I’d rather be judged by 12 of my peers than buried by 6.
— Law Enforcement trainer
Long ago I conducted criminal investigations in the worst areas of Chicago. I was successful and played by the rules. I support law enforcement. But I support values, excellence and professionalism more.
We’ve had a recent outbreak of killings of black men by police officers. A law-enforcement colleague wrote me: “After 35 years, I am pretty astute in what is required in most police confrontations. When I was on the street using my weapon was the last option, today it seems to be one of the first options.”
I can imagine the stresses police in urban areas face. I understand cynicism and burnout. It is easy for people to dehumanize others to justify their own bad conduct.
How can the few renegade officers be so self-assured?
I believe their confidence comes from a culture that makes it OK to mistreat people. Violence begins with irritation at citizens. The impatience grows into disdain. Officers are trained to be in control and aggressive. Feelings get flamed by an “us vs them” mentality. Minor abuses become larger cruelties. Abusive officers get away with verbal and physical assaults. Values are not upheld. Police become desensitized. Violence becomes normal.
‘Feared for my life’ becomes a free pass
Good officers stand by and cover for the bad ones. They fear retaliation and isolation if they speak up. Police administrators — most of them former officers — exonerate villains. Self-policing favors the police officer. Strong police unions fight for the guilty. “I feared for my life” becomes a free pass to kill.
These things have been part of the police world forever. Such is the dark side of the human condition. Officers must manage the dark side of their souls. Police leaders must bring the dark forces in their organizations to light and confront them.
The violent officers are responsible. They should be accountable. But police leaders, the silent good officers, the unions with misplaced priorities and citizens who look the other way share the systemic responsibility.
Responsibility and accountability have diminished as personal values in America. As a consultant, a lack of accountability cut across every organization I worked in.
Leaders must change cultures
Accountability begins with leaders. Leaders set the standards for excellence. Leaders hold people accountable.
The police will change when leaders change cultures and value accountability.
Citizens must demand such change.
Tom Heuerman, Ph.D., is a retired and former Secret Service agent, Star Tribune executive and leadership consultant. He lives in Plymouth.
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