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July 12, 2012

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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Professional Learning Communities: Why law enforcement needs them

Maybe there was a time when all you had to do as a cop was swing your nightstick and do as you were told, but those days are long gone

Police culture is made up of leaders and followers. It is — as the kids say — how we roll.

Top down management works or we wouldn’t stick with it. We talk a good game of collaboration, but we believe in experts, we believe in bosses, we believe in butts-in-the-seat training and being talked at rather than conversed with.

Television psychologist Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that workin’ for yah?”

Professional Learning Communities
Leadership and training patterns are not likely to change in my lifetime so I’m only going to suggest an addition. It’s the concept of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), borrowed from the world of K-12 schools.

In the frenzy to comply with ridiculous federal rules, grant requirements, and a system of public education that seems to be in the toilet, the trendy concept may not be a bad idea. By trendy I mean less than 30 years old.

That’s about how long it takes for law enforcement to adopt a concept from the rest of the world.

According to Southwest Educational Development Laboratory's website, PLCs in education are made up of teachers who collaborate with shared experiences with common problems.

The elements of PLCs are supportive and shared leadership, collective creativity, shared values and vision, supportive conditions, and shared personal practice.

What does that have to do with policing? Maybe a lot.

Teachers (like the one I’m married to) report to one boss but work largely independently and in their own microcosm of the classroom. Although given some guidelines and a few mandates, they use their own style and deal with their own problems.

Their work schedule has them engaged with the classroom, so talking to other teachers happens as they pass by each other in the hall, meet in the faculty lounge on breaks, or sit facing a speaker during mandatory meetings. So when do they get to really talk to each other and share problems and solutions?

Until PLCs came along, pretty much never.

Cops have a central reporting system, but they work largely independently and in their own microcosm of the patrol car, beat, and shift. Although given guidelines and mandates, they use their own style to deal with their own problems.

Their work schedule has them out on patrol, so talking to other cops happens as they show up for calls, meet over coffee on break, or sit facing a speaker during mandatory meetings. When do they get to really talk to each other and share problems and solutions?

Unless it’s off duty over beer, pretty much never.

Sharing and Learning More Effectively
As someone with education in my life history, I know that the best learning is experiential, involves multiple senses, attaches to current relevant life experience and knowledge, and is gleaned in a social environment.

Educators finally took time to educate their own using these basic, proven principles. We should, too. Maybe there was a time when all you had to do as a cop was swing your nightstick and do as you were told, but those days are long gone. 

We now have a pretty hefty body of knowledge to work with and qualified thinking professionals working the streets. Shouldn’t we be sharing and learning more effectively from each other?

PLCs won’t happen unless police leaders make it happen. They’ll have to trust their officers and line supervisors to use meeting time away from patrol, and to learn how to guide productive, collaborative discussions. In return, they’ll get more uniformity, greater camaraderie, better shared vision and purpose, and more professionalism.

For all the talk we do about community policing, having PLCs internally may be the best way to develop officer skills in working, sharing, listening, and learning in small groups where community policing begins.

I think it’s time for PLCs in our PDs.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Shults Consulting LLC, featuring the Street Smart Force training curriculum. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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