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June 04, 2014
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Why ask "Why?" 5 reasons every good police leader should

Over my career as an academy trainer, professor — and now as chief and leader of my department — my greatest satisfaction has come from answering all those “why?” questions

Management gurus are urging leaders to fire up their employees, collaborate, innovate, and motivate. Meanwhile, training officers and supervisors are trying to get their troops to calm down and hush up.

Long ago (in a skinnier life), I was nearly bursting through my French blue uniform shirt with a racing heart pushing from the inside against a badge that, after one shift, stopped feeling heavy and started feeling just right.

Even before I stopped checking to be sure my gun and cuffs were still attached to my stiff basket weave belt every five seconds; before I was able to translate the garble of four channels barking at me from the bulky Motorola with its flesh colored face, I wanted to know the answer to the question “why” for every new thing that came my way. Pain in the rear, right?

I was interviewing an FTO recently about one of his trainees on a background investigation.

“Well you know how when you’re a trainee you’re supposed to shut up, just listen, and don’t screw up, right?” he grumbled. He then told me how this officer had dared to question him, asking “why?”

I thanked him for the information and hired his former trainee.

Over my career as an academy trainer, professor — and now as chief and leader of my department — my greatest satisfaction has come from answering all of those “why?” questions.

Here’s why:

1.) “Why” Establishes History
One of the greatest loyalty generators for a department is understanding origins and history.

This is true even if it’s the origin of policy. Explaining “why” about policy is a teachable moment about principles of tactics, liability, and even policy development. Explaining “why” gives context for the officer to more deeply understand and accept policy and procedure.

2.) “Why” Feeds Innovation
Questioning the way we do things is essential to life and management. Sometimes situations, technology, and personalities change, rendering the way we’ve always done it inefficient or obsolete.

There’s nothing like fresh eyes to provide new vision.

3.) “Why” Develops Leadership
An inquisitive and challenging mind signals a future leader. It is a signal of engagement and interest. A leader has these questioning moments to develop others who will understand policy analysis and implementation.

A leader who understands this process understands one of the major sources of stress and low morale. Subordinates who understand the background and development of a policy and procedure are much more likely to live within it.

4.) “Why” Establishes a Department Culture
Is your agency one that is constantly learning, improving, and responsive to change? If your answer to the “why” question is “because” — or if your response to suggestions is “Tried it. Didn’t work” — then you are not learning, improving, or responding to change.

Brushing off a subordinate’s question or suggestion says they are not paid to think and it’s best to keep a closed mouth.

This is death to morale and innovation.

5.) “Why” Improves Ethical Conduct
A subordinate who hears about an open door policy and sees a suggestion box, but who gets shut down when he or she speaks up or asks questions is being taught that his or her voice is not valued.

When silence about department operations is taught in practice — regardless of the motivational posters in the squad room — subordinates are less likely to report or question behavior that seems unethical.

The best monitors of a department’s culture and behavior are on the line, not in the office. They must feel free to speak up.

I understand obedience and submission and good order. I also understand that I’m not always the smartest person in the room, or even the smartest one in the patrol car.

Even a bad idea is an opportunity for learning. And it might be me who learns the most. 


About the author

Joel Shults currently serves as Chief of Police for Adams State College in Alamosa, Co. 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 currently serves on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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