been agitating an established group of residents from another country. The second group had shown amazing restraint, but patience was wearing thin, and more and more the sentiment was shifting to handling things as they would be handled “back home.”
Hall tells PoliceOne that while there had once been talk of paving the drives within the trailer court, cars now travel down heavily eroded, one-lane dirt paths – most of which are cul-de-sacs. One of the effects of this road structure is that once a driver has entered this knot of poorly surfaced roads, forward and backward are the only options – turning around is “an adventure” – so it’s simply easier to back out the way you come in.
Further complicating matters, in addition to all the dips and potholes that threaten to remove the undercarriage of any vehicle traveling more than five miles an hour, there are two manholes. Because the original intention was to pave the streets, these two manholes remain as flat-topped monuments of steel and concrete, rising to an elevation of about six inches or more above the uneven surface, depending on current erosion conditions. Frequent visitors to the trailer court know the drill: move to the right of the first manhole, move to the left of the second. New visitors entering the trailer court in a car with any speed, especially at night, frequently had most unpleasant automotive experiences...
In an action of pro-active community policing, the officer had gone into the trailer court to make separate contact with both groups, Hall tells PoliceOne.
“With the first group, he explained in no uncertain terms what will occur if they persist in their anti-social behavior,” Hall explains. “They seem to get it. To the second group, he reinforces the fact that the Police know about the instigators of the unpleasantness and that any future efforts on that group’s part to disrupt the harmony of the trailer court will result in law enforcement actions which they will most assuredly not enjoy, and stresses the importance that the established, peaceful group of residents need to respond in a manner that is acceptable in this country – that is to say, call 911 – rather than handle it 'old-school.' They seem to get it also.”
Given that both conversations were extensive, and conducted in a combination of pigeon-Spanish and pantomime, Hall says that the officer, exhausted from the experience, decides that it’s about time to go back to the office, finish up some paperwork, and go home. He bids farewell to the large group of residents that he’s been speaking with, gets in his cruiser, puts it in reverse, and begins to back up the one-lane drive to leave.
Less than two seconds later, there is a sickening “bang,” and the cruiser comes to an immediate stop. The officer doesn’t need to look at the faces of the crowd that is now staring at him - he knows. He just backed his Police cruiser into the concrete and steel monument, otherwise known as a manhole. He restarts the car, and moves it forward several yards, refusing to look at the faces of the much-amused spectators. The car now sounds like it has suddenly been fitted with a glass pack exhaust system, minus the glass packs.
“This is the point where you would immediately begin composing the letter in your head. It begins ‘Dear Chief...’ but there’s one more difficulty. He IS the Chief. Oh, hell...”
So, what’s a Chief of Police to do in such circumstances? For Chief Hall, the answer was simple.
“I gave myself a two-day rip – a suspension without pay,” Hall tells PoliceOne. “It was a no-brainer. If one of my officers had backed their cruiser into one of the manhole covers as I did, they would have gotten two days off. I’m not going to treat myself any differently than I would them.”
Hall said part of his response goes back to something he was told when he was a rookie.
(Image courtesy of La Crosse PD)
“I was a new-hire, and had my ‘meet the Chief’ meeting. I was, to say the least, very intimidated by this man who’d been a cop as long as I’d been alive. It got much worse when he looked at me and bellowed, ‘Son, how many times a day do you think I screw up?’ Not what I was expecting to be asked. I think my brain headed for Jamaica, and I stood there. I’m sure I looked like a deer in headlights, because after about the tenth time I said ‘uh,’ he continued. ‘The answer is: a lot. I screw up every day – we all do. What’s most important is not whether we screw up, it’s what we do after it.’ That had a major impact on me then, and it continues to today.”
Hall has related that story – and its message – to every officer he’s hired in his career.
“I tell my Officers, ‘I can deal with just about anything short of criminal action or dishonesty. You make a mistake, own it, accept whatever penalties come as a result of it, and we’ll move on from there.’”
When pressed, Hall acknowledges that there were some contributing factors to his accident, but says it didn’t make a whit of difference.
“Was I tired? Yep. Was I drained? Absolutely. Was I anxious to call it a week? You bet. But those are explanations, not excuses. Look, I’d driven into the trailer court hundreds of times in the past year. I knew the manholes were there – I had to drive around them every time. This time, I parked too close to the last one, and couldn’t see it when I looked to back up. But I knew better. I simply wasn’t paying sufficient attention to my surroundings, and that’s why I ran into the damned thing. There’s no excuse. I screwed up, I own it, and the two-day rip was the consequence.”
When asked about the reaction to his self-imposed suspension Hall chuckles. “I think maybe the Mayor and the town Treasurer thought I was crazy. They’d never heard of anyone docking himself before. I’m not sure what the officers thought – I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just sent out an email, stating what’d I’d done, and that I was going to be serving a two-day suspension without pay on such-and-such days. The only comment I heard came from a veteran officer who said, ‘remind me not to back my car into anything!’”
What was the damage to the car, and to his wallet?
“Fortunately, it only cost the town about $60 to repair the cruiser,” said Hall. “The days off took over $300 out of my check. So I guess maybe the town made a profit from my screw up? One thing’s for sure, though – I’m a hell of a lot more careful when I back up these days! And none of my officers have backed into anything since then.”