Your police department faces a crisis: Here are 3 ways to fix it

Effective leadership in times of crisis will not only help navigate difficult times, but can actually enhance respect between the community and your agency


Every law enforcement agency — sooner or later — has to contend with a community uproar, a reduction in the community’s confidence in the agency, frustration among the line staff, or a combination of all three. Incidents that can trigger these crises of confidence can include:

1. Use(s) of force coming under public question
2. Violation(s) of department policy by officers (whether on- or off-duty) that raise concerns about the department’s integrity
3. Criminal acts by department members

How leaders respond to these crisis management challenges is critical because, as history has shown, both within the law enforcement and the private sector, the greatest damage comes not from the incident that causes the crisis of confidence, but how the response is managed. When faced with this type of challenge, here are three key actions to immediately implement.

1. “What If” the Situation
First, analyze the incident with the leadership staff and try to determine potential responses from your community. Involving your staff will not only give you multiple perspectives, but also be a valuable leadership experience for those involved. 

Consider this your tactical analysis and, just as you would in a field tactical situation, consider any and all possible outcomes. 

The first question to ask is ‘What if this situation causes a community group to raise their voice against us, or question the department’s ability to serve the community? Being dismissive of the situation is a common mistake. While leaders may feel the incident is lawful and within policy or, “business as usual,” it is critical to view the incident from the community’s perspective. 

A classic example is the infamous Rodney King video. At the time, many in law enforcement who saw the video believed the tactics used were proper. The citizen who videotaped the incident took the video to the LAPD two days after the incident — before he shared it with a local TV station. But the LAPD failed to foresee the community’s response, and were seen as slow to respond to the community’s outrage after the video aired on television.

To be fair to LAPD, in 1991 the idea of a video going viral (more than a decade before that term took on its current meaning) to galvanize outrage against any department may have been hard to foresee. Today however, nearly every citizen has a smartphone with a video camera, so the lessons learned back then are more relevant today than ever. 

Complete a comprehensive analysis of the incident asking “What if” to any conceivable action, and develop an action plan that respects all of your stakeholders: the public, community groups, and your staff. 

2. Get Out in Front, and Contextualize
If the incident has the potential to cause damage, give a response immediately. The initial response may only be that you will give a more comprehensive statement later, but every hour that passes without any response will only be perceived as time passing with nothing was being done. Inform your community that department leaders are actively examining the incident and, if appropriate, conferring with other agencies. Announce when you will offer additional information, and then deliver your statement on time. 

The point is to make your community aware that you are being thoughtful and complete in preparing your initial response. If you appear to be ignoring the incident, someone will say that you’re not responsive to the community, only inflaming the situation.

When you do respond, be clear in your actions and take responsibility. I’m not suggesting that you admit any wrong-doing or negligence, only that you — as a leader — take responsibility for your agency’s role in responding to the incident. The exact nature of this responsibility can vary greatly depending upon the type of incident. 

This is where contextualizing the incident is critical. For example, hopefully the incident (regardless of any fault by an officer or the department) is isolated, so contextualize this by reminding your community of the great work being performed by 99 percent of your staff 99 percent of the time. 

Offering the incident in this context also safeguards the 99 percent of your staff who are doing the good work; they will appreciate you reminding the community that their work is valued. If the community is angry over a car chase that resulted in a crash with injuries, inform your community how you train your officers for pursuit driving and that (hopefully) you have a very low rate of chases and collisions. 

3. Engage Your Supportive Stakeholders
By definition, a crisis of confidence means a segment of your stakeholders are unhappy and are questioning you and your agency’s ability to properly serve. 

However, this does not mean you don’t have any supporters. This is where past engagement and collaboration with your community can help you. Invite a small group of community leaders — upon whom you can depend for support — to act as an advisory group or to speak out in support of how you are responding to the incident. Having support from other established community leaders will help mitigate those who oppose you. (Of course, if you don’t have any supportive community stakeholders it probably is time for a change of leadership.)

Also, engage those stakeholders upon whom you depend every day — your staff. Communicate to the troops what’s happening and what they can expect moving forward. Too often leaders focus on the community only, leaving line staff feeling uninformed and unimportant. Neglecting your staff can lead to a level of disengagement so severe that the crisis of confidence can be internal as well as external.

Authentic leadership and collaboration over time is what builds the stakeholder support that can be critical to a community during difficult times. As a leader of a police agency you personify the integrity, sincerity, and professionalism of the agency — to both the community you serve and to those whom you lead. Crisis management should not be seen as something to fear. Rather it should be viewed as just one aspect of leadership, and to be prepared for. 

Remember, the greatest damage comes not from the incident that causes the crisis of confidence, but how the response is managed. Effective leadership in times of crisis will not only help navigate difficult times, but can actually enhance respect between the community and your agency. 

About the author

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. 

John focuses on promoting 21st Century Leadership principles and skills within the law enforcement community, is a nationally-recognized authority on the response to human trafficking, and managed the San Jose Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force from 2006-2011. 

John has worked with the United States Department of Justice, Office of the United States Attorneys, California’s Office of the Attorney General, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, the California District Attorneys Association, PoliceOne.com, the American Probation and Parole Association, Watch Systems, the Not For Sale Campaign, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, and other organizations.  

During his career John’s assignments included Special Operations, Training (Firearms and Tactics), Sexual Assault Investigations, Vice, Systems Development, and the Bomb Squad.

For more information visit www.johnvanek.com.

Contact John Vanek

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