Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields: 'Take the job you don't want'

The higher up you go in an organization, the better equipped you are to lead if you understand all the internal workings


Once a homeless high-school dropout, Adam Wilson is a 15-year law enforcement veteran who has served as a SWAT senior operator and also collaborated with federal authorities in cases involving public corruption, sexual exploitation of minors and corrupt organizations. Through personal stories and interviews with top police chiefs and thought leaders, Wilson explores current critical issues in law enforcement in "Tactical Reload: Strategy Shifts for Emerging Leaders in Law Enforcement." The following is an excerpt from the book. 

Millennials often tout their excellent grasp of technology as a reason for advancement. The claim has some validity when we consider how innovation can help fight crime and keep cities safe. Yet I never thought that strength might also be a weakness until after my talk with a groundbreaking police chief.

Erika Shields was appointed to the top cop position in Atlanta in December 2016. She wasted no time making her mark. After her inaugural year, statistics showed that armed robberies, burglaries and murders had dropped significantly, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

One reason for her success may be her collaboration skills. She is known to work closely with private, local, state and federal partners. Communication and an interest in people from all walks of life are key ingredients in her law enforcement strategy.

"This book is our road map for the incredible challenge of integrating the next generation of police officers into the crucial operations that will develop in the coming years." – Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
"This book is our road map for the incredible challenge of integrating the next generation of police officers into the crucial operations that will develop in the coming years." – Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

She is also a keen observer of human nature.

“The strength millennials bring is their adaptability to learning. You learn new things quickly, you’re comfortable with technology – and that is absolutely a strength. But it will be a weakness if you think that alone will carry you through to leadership,” she said.

Chief Shields understands the paradox of digital interaction: it’s essential and yet too often a barrier to shaking hands and showing an interest in others.

“Policing is a people’s profession. You must now start spending the time talking to people, caring about people and listening to them. Whether it’s your colleagues or your community, your success as a leader will be determined by expressing that part of you that really does give a damn about other people.”

Empathy, in other words, is not something you acquire like a new pair of shoes. It takes an effort to truly understand and empathize. And there is no shortcut to navigating and becoming proficient in dealing with people.

Yet this ability is not only about community policing. One of the greatest challenges she foresees in years to come is recruiting. Millennials will need to know how to relate to new talent while cops throughout the nation face heavy criticism. The profession has taken a hit and must rebrand itself to be an attractive career. That will be a tough order to fulfill in a strong economy that offers employment in less dangerous occupations. Constant stress and the relatively low pay may not lure confident younger people, who are not driven by the same values as previous generations.

And it is not enough to be a good salesman because law enforcement includes a long learning curve. New recruits who don’t really like the profession may not stay long enough to make gains and contributions. They will quit and find a job they like better.

“If they’re just comfortable with making a living, there’s a lot to be said for that. But in our profession, you really want people that want the best for themselves and will stay with it. I absolutely think that recruiting and retention is going to be difficult moving forward,” she said.

Failure as Teacher

Millennials may not want to agree with all Chief Shields had to say about failure. Yet my own experience has taught me that often our failures are more meaningful than our successes. To make it to the top, we had all better get used to the constant companionship of failure. It’s a fact of life that the Atlanta leader has accepted.

“I have failed repeatedly. The higher you go up in the leadership ranks, the more frequently you should fail because you’re having to take more risk. You must be willing to step forward, and if you’re not willing to step forward, you sure as hell aren’t winning. Failure is an inherent part of risk and the courage to speak up.”

Failure to fulfill a dream, ironically, is what put Chief Shields on a path to the top. She’d always wanted to be a homicide detective and had done her time in the streets, working a very difficult zone for eight years. That’s a long stretch that many millennials would not want to endure. She had believed it was required to take the next step.

But when she applied for her ideal job, she wasn’t received with open arms – more like a slap in the face.

“I was flat out told that I couldn’t be a detective. Since there wasn’t a testing process, I could only be considered for that position after working the vice squad as a decoy prostitute. That’s one of those slaps in the face that really stings and pisses you off,” she recalled.

