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Changing the police culture: An IA investigator's perspective

Before a cultural change can take place, both police leadership and the rank and file must recognize one is needed


Police actions in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Madison, and Chicago have now entered the history books alongside other stories of controversy fortifying the narrative of poor police/community relations. Whether fact or perception, each event that is thought to disrespect a community further injures the fragile association many police departments have with citizens served.

There is a centuries-old history of poor police treatment of minorities, but higher education, community spokesmen, evolving racial unity and 21st century opportunities have now freed many to question and challenge police actions. Officers must understand the citizens of today expect more professionalism from police — authority delegated to officers is granted by the people served.

As recent history shows, any controversial action by a police officer — even if a standard law enforcement practice — can incite a community response of disagreement, distrust, hate, and anger. The media’s quest to sell print and TV space encourages sensational reporting of imprudent, and many times justifiable, lawful, but misunderstood actions. A negative comment by the media may not be focused on all officers but any published comment can impact an entire department or all of law enforcement.

Making a Change
For U.S. law enforcement to address citizen demands, the culture (and perception) of law enforcement must make a change. But before a cultural change can take place, both police leadership and the rank and file must recognize one is needed — a change from the perception of insensitivity and force to one of patience and tolerance.

To address negative reports and citizen disappointment, an officer must at times be introspective. Most officers will understand why one must be thoughtful and reflective while others will chuckle and scoff. Many will scoff because of difficulties experienced in many aspects of law enforcement.

To maintain social order while addressing citizen criticism, an officer must confront hostility, defiance and provocation with unquestioned professionalism. An officer’s attitude towards a citizen is an important factor in police/community relations. An officer’s mood, personal approach, and demeanor can promote a successful citizen encounter or contribute to its failure. Many sensational media reports are rooted in police actions which supply the copy.

An inappropriate action most likely will always be with us because some decisions must be made in a split second – not giving enough time for the best response. However, a return to community policing or a true effort at police/community relations can develop a better relationship between the police and citizens and therefore promote an acceptance of policing and a better understanding of use of force. Officers must make an effort to understand citizen frustrations.

Police Militarization
Since September 11, 2001, the mindset of many officers has become more aggressive. Many believe they are warriors to combat terrorist aggression while others consider themselves warriors in response to the many political wars on crime. Officers wear military-style dress and carry automatic weapons even though terrorist attacks are surreptitious, not overt. Bravado and machismo, an unrealistic sense of power, along with insensitivity and intolerance do not belong in law enforcement.

A military mindset addressing a civil disturbance can be a threat to a community. Leadership can change the culture and performance of a department by reexamining its military profile. Military tactics in response to the apprehension of a fugitive have proven successful, but historically a warrior response to maintaining order has proven to be a failure.

New century citizen disorder responds similarly to force as did 20th century disorder – with more disorder. An armored personnel carrier and Kevlar helmet can be considered the 21th century equivalent to a fire hose used to quash civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s.

The recent recall of some military equipment by the Obama Administration is a red flag for some in U.S. law enforcement. On occasion military hardware is needed in civilian law enforcement, but its use must be carefully calculated to avoid public relations disasters while maintaining order.

Achieving Respect
Today’s officer must not only understand his or her own moral and culture values, but the many cultures and values of others. A dedicated officer also must be concerned with a citizen’s sense of honor and respect. Avoid obvious indifference. Many do not respect the police because the police do not respect them. Show respect until none is deserved. In some interactions the display of respect may be fleeting, but the effort must be made for citizen harmony.

Remember the difference between TV drama and training. Every arrest is not a felony arrest. Do not allow a rapidly changing situation to control you — slow down the continuum of force to avoid an overreaction. Control your emotions and adrenaline and keep communication open. Passive defiance is no reason for an immediate show of force. Keep actions verbal rather than physical as long as possible. Always act as though others are watching, because they are.

Patience and awareness of citizen concerns can un-complicate an officer’s life, but remember life situations can be complicated and many have a double standard. An officer must be conscious of his or her own bias of the morals and conduct of others. In addition, an officer may judge a person by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, but still be criticized because of contrasting perceptions.

Internal Affairs
A recent Associated Press article reported that an extremely small number of Chicago police officers caused nearly a third of misconduct lawsuits settled since 2009. Of 12,000 Chicago officers, 124 have cost the city $34 million in misconduct settlements in seven years, and reportedly, the officers are rarely disciplined.

Although the misconduct by this small group of officers does not include more serious claims of wrongdoing, this limited report does show a small number of officers are creating and sustaining a hazardous work environment for other cops. A dedicated officer must decide whether honoring the blue wall of silence is in his or her best interest. Protecting intolerance, bias, and misconduct places not only citizens in harm’s way but also threatens an officer’s career, family and livelihood. An officer’s integrity must take precedence over another officer’s insensitivity and wrongdoing.

A department can help to change a culture of insensitivity and protect officers and citizens alike by embracing a new understanding of service to the public. Citizen respect for police must be earned, but police respect for citizens is a requirement.

Rightfully so, the use of force and self-protection is a large part of police training. The fact is, however, most of police work is not crime related, but the application of social services through citizen interactions. An equal part of training should cover ethics, sensitivity, and the skills of communication, persuasion and compromise. 

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