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Leadership in law enforcement: A cautionary tale

When one Chief's career was undone with one utterly uncharacteristic action, he began working toward teaching his otherwise winning combination of vision and execution

At very young ages, children often fantasize about what they want to do when they “grow up.” Often those dreams are far afield from what they wind up doing in life. However, for retired Alexandria Virginia Police Chief David P. Baker, who wanted to be a police officer since he was a kid, his dream became reality when he joined the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D. C. as a patrol officer in September 1970. He progressed through the ranks at a steady pace and left the department after 21 years to become the Executive Deputy Chief of the Alexandria Virginia Police Department.

Baker was second in command from February 1991 to September 2006. When Chief Charles Samarra retired, Baker was chosen as the department’s top cop to lead a department then comprised of 320 sworn officers and 125 civilian employees. At the time, the agency had a budget of 55 million dollars and was the largest department and budget within the city of Alexandria, Virginia.

Soon after being selected as Chief of the department, Baker said, “My focus will be to improve and enhance our analytical and strategic capabilities so that our policing strategies, problem-solving capabilities, and deployment decisions are fact-based, consistent and capable of responding aggressively and effectively to new or existing crime and quality of life issues.”

Retired Alexandria Virginia Police Chief David P. Baker has always been a “cop’s cop” and he has never forgotten where he came from. His former toops say “he is sorely missed.”  (PoliceOne Image)
Retired Alexandria Virginia Police Chief David P. Baker has always been a “cop’s cop” and he has never forgotten where he came from. His former toops say “he is sorely missed.” (PoliceOne Image)

Visible Leader
Baker, whose earned reputation was one of a highly-respected law enforcement professional, was known to be a proactive and involved leader in the law enforcement arena.

Baker always believed that the ways to garner respect from officers on the street is for them to recognize that the leader understands them, respects what they do, and runs a department that extends beyond lip service. The Chief, in his view, needs to lead a department that does what is good for officers on the street; the same philosophy holds for commanders even though there may be more latitude with command staff. He supported middle managers and commanders but, at the same time, he let cops on the street know he cared.

Baker was a visible leader. He was on the street and in the trenches, and he always stayed actively engaged with his troops. He talked to his officers, and his conversations were not solely about police business. “At a lot of levels, I cared about them,” Baker said.

A down-to-earth individual and easily approachable, he was known for his personal touch. If one of his officers or employees had a birth or death in the family or received a promotion, the Chief would write a hand-written note to the individual. “The manner in which you do your business, you have to convey real feeling and real emotions--much like family and friends,” Baker said.

He also recognized that it is important to develop and administer a disciplinary process that the rank and file deem fair. “He didn’t just impose things. He knew how to take input from people. It showed mutual respect, and he really cared what the guys/gals think. He really did care,” said Sgt. Michael Kochis, the former President of the Alexandria Virginia chapter of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA). Sgt. Kochis indicated Baker wanted input to know if discipline was considered fair, not too harsh, and he wanted to be made aware of other concerns surrounding it.

Baker recognized that an integral component of being an effective leader and running a progressive police department depended on building relationships. He understood the importance of creating a mechanism to hear what the rank and file needed and to attempt to get it for them and, on the other hand, a mechanism in which to let them know that it was unattainable. Successful chiefs master the decision-making process so that, in the end, when a decision is made, there is inclusion and it has been made collectively. As Chief of Police, Baker did that.

At one point, when Baker had the foresight to realize the Alexandria City Council was likely going to diminish the number of take-home cars available to his officers, he proactively worked with his staff to review the number of vehicles and to devise a solution acceptable to his troops and yet workable with the City Council. In a forthright manner, Baker was able to explain to his department the need to reduce the number of take-home cars yet indicated he would fight to keep as many as possible to meet departmental needs.

Before the Council approached him with the issue that he saw coming, Baker came forward and suggested to the Council a reduction of a reasonable number of take-home cars based on his departmental analysis. The Council found it acceptable, and the troops appreciated Baker’s honest communication and approach. Both sides were content and Baker had averted a potential conflict that could have evolved.

“I’ve had others tell me that when he became chief, they liked how issues were resolved quickly. They did not disappear into an abyss or languish unnecessarily. I recall that, too, when I was there. People always knew where they stood with him, and he always made time for subordinates when they had suggestions or issues to discuss,” Dennis Butler, Chief of the Ottawa Kansas Police Department and Retired Captain of the Alexandria Virginia Police Department, said.

As a leader, Baker understood that the relationship with his cops was paramount. Though he also knew the relationships with political leadership and the community was also vital, he grasped the significance of relationships with the troops. “You want your cops to follow you into battle under any crises,” Baker said.

Baker has always been a “cop’s cop” and he has never forgotten where he came from. He also had the skill and enthusiasm to successfully run a police department. “At a lot of levels, I cared about them. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to convey that in a way that they know,” Baker said. He was a firm believer in demonstrating he would stand up for his troops. “You make them proud of you and you of them,” he said.

All About Relationships
“One of Dave’s outstanding leadership skills was his ability to engage in inclusivity. Dave had an outstanding relationship with citizens of his community, the elected leaders and the business community. Dave Baker was an experienced law enforcement leader who had an outstanding knowledge of the Washington Metropolitan law enforcement community and the many unique challenges that we faced,” Joseph Persichini, Executive Director of the Washington, D. C. Police Foundation said.

