The response to crises such as the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombings or the landslide that collapsed a Baltimore street this spring inevitably elevate the consciousness of the public to the professionalism and courage of police, firefighters and other first responders. But sometimes a different kind of consciousness is raised. Corruption or lawless behavior by public-safety personnel, such as the shootings and looting by New Orleans police officers following Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the beating of a woman on the shoulder of a freeway by a California Highway Patrol officer that was caught on video by a passing motorist, can undo all of that goodwill in a moment.
For the public, the emergency-management and public-safety professionals serving in our communities often are the most visible manifestations of government. Their uniforms and badges remind us of the decision these individuals have made to put service before self. But as visible symbols of government, they also have an important role of community leadership that brings the responsibility to model behavior that is beyond reproach.
That's why is should become the duty of every member of the public-safety profession to support and work for a sustainable culture of leadership consciousness -- an awareness that the authority granted to those who work in public safety also confers a special responsibility to provide a positive model within the community.
Public-safety and emergency-management personnel are some of the most highly trained professionals in America's workforce. They receive hundreds of hours of instruction to meet initial certification requirements and countless hours of continuing education to maintain these credentials. The goal is for that training to become second nature, enhancing their efficiency and survival chances during stressful situations.
So, you may ask yourself, how is it that incidents such as those that occurred in New Orleans and on that California freeway can occur within an institution built on discipline and self-control? The answer is that amid all the training public-safety workers receive in how to take action in the face of danger and chaos, less continuing attention is given to awareness of the implications of their actions and behaviors. In the end, the goal is a simple one: As former Baltimore police commissioner Leonard Hamm once told a police academy graduating class, "Do what's right in the face of what's wrong."
Leadership consciousness requires that members of the public-safety profession at all levels honestly examine their own thoughts and beliefs while never losing sight of the visibility and impact they have. Leadership is not about the title that one holds in a public-safety organization; it's about the influence all members of the profession have on the people they serve. From the person on the front line providing emergency-response services to the person at the top of the organizational chart, each individual needs to remember that every move he or she makes and every action he or she takes will be watched and critiqued.
As Sir Robert Peel, the British statesman and home secretary who is credited with helping create modern concepts of law enforcement, put it in 1829, "The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior, and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect." That is a true today as it was in Peel's time.
VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.