LEADERSHIP – “Help Wanted”
By: Joel E. Gordon
"The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have. Leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.” - Leonard Hamm Former Baltimore Police Commissioner and Author of the Hamm Rules on Relationships, Leadership, Love and Community.
Imagine working for a police chief who thinks it’s “demeaning” to suspects to have them sit on the ground or sidewalk at a crime scene—whether handcuffed or not. If you work in San Francisco, Chief William Scott has determined that your safety and tactical advantage over a suspect is less important than how a criminal may feel. Everybody knows, especially when you have multiple suspects, having them sit down will give you that time to react should they get up and attack. In other words, in San Francisco, the criminal’s feelings are more important than the officer’s safety—a clear sign of failed leadership.
How would you have liked to have been working for Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and his appointed captain, Jan Jordan, who “took charge” of the scene during the Parkland Florida school shooting and who ordered officers to stage, clearly in violation of their response plan? The sheriff has been replaced and the captain has since resigned. In addition to the fourteen students and three staff members killed the day of the shooting, most recently two former students have tragically killed themselves out of survivor’s guilt in separate incidents.
Or picture working for the chief of the police force in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Chris Blue, who ordered officers to stand down as protesters toppled a Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina. “Let’s give them space,” Police Chief Blue reportedly texted on the night of Aug. 20 as protesters gathered around the statue known as “Silent Sam,” representing a Confederate soldier. Later he wrote, “…do not engage with Crowd at statue. Stay way out.” Riot, disorder, criminal activity is apparently OK in the chief’s eyes, so what’s that say about the officers? They are as expendable as the laws to be upheld.
Now picture working for Phoenix Arizona Police Chief Jeri Williams. The local police union publicly aired an attack against her for what they say is a failure to stand by her officers over a domestic violence incident in which a man claimed an officer used excessive force against his daughter. The officer’s body camera footage ultimately invalidated the claim, and union representatives pressed Williams to seek charges against the man for making a false report. Williams declined, arguing that it would cause a chilling effect among those who want to file a complaint against an officer. “The Chief’s response to us was not that of a leader, but rather a politician,” Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Ken Crane wrote. Whose side is the chief on? Apparently not the law or her officers.
Or imagine working for Chief Daniel Paez, a 23-year veteran of the Perrysburg, Ohio, Police Department, who has been publicly accused of dereliction of duty for instructing his officers to stand down during a pursuit and shootout when Paez told his officers with more than 60 years’ combined experience, to back off. Paez said he decided because he was not sure the officers were experienced enough to handle it. I suppose the chief was going to call the police?
Over and over, these kinds of feckless leaders rise to the top in law enforcement. And the list goes on and on. There is no shortage of ineffective leaders in law enforcement. Political hack law enforcement leaders who do not back their officers and who are easily manipulated into bowing to politically motivated pressures are detrimental to our profession and cause others to perform in a less-than-optimal manner. A true leader makes every effort to shield their team from under-informed and counterproductive political influences.
But not every law enforcement leader is a gutless, floundering fish out of water.
Take, for example, now-retired Dallas, Texas, Police Chief David Brown, who stood up for police officers nationwide by saying that law enforcement officers across the country are being asked to take on too much. As the Dallas police worked to go through massive amounts of evidence from the shooting that killed five officers, Chief Brown said he believed officers in his city and nationwide were under too much strain. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. …Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail; let’s give it to the cops. …That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Speaking truth at a candlelight vigil for fallen cop Michael Chesna, who had succumbed to injuries sustained from a large rock thrown at his head, Weymouth Massachusetts Chief of Police Richard Grimes slammed the country’s knee-jerk negative attitude surrounding police use of force. “Hesitation gets officers harmed,” Grimes said. He asked the crowd to consider how they would react if threatened and given a split second to respond. Grimes said officers need to feel comfortable using their weapons and criticized the public’s emphasis on shooting deaths of unarmed people. “I can tell you that isn’t just the gun. Is it a rifle? Is it a knife? Could it be a crowbar?” Grimes asked. “Or maybe just a rock,” Grimes asked people to respect and support the police. “What happened to Michael was horrific,” he said. “It should not happen to someone else.”
If you haven’t had your head buried in the sand for the past six years, you know that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (now retired) has been consistent as a leader who stands up for law enforcement irrespective of political pressure of political correctness. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, Sheriff Clarke was the dominant leader who pushed back against the false narratives and cop haters. Many officers across the country wished there were more law enforcement leaders like Clarke who dared to take a personal risk and stand up for our profession. However, during this period, it seemed that many law enforcement leaders were eager to throw good officers under the bus for self-gain or to appease angry mobs.
When Baltimore, Maryland, recently had the help wanted sign out in search of a new leader, they ultimately chose Michael Harrison, the New Orleans police chief. Upon his arrival in the city of Baltimore, he said this on leadership: “Number one, I want to hear from the citizens. I want to hear from the officers… I want to hear what their concerns are. I want to hear what their needs are. I will advocate all the resources they need to be successful, and then work on building bridges and building inroads, building relationships that were never built, improving good ones and repairing the bad ones, doing that and hitting the ground on the very first day.”
Of course, actions and not just words are where true leaders shine.
Leaders must find the often-difficult balance in satisfying the needs of their department’s internal customers and the needs of the external customers in the communities served all while weighing the validity of the wants of the politicians that they must deal with and are accountable to.
While leaders are about “we” the team, bosses masquerading as leaders are only about “I” or themselves first. The political hacks and the men and women who serve them know it, even if they smile and buy them a cup of coffee, or eagerly ask them how their lunch or weekend was.
Fortunately, police leadership styles are gradually changing, moving from the authoritative style that has historically dominated law enforcement to a more inclusive approach that seeks to enable and empower rather than merely command. While there can be differences in leadership to accommodate the individuals involved, the best leaders:
• Set an example of honesty and integrity along with a stellar work ethic and attitude.
• Give positive reinforcement & recognition
• Praise in public… Criticize in private.
• Set clear expectations.
• Allow a proper level of staff autonomy and do not micromanage.
• Trust but verify.
• Identify staff strengths and weaknesses and delegate tasks to individual strengths and interests, giving each team member leadership responsibility. This while working toward increasing abilities in areas needing improvement. In this way, leaders identify and prepare the next generation of leaders worthy of promotion.
My own best shift commander during my career, Baltimore City Police Lt. Victor Kessler, was a leader whom you knew had your back when you did the right thing with reasonable actions that could be articulated and honestly justified. He was a man who recognized the truth that leaders exist within all ranks, as he acknowledged during his retirement speech to our shift in his way: “The bosses come and go ... What matters are you guys and gals who make the decisions on the street. Stick together, look out for one another, and work as a team. You are the ones who really matter and make all the difference.”
With a clear vision and a consistent and steady hand, true leaders accomplish their goals and team mission while inspiring others in positive and fulfilling ways. The “HELP WANTED” sign is out. The best of the leaders are needed now and for all of our tomorrows.
Joel E. Gordon is a former Baltimore City Police Officer and was Chief of Police for the city of Kingwood, West Virginia. He has served as vice-chair of a regional narcotics task force and is a candidate for Preston County West Virginia Sheriff. An award winning journalist, he is author of the book Still Seeking Justice: One Officer’s Story and founded the Facebook group Police Authors Seeking Justice. stillseekingjustice.com