Police Chiefs Reimagine the Mission and Culture of Law Enforcement
In recent years, the public perception of police culture has been defined by acts of violence against citizens. A group of chiefs and sheriffs are working to change the narrative by emphasizing a mission of service.
Derick Miller, chief of the Irving, Texas, police department, compares his job to balancing a three-by-three-foot sheet of plywood on a bowling ball. One corner is the department, one is the community, one the City Council and one city management. Maintaining equilibrium among these stakeholders was never easy, but it’s been harder than ever since the murder of George Floyd.
“If people lose trust in the Irving Police Department, or any other police department in America, they lose trust with all police in the United States,” says Miller. “George Floyd impacted every police officer in the United States — maintaining trust in my town is bigger than us, it’s trying to maintain trust with the people of our country.”
Today he is one of a growing number of law enforcement officials who have aligned themselves with The Curve, a nonprofit founded by police chiefs and sheriffs to support “early adopter leaders” committed to changing the culture of policing.
Legislative and political efforts to reform policing may bring in funds (and add bureaucracy), but they don’t bring significant change, says Chris Hsiung, undersheriff of San Mateo County, Calif., and a founding member of The Curve. Other sectors understand that they need to iterate their business and leadership practices, he says, but policing tends to stay the same.
The culture of a department determines how officers behave, Hsiung says. The Curve is working to change the arc of policing by supporting leaders who are passionate about creating a vibrant, positive, forward-looking culture. “Then we can change the industry,” he says.
Culture by Default
As a step away from a “culture by default” to a culture by design, The Curve is working to bring the history and mission of policing into perspective. High-profile incidents involving Black Americans have served as reminders of “police” forces in slave-owning states that focused on catching slaves who tried to escape, and were permitted to use brutal tactics to deter such attempts.
A different policing tradition was developing in northern states, says Hsiung, drawing on the work of Sir Robert Peel, the Englishman regarded as the father of modern policing. Peel’s principles focused on such concepts as prevention rather than punishment and maintaining trust, approval and cooperation with the public. Persuasion and warnings come first, force only when necessary.
Under a Lincoln presidency after the Civil War, Peel’s model would have become the standard throughout the country. But as several co-founders of The Curve observed in Police Chief, after Lincoln was assassinated his successor, Andrew Johnson, “chose to look the other way as the harsh tactics of the former slave catcher became part of police culture in former slave-owning states.”
The entertainment industry has also shaped public perceptions of policing, Hsiung says. It’s to the good if this attracts viewers with a desire to help to the profession, but a police procedural is not a substitute for a true history.
News and social media have also defined policing, often in ways that are upsetting to those who truly believe in the career. Moreover, the adversarial tone that drives social media engagement means these platforms don’t provide opportunities to clear the air.
Most Americans know only a story of policing created from outside the profession, one that’s taken a dark turn of late. This is a major deterrent to recruitment, says Doug Shoemaker, chief of police in Denton, Texas. “Why would anyone want to do this job if every move that’s made is criticized? There are many other jobs people can do.”
Not Law Enforcement
Defining policing as “enforcing the law” is a fundamental step in the wrong direction, Hsiung says. “If you tell a rookie officer that their job is law enforcement, they’re going to go out and write tickets, they’re going to arrest people. There is so much more to this job.”
A more accurate description of the job, he says, is “protecting the vulnerable from harm.” This includes those who have been placed in custody and put in handcuffs, who then become vulnerable themselves.
This perspective matches Chief Miller’s idea of his job, but he recognizes that it’s not the norm. That’s a problem, he says. If enforcement is the only focus, that separates the police department from its community.
Miller points to events such as the Los Angeles riots as examples of how bad things can get when the culture of a police department causes such a break. He places high priority on investing in a “trust bank” with the community. Then, if police action sparks protest or controversy, there’s a much better chance that he’ll get a fair hearing and a chance to set things straight.
The Curve hopes to see the mission of protecting the vulnerable adopted in concert with “One-by-One Policing.” This model is based on three principles: “Serve people as individuals,” “Create safe and secure environments” and “Help people thrive.”
These concepts resonate with people who come newly into his department, Chief Shoemaker says. “Especially now, people who get into this profession want to be part of something bigger.”
Deflection Centers and Combat Breathing
It’s one thing for leadership to embrace new ideas about policing and another to make them the common coin of police culture. “It’s difficult,” says Miller. “The people in my department, or anyone else’s police department, are a microcosm of the larger society.” Some find approaches that go beyond “enforce the law” inspiring, others see them as “a load of crap.”
The strongest signal of values is what the department does. Irving has “deflection centers” that work to keep low-level offenders out of jail. The department has a homeless outreach team and sends clinicians out with officers to deal with people in crisis. The city has established a public safety wellness unit under the city manager, which offers peer support groups and links to help officers with stress or substance abuse problems.
There’s support for residents as well. A program within the district attorney’s office contacts victims of violent crime and connects them with a counselor. A family advocacy center works to prevent domestic violence.
The San Mateo sheriff’s office has a behavioral health unit in its jail. “This population is going to go back into the community,” says Hsiung. “It’s our job to prepare them to reintegrate as seamlessly as possible, whether that's giving them job training or connecting them with social services, so that when they hit the street they have a chance.”
Before coming to San Mateo, Hsiung served as chief of the Mountain View, Calif., police department. While there, he started a book club to create informal, non-hierarchical opportunities to discuss ideas about leadership, inclusion and diversity; he’s planning to do the same in his new role. The department will be providing day-care services for deputies and staff to relieve stress around commuting and child care.
Hsiung recognizes there are times when it’s essential for law enforcement officers to take absolute command of a situation to bring it under control. But that doesn’t mean an authoritarian tone should infuse every aspect of their job — or that skills such as “combat breathing,” a technique to preserve clarity of thought in violent or dangerous situations, should be left out of their training.
The Curve is developing education materials that can inform training and culture. A conference is a future possibility, Hsiung says.
“Someone might make the argument that we’re trying to do private-sector things in the public sector,” he says. “But I’d make the argument that, no, these are humans that fill our hallways and humans have an innate desire to be included, to be part of something and to grow together.”