But the insult was highly motivating. She committed to taking the next promotional exam and doing well on it. Her strategy was to move up and, by doing so, narrow the pool of people that she had to take orders from.

“It was that same drive that prompted me to study and be ready for the lieutenant’s exam. I thought, I’m not going to have this level of stupidity slow down my career.”

Her failure to become a detective led to other successes. But that was not the end of failure.

“I still fail. I would include a recent matter that demanded some change in procedures. As chief, I did a very good job communicating all of this to our external partners in Atlanta. But I realized too late that first I should have smoothly communicated my intentions to the internal partners, the officers. So depending on your level of management, or where you are in your career, there will be different scenarios. I’m sure I’m not done with failure, and I’ll have other uncomfortable learning experiences.”

One of the toughest realities law enforcement faces is the speed by which failure is shared in the community. Social media and network news guarantee that gaffs, mistakes and crimes of the heart will spread like a brush fire. Since that phenomenon is now a force of nature that can’t be stopped, how leaders respond to it becomes a key issue. And not all leaders are created equal.

“The community knows when we have failed. They know when we’ve made a mistake. It does no good to couch our response in some coding that softens the blow. If you screwed up, you go out, own up to it, and just keep going forward.”

If some chiefs are better at candor than others, Chief Shields pointed out that there are systemic and personal reasons. On the one hand, some top cops are guided by a multitude of departments, and they must try to keep everyone happy or at least on the same page. And then there are some leaders whose survival instincts put them in a defensive posture. That rigidity can get them into trouble. 

Erika Shields is the 24th Chief of the City of Atlanta Police Department, appointed in December 2016. (Photo/Atlanta PD) 
Erika Shields is the 24th Chief of the City of Atlanta Police Department, appointed in December 2016. (Photo/Atlanta PD) 

“Chiefs are learning, and if they haven’t caught on to the need to learn quickly, that is not going to work in this environment. There is too much real-time information, real-time video. Canned responses totally undermine our credibility. Watching the national news, you can see that some chiefs are doing well, and then you cringe when you see the ones making a statement that is soft or phony. You just shake your head, like, this isn’t going to go well.”

Take the Job You Don’t Want

Millennials are driven to rise to the top, and yet the best advice Chief Shields received early in her career suggested a different route.

“What really helped my career was taking advice from a couple folks that went against my instincts. They encouraged me to take assignments and trainings that were of no interest to me. When I balked, they said you just don’t want to turn down an opportunity, whatever it might be. At the time I could not relate. It was unappealing.”

But she realized later that the higher up you go in an organization, the better equipped you are to lead if you understand all the internal workings. Familiarity allows you to navigate the complexity.

The chief acknowledged that she, like most human beings, is drawn to the “sexy stuff,” the cool assignments. But at the end of the day, policies must be really well written. And a chief must understand the law, disciplinary procedures, and the budget.

“It’s not adequate to be able to go and just solve a crime. For millennials, or anyone else who wants to go the leadership route, they need to diversify their career portfolio.”

Developing good habits is also important, though the Atlanta leader confessed that some of her strengths are also her weaknesses. She doesn’t take time off; she’s available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She’s a firm believer that to be successful, a person must work hard. Hanging out and socializing, keeping a comfortable routine, just won’t cut it.

The flip side is that she regrets missing time with family and friends. That said, her career-first mentality is a realistic assessment of what it takes to earn a command-level position, particularly in a large city department. A balanced work/personal life is a fantasy.

“I just don’t think it’s possible, and I know there are others that will say, “Well, no, I do it,” but I would ask the colleagues of those people to assess their manager. If you are not immediately responsive and available, you may not be quite as successful as you think you are.”

Again, there is a flip side to her drive. It’s called burnout. But the chief notes that the people who do take time off still hit a wall. It can’t be avoided.

Also, a strong work ethic is a form of humility. You don’t have to be the best or the brightest of any one thing. Putting in the time, working hard, evens the playing field.

