Training Camden: 3 steps to creating a protector culture

Our goal was to make officers in a “start-up” department ethically driven, effective communicators and tactically proficient


Hundreds of LEOs have been through our basic Ethical Protector course. While we have scores of positive testimonials from our students, we usually train only a few officers in each of many different organizations. Our influence has been more wide than deep. But there was one department that was different.

We were both involved in a large training program several years ago that tested our theories in, what was at the time, the most dangerous city in America. It was a unique opportunity. We were tasked with helping shape the culture and skills of the new Camden County Police Department (CCPD) virtually from scratch. The previous city police department had been disbanded due an inability to control the high crime rate, poor relations with the community and cost overruns.

The new chief, a forward-thinking leader named Scott Thomson, had approached us to discuss how we could lead the training of the new department. The goal was to make the officers in this “start-up” department ethically-driven, effective communicators and tactically proficient in a very challenging environment.

Sharing adversity is motivating, breaks down personality barriers and builds camaraderie. (Photo/CCPD)
Sharing adversity is motivating, breaks down personality barriers and builds camaraderie. (Photo/CCPD)

Over the many months we were there we trained all the officers in tactics, de-escalation skills and community policing methodologies, some adapted from the Marines’ effective “winning hearts and mind” efforts overseas. At the core of the training was respect – respect for the sanctity of life. Whose life? Self and others. Which others? All others. Including the criminals, if possible. Wherever our officers went, everyone would be safer because they were there. That ethic, of a life-protector, drove the new tactical philosophy and communication techniques. “Ethics drives tactics, tactics drive techniques,” was the motto.

After our training concluded, we were anxious to see if the new philosophies and methodologies would stick. Could CCPD sustain the transition? Would the lives of the officers and citizens of Camden continue to improve? Or would the culture revert to the old days of out-of-control crime and poor community relations?

We are happy to say that the culture has remained true to the ethical protector (or guardian, as they now call it) culture. Today, Camden is often cited in the news as a model of effective community policing, and crime is way down.  Making the officers think of themselves as “protectors,” along with deploying new de-escalation tactics, saved a life almost right away.

The credit, of course, rightfully goes to the men and women of the Camden County Police Department who have created and maintained the new culture and to their courageous and visionary leadership. While our roles have ended, we think it would be helpful for other departments intrigued by the dramatic transformation in Camden to learn about the unique methodology that was used to get the change started. We were intimately involved with that.

There were several things that appeared to work that any police leader could try:

1. Demonstrate top-down support and buy-in at all levels

It was Chief Thomson who made a 100% commitment to the new program. Granted, he was able to start with a fairly “clean slate,” as the new CCPD had a fresh start with many new young officers. But there is no way you can create a new culture (or change one) without everyone, particularly the leadership, being fully engaged.

Chief Thomson started by introducing us to all the leadership and emphasizing that the ethical protector culture would be the number one priority in the department. Then we scheduled “port and starboard” training for the entire department where we gave every officer a one-hour overview of the new program. It was mandated everyone be trained, including the captains and deputy chiefs. Everyone. Often police leadership tries to introduce a new program, but the actual training gets foisted on the rank and file while the leadership remains in their offices. Camden didn’t do that.

2. Select and empower effective mentors

Concurrent with the program overview training, we asked Chief Thomson to select his 20 most respected and charismatic officers – not the most highly ranked, necessarily, but the ones most looked up to by their peers.

His first choice was the training officer who was a former Marine and a “walk-on-water” field cop. Together we selected the next 19. Some were lieutenants, some were sergeants, but many were patrol officers, several with combat experience overseas. They came in all flavors – genders, races and job descriptions.

They were given two special “mentor courses” and we held bi-monthly mentor meetings to practice the new de-escalation and tactical skills. But most important, we told stories. We talked about our own mentors and how they had impacted our lives. Stories of respectful behavior and heroism we had witnessed were shared. And we celebrated them.

In addition to setting the example for all officers and being available 24-7, the mentors selected certain individuals in the department who they felt connected to and could “take under their wing.”

We also talked about officers who needed specific guidance, and we made sure someone would willingly mentor that person.

We are not big fans of traditional “train-the-trainer” programs. No matter how “vital” the information being passed, the idea that a few days (or hours!) of training qualifies a person to teach others, much less make the lessons stick, is mostly delusional. People need mentorship and sustainment to learn something, especially if the goal is to create a whole new positive attitude about their job.

The next step was having the mentors assist our staff in teaching a three-day Ethical Protector course to the rest of the department – 25 officers at a time. The training included ethics, communication and de-escalation skills (we used the Verbal Defense & Influence methodology) and tactical skills.

Every training day also consisted of a PT session where the participants – mentors and officers alike – worked on fitness and shared adversity. There we bonded and had some fun. Personality clashes evaporated. We were “one team – one fight” all the way.

3. Sustain the momentum

The training was great for morale, and the officers response was overwhelmingly positive. But we worried about how to sustain the momentum.

The mentor program was one way: make sure the mentors followed up with the officers and informally answered any questions they might have about the tactics or de-escalation techniques. But we realized that we needed a “practice” that could be done, daily so the training wouldn’t wear off, and the culture would feed on itself and keep evolving in a positive way. This is not easy. The life of a police officer can be very busy and stressful anywhere, but especially in a dangerous city like Camden. Hours are long, and the pay is not always great. It’s hard to schedule anything but state-mandated training. Keeping physically fit is also a challenge. But once a culture is established, it can be self-reinforcing.

One suggestion to use is a tool called CAP, which stands for clarify, activate and practice:

Clarify: This first step consists of just one thing: re-affirming our self-concept as a protector or guardian of life, no matter what.

Activate: Moral behavior can be effectively inspired through the emotions. Consistently activate the protector self-concept by sharing stories. And the officers of Camden – perhaps of every city – have stories of heroism and selflessness to spare. Tell them.

Practice: Put everything all together with quick reviews of the tactical and verbal skills as a daily practice. This is a commitment but can realistically be done in 5 or 10 minutes at role call and be led by whichever mentors happen to be on shift. Instead of saying “Be safe,” we recommend saying something like, “Remember, everyone is safer in your presence.” Then call on someone to give their favorite anecdote about a friend or colleague (or even talk about a timely story from the news) that epitomizes the image of an ethical protector. Then do one physical activity. It could be a gun retention move, or the unholstering and re-holstering of your firearm 10 times in a row with eyes closed, or 10 push-ups or deep squats. It doesn’t have to take long – just a couple of minutes  –  but do it every roll call, and don’t leave out the physical part. Don’t just talk! Eventually it will become part of the culture, and that’s when the important changes start.

With some motivation, a plan and a sustainment methodology you can improve the morale and effectiveness of your officers, as well as positively impact your officers’ tactical and communication skills. The ethical protector philosophy also has a good chance of helping you improve your relationship with the community you are sworn to serve. Police departments are under intense scrutiny by the media, having a department of real ethical protectors is a story you’ll want them to tell.

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