I like what I see. Across the country – Seattle, New Orleans and other major cities – some key changes will soon emerge, as police agencies in these communities start on the path to reform. From threatened action in Oakland last year to court-enforced oversight in Seattle and New Orleans this year, law enforcement officials are being asked to bring sweeping and permanent change to their departments — and to do so pretty quickly. For some of these agencies, the pressure comes from a federal consent decree or a negotiated settlement. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trust me.
Today, police chiefs are asked to play a much bigger and more central role in driving and measuring department reform. There was a time — and, honestly, it wasn’t all that long ago — when court-appointed monitors descended on headquarters with squads of lawyers and a few subject-matter experts. They tried to bring change by collecting data and publishing reports. Often these lawyers and experts had a hard time communicating with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers — or they didn’t communicate at all. At least not directly, and definitely not in ways likely to promote a positive working relationship. Numbers were the change, and they managed the numbers. But in today’s reform environment, that relationship is out. Police chiefs and personnel are expected to participate in reform. Police leaders don’t succeed unless they build productive relationships – with court-appointed monitors and with community activist organizations that may hold long-standing grievances with their department. With police labor unions. And with their own men and women in blue whose professional reputations and credibility take a hit every time one of their own acts badly. These days, I work with a lot police chiefs across the country – formally and informally. They call me and we talk about the issues that keep them up late at night. A lot of these issues relate to use of force. And difficult relationships with various communities. Stops and detentions. Non-discrimination. Community policing. And officer morale. All of these things affect what people call the “culture” of the agency. What I can tell you is that if you don’t have it right, it’s the hardest thing to change. “How do you do that?” they ask. And I say, “Look. It starts with your door and your mind. Both have to be open.” As police leaders, we have to hear the voice of our people – especially when it is strident and angry. We have to hear their criticisms and act on their concerns. We have to engage them and in turn help them learn about our goals, too. And we have to quietly help everyone – from our own commanders to community activists – come to an understanding on their own of one crucial, life-affirming, city-enlivening, Constitution-honoring fact: That strong local enforcement of laws and regulations is 100 percent compatible with respect for and protection of civil rights and civil liberties, in order to help members in every single community in our cities lead peaceful and productive lives.