“It stands out wherever you are in life if you’re willing to put in the work.”

Looking back is not an option for Chief Shields. She prefers to look forward.

She knows some things might have been done differently: more patience with people who were not getting things done as quickly as she wanted and the ability to manage the stress that was often created by her eagerness to move up faster in her career. Even more significant is a personal reckoning.

“Sometimes I think of someone I wish I’d given a hug or said, ‘I love you,’ or just told them what they meant to me before they died. I work hard but now try to slow down and maybe be more invested in people because nobody lives forever, and nothing is guaranteed,” she lamented.

The Making of a Leader

When analyzing who might become an effective leader, Chief Shields looks for optimism, a positive outlook, and a willingness to see beyond oneself. Confidence and the ability to look another person in the eye is also important.

“One thing I like about millennials, in general, is they look you in the eye. They don’t care what your rank is. They’ll tell you what they really think. The candor is invaluable and refreshing.”

The person who has enthusiasm and can laugh and really appreciate life at the end of the day is going to have a much easier time motivating others and staying engaged in a very tough job. Everybody can have a bad day, but a relaxed person who generally has an upbeat tenor will come out on top, she said.

Cynicism poisons a career. Chief Shields said the sad thing about the cynics, the ones who have a salty comment for everything, is that they may not realize what they are doing and how it harms their prospects and colleagues. People like that are not going to rise very high through the ranks.

A positive mind-set helps a top cop to facilitate change, some of which may not seem profound and yet is profoundly necessary if it affects community relations. For example, the Atlanta chief believes police cannot operate with an us-against-them attitude. This type of negativity emerges, unfortunately, after an officer has been in the department for several years. Suddenly the very people he or she has sworn to serve morph into the opponent. It’s scary that the jaded outlook can happen without the individual realizing it.

“The combative mind-set is professionally debilitating. It’s certainly not something we train on. It’s passed down through the department culture and must be addressed. The good news is that once we get beyond that, we’ll be far more effective as police.”

Use of force is one of the biggest issues Chief Shields is facing. And it too may require a mental shift or training adjustment, not a revision of the letter of the law. For example, she points out that firearm and use-of-force instructors may teach what is legally permitted. Yet this entitlement is exactly why there is so much anger in the population toward police. A grand jury may not indict a cop because the law is clear. But is force always justified?

“I believe we have to go a step further and start training officers to think through a different lens, see a different optic. If it is legally right, is it also justified and necessary? Because that’s where we’re failing. We’re engaging in so many acts of force where it simply was not necessary. And getting back to technology and social media, the public can now see everything we’re doing because body cameras, smartphone cameras and surveillance cameras are everywhere. We’ll be second-guessed at every turn. So we’d better understand why people are so angry and questioning our actions. If we don’t bridge that disconnect, there’s going to be continued mass demonstrations and community issues.”

We’ll Never Be the Fire Department

Rebuilding public trust will not be easy and may very well be the inherited task of the next generation of leaders. Take note, millennials.

“I wish there was a quick solution. And you know, at some point we’ve got to accept that we’re never going to be all that popular. We’re never going to be like the fire department. But I still think that, for the most part, people are very supportive of police. It’s the egregious behaviors. If we could cut back on the egregious decision-making, that would break new ground. Because there’s so much that we do every day that is positive and noteworthy,” she said.

The key is a commitment to consistently police ourselves while being fair-minded, open-minded. That means the letter of the law may win in a courtroom, but can it prevail in the court of public opinion? A willingness to hold one another accountable will go a long way toward improving relations throughout a city or town.

Chief Shields lays responsibility on the shoulders of fellow police chiefs, who must be willing to step forward and speak truthfully to the community at large. When you screw up, admit it, and say this could have been done better. She cites Houston police chief Art Acevedo as a stand-up leader who is not afraid to say what he believes is right.

“If we’re not willing to speak out publicly, why would we think our troops are going to be open and understand that change is necessary and is happening? It starts at the top.”

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