“David and I worked as colleagues together. I always thought he had a very balanced perspective, great communication skills and seemed to have his people always in mind,” said Retired Fairfax County Virginia Deputy Police Chief Suzanne Devlin.

“He enjoyed remarkably strong relations with officers of all ranks. He strove to delegate responsibility as far down the hierarchy as was feasible, and he recognized and nurtured good leadership in his subordinates. Perhaps, the most telling legacy of his administration was a large number of highly qualified managers and supervisors who are carrying the department forward,” said Dr. Stephen Mastrofski of the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

“Chief Baker provided quiet leadership and guidance on a variety of law enforcement issues in the Washington, D. C. region. I found him particularly helpful in jurisdictional coordination efforts for major events taking place in the District of Columbia, like the Inauguration,” U. S. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and former U. S. Capitol Police Chief Terrence W. Gainer, said.

During Baker’s tenure, his department was the first in the Washington D.C. Metro area to create a mandatory vest-wearing policy. He also instituted a policy regarding tattoos. “Completely tattooed arms and such was frightening to some people, others viewed it as gang-like, while some thought it created an unprofessional image. I agree with all three opinions but I wanted to carve out a policy that was fair to cops as well. We landed on prohibiting additional tattooing after a person joined the force. If you had one or some coming in, fine,” Baker said. Because of Baker’s emphasis on the continual process of engagement with his troops, there was no known resistance to either policy.

As promised, when he was first sworn in as Chief of Police, Baker focused on Quality of Life Crimes (Part Two Crimes) in the city, and he utilized computer-generated crime analysis (ComStat) to more effectively deploy officers on the streets. A greater degree of police visibility was put in place, and attention was placed on nuisance crimes. Baker changed the manner of policing and he did so effectively and in a way that produced a reduction in crime.

“He worked very hard at keeping the Alexandria Police Department in the forefront of innovation. He was willing to try new ways of doing things and willingly opened his department to collaboration with researchers interested in learning lessons from the department’s efforts,” Dr. Mastrofski said.

Training the Troops
As a leader, Baker was proactive in providing opportunities for education and training of his officers. He initiated the establishment of a Cohort program between George Mason University and the police department. He knew there were a number of police officers who wanted to embark upon getting a college degree or finish a degree so he approached the university with the idea of bringing the university professors to the Alexandria police campus to teach the officers. “I think we graduated 30 or 40 people. Then, I went after a graduate Cohort Program. We needed a minimum of 15 students and got them. I was very proud of this effort,” Baker said.

“He was heavily committed to facilitating opportunities for officers to obtain degrees and certificates at the university. He worked diligently with his staff to bring George Mason University’s ‘Cohort’ educational program to the Alexandria Police Department and many benefitted from this program,” Dr. Mastrofski said.

One professor who arrived the first night of class was clearly impressed with the fact that Baker made a point to stay late and personally greet her. He warmly welcomed her to the police department facility, thanked her for coming to teach, and he told her if she needed anything not to hesitate to ask. She noted not many leaders would have taken the time nor made the effort to do that but, instead, would have sent a subordinate. The professor indicated she was positively impacted by the personal touch and has never forgotten it.

One Lapse in Judgement
Baker retired from the Alexandria Police Department in July 2009 after an unfortunate incident that was totally out of character for him but left him, at the time, personally devastated. On the way home from a function, he was involved in a traffic accident and arrested for DUI. He asked for no special consideration but continued to show himself as a man of integrity. He plead guilty, spent five days in jail, paid a fine, attended alcohol education classes, and had his driver’s license suspended for one year according to Virginia law. Subsequently, he spoke to various groups including police recruit classes, schools and other groups, and he even participated in an educational video that appeared on You Tube.

He conducted himself in the aftermath of this incident according to the philosophy he instilled in his officers. “When you find yourself in a circumstance that you created, stand up with courage, take the full measure of punishment, learn from your mistake, and continue to help others learn, as well, and finally move forward to seek new opportunities in life. I think that’s what I did. I wanted the cops to respect my handling of the incident, and I certainly did not want to be hypocritical by handling it in a less forthright way. In other words, I never hesitated because it was the right thing to do,” Baker said.

“He showed tremendous character and integrity by accepting full responsibility for his DUI and took steps to use his experience as an example to change behavior and save the lives of others,” Chief Charlie Deane of the Prince William County Virginia Police Department, said.

Currently, Baker is the Director of Security for the Goodwin House Alexandria in Alexandria, Virginia. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Senior Services of Alexandria and is a Trustee of the Friendship Fire Association. “I am fortunate to have served the common good for nearly four decades, gratifying and rewarding work indeed. Now, I am where I want and need to be,” Baker said.

Baker’s love for law enforcement and his allegiance to cops continue, and will forever be part of his legacy. The respect and admiration he garnered lives on, and his high level of integrity speaks for itself. “Dave is a good man, a leader and was an effective Chief,” Chief Deane said. And, perhaps, Sgt. Kochis sums it up: “He is sorely missed.”

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