Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

When cops kill

The police will change when leaders change cultures and value accountability.

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.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 04/29/2015 - 08:41 am.

    Once again, half the story

    Let me preface this by saying I don’t disagree with a lot of the author’s assertions (although I’ll tell you a secret service agent isn’t exactly out on the “mean streets”).

    The key point in this story is that “responsibility and accountability have diminished as personal values in America”. That’s 100% true, but it’s just as true for the citizens the police serve as well as the officers themselves. Mr. Heuerman ignores how society has changed, how there’s now more poverty, untreated mental illness, criminality and violence than in preceding generations. Until society “changes culture and values accountability”, not just the police, we’ll continue to be us vs. them. In the split seconds an officer has to make a life or death decision, an attacker’s mental health, family history, or the type of day he’s having doesn’t really make him any less deadly.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 04/29/2015 - 08:59 am.

    I agree that cops need to have more restraint when using deadly force. I can’t begin to imagine the pressure of making split second decisions about using your gun in a chaotic situation with multiple moving parts. The good cops, which are many, must hold the bad cops, which are few, to their high standards to help and protect the citizens of their community.

    I am baffled at how a Mayor of a major city can say we need to give “those who want to destroy room to do it” and then criticize the police for anything. Basically she was saying don’t protect all the good folks of Baltimore from the law breaking, rioting, looting, burning bums that took over the city for 24 hours. It is hard enough being a cop in todays world without getting stand down orders from elected officials who will go to any ends not to offend anybody, even rioting bums. Not easy being a cop in 2015!

  3. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 04/29/2015 - 10:46 am.

    Statistical assertions opposite of reality

    “Mr. Heuerman ignores how society has changed, how there’s now more poverty, untreated mental illness, criminality and violence than in preceding generations.”

    Let’s go down the list of those that can be quantified properly over time.

    Poverty rate
    1959: 22.4%
    2013: 14.5%
    change: -35%

    Property crime rate (per 100,000 inhabitants)
    1980: 5,353.3
    2013: 2,730.7
    change: -49%

    Violent crime rate (per 100,000 inhabitants)
    1991: 758.2
    2013: 367.9
    change: -51%

    Sources: (Table 2)

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 04/29/2015 - 09:18 pm.

      Thanks for the stats

      I was going to reply to the previous post myself. Mr. Cage has it exactly backwards. Wonder where he’s getting those impressions?

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/29/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    Our Law Enforcement Officers May Be Endangering Themselves

    far beyond the dangers so common in an already-dangerous job,…

    through the business as usual,…

    cops can do not wrong,…

    we’ll support another cop even when we’re VERY aware that that cop has REPEATEDLY done wrong, attitude and approach which is currently so common.

    I am absolutely NOT in favor of violence against cops,…

    but it is a reality of life that government depends, in the end, on the consent of the governed.

    Cops are on the front line of positive and negative expressions of that consent.

    When our law enforcement personnel are seen as tough when necessary, but fair to those with whom they must deal,…

    when they are seen as using the minimum force necessary to control a situation (and NO more than that),…

    the average citizen sees law enforcement as an important part of society and tends to be VERY supportive.

    When, as is increasingly the case, the primary thing we hear about law enforcement is the cases where certain officers are repeatedly abusively violent,…

    in ways which were clearly NOT justified,…

    and seemed to arise out of some inner need of the officer to do violence,…

    rather than anything the situation demanded,…

    and other officers circle up the figurative wagons and seek to protect the dysfunctional and dangerous officer(s) in their midst,…

    all law enforcement personnel tend to get painted with a brush that makes them look like the kinds of targets for anger and resentment,…

    that certain kinds of dysfunctional, if not unhinged individuals are always searching for.

    If our law enforcement officers and those who supervise their work, value their well being, and that of other officers across the nation, they absolutely need to respond to the kinds of dysfunctional officers who have been allowed to creep into the force over the past many years,…

    officers who have become officers more for the ability it offers them to act violently toward less powerful people with complete impunity,…

    officers who seem to have a NEED to be violent,…

    and who will escalate situations in order to give themselves a REASON to excuse their violence,…

    by honestly identifying who those repeatedly and unnecessarily violent officers are and REMOVE them from the force,…

    they hand targets on their own and EVERY OTHER OFFICER’s back for those who are always looking for targets for their dysfunctional anger and tendency toward violence.

    Lacking swift action in each and every law enforcement department across the nation,…

    we are likely to see our law enforcement officers increasingly becoming targets of those outside the force who share the same dysfunctions as those within the force who should, long since, have been removed,…

    and, very sadly, those who become victims of the resulting violence will almost certainly NOT be the officers within the force who tend toward such violence, themselves.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/29/2015 - 06:42 pm.

    My support is with the cops

    In the past when a policeman said, “Stop or I’ll shoot” that is exactly what he meant.
    Black or white, you will do fine with a few simple rules. If a policeman asks you to get off a street, just do it. Don’t carry a concealed weapon. Don’t try to take a cop’s gun, etc.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/29/2015 - 08:27 pm.

    How true

    “Accountability begins with leaders. Leaders set the standards for excellence. Leaders hold people accountable.”

    How true. So let’s start with our leaders: Obama, Clinton, Sharpton, Holder… set the standards for excellence, urge people to get education and work, do not excuse bad behavior, allow bad people to be punished…

    And when this is done, we can get to the police…

Leave a Reply