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Police and the Civilian Leadership Vacuum

There is a scene in the Al Pacino movie thriller, Sea of Love, where Pacino’s character, an NYPD detective, argues with his romantic interest, Ellen Barkin, that people distain police until they become victims of crime. Watching the evening news it would appear that the public not only disrespects the police, but actually blames our men and women in blue for the societal outbreak of violent crime.

The success of American law enforcement has been predicated upon a positive relationship with our civilian leadership. Budgets are dependent upon civilian leaders allocating resources, and frequently the careers of elected officials are reliant upon the continued absence of crime. As a new police lieutenant attending management school, it was refreshing to hear the Assistant Sheriff for San Diego County telling the class that being a leader meant “setting the tone” for the organization, and being a positive influence. The concept had staying power while rising within the ranks, and gave incentive to look for opportunities to set a positive tone wherever assignments may have led.

The 21st century of policing is faced with an extremely volatile environment consisting of economically depressed communities inhabited by youths whose absence of fathers frequently exceeds 70%. Couple this void of fatherly leadership in the home with the proliferation of cell phone cameras and the internet, and you have boundary-less delinquents no longer accountable to society engaging police, who are summoned by a public all too eager to find fault.

What is fostering this fault-finding attitude? It is the failure of our civilian leaders to set the proper tone. At the highest levels of our government our leaders set poor examples in their actions and words, giving license for others to follow suit. Statements such as, “Cambridge Police acted stupidly,” and references of the Ferguson Police shooting as an example of police brutality serve as missed opportunities for exercising leadership. An IRS official accused of targeting political opponents refuses to testify, and a Justice Department official refuses to prosecute her. A militant group of individuals stand outside a polling place, striking their hands with billy clubs, intimidating arriving voters, and that same Justice Department official refuses to prosecute. These are leaders who have a platform and a voice to generate respect for the rule of law, and correspondingly positively empower officers at the street level charged with the responsibility of enforcing it.

In his infamous book, Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky instructs the reader that “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” If misconduct by law enforcement organizations is addressed by internal affairs bureaus, civilian review boards, grand juries, and consent decrees, the worst direction that a leader should take is that of ridicule. Tell us the goals of excellence which we seek to achieve, encourage us to strive to be examples of heroic acts, and inspire us to be the protectors of society that we have sworn to embody, so that we all can contribute to maintaining the peace and safety of the communities in which we live and serve.

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