It might come as a surprise to many of you who know me that, over the past few years, I’ve begun doing more and more work with law enforcement agencies. I was rather surprised myself. In truth, I didn’t see it coming as I stumbled into it against my own insecurities.
Today, I’d like to share about why I’m working with law enforcement and what that looks like. Because I think it’s worth clarifying my role and bringing light to the topic, particularly in light of our country’s current relationship with law enforcement.
Several years ago, I gave a keynote about my concept on HUMAN Strategies™. Afterward, I was approached by a man who was retired military and had spent years doing leadership training and running programs for officers in all branches of the military. He said, “This stuff is phenomenal. They don’t teach this part of leadership in military school. They need this part.”
In spite of this, it’s not a niche I sought out. And frankly, I never, ever, in a million years would have considered that cops would be able to get any benefit from me since I’m not a veteran or a cop. I simply never saw myself as “qualified” for this.
But as fate would have it, a client referred me to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (agency name used by permission of the Sheriff). The Chief Deputy was open to a meeting, it went well, and it resulted in several years of work up and down the ranks, from Sheriff to Sergeants, which lead to additional opportunities with 911 agencies, police departments, and other Sheriff’s offices.
In many ways, it’s an industry that found me. I didn’t go looking for it. But once it showed up on my doorstep, I realized that my credential is that I’m not a cop. I’m not one of them, and therein lies my effectiveness. How ironic is that?
Now, I’ve been coaching for nearly 20 years, and I’ve built corporations from 3 people to 85. I’ve been doing this stuff forever, working with Fortune 100 companies, non-profits, nurses, CEOs, and more. But when it comes to law enforcement, well…
Let’s face it, it’s an industry that is truly a brother/sisterhood, a close-knit fraternity of people who are very guarded against those on the outside. It seems counterintuitive that my not being one of them turned out to be my advantage.
So why does this work so well? Because I’m not there to tell them to be better cops. I’m not there to fix their police work. I’m not there to tell them how to handle difficult criminals or manage violent situations or handle a gun. I’m there for a part of the conversation that police struggle with: The HUMAN Strategy™ — communication, trust, and accountability. For an industry rooted in courage, they are often afraid to have the conversations that desperately need to be had within the walls of their agency.
At the risk of sounding like a starry-eyed idealist, I always felt my purpose in life was to change the world. Growing up, I wanted to fix it all. I was born in the 60s and brought to tears as a child by the images of the Vietnam War on television. I came of age amidst all the social unrest of the Civil Rights Movement, Nixon and Watergate, the fear of the 1973 oil crisis and the Iranian hostage crisis, and the insane inflation and recession period of the 80s… There was so much dysfunction, and all I wanted to do was fix it.
In an odd sort of way, this is becoming my fulfillment of that vision. One of the greatest dysfunctions and fears in our culture today is between the community and the police. And let’s make no bones about it: the police have created a lot of their problems, but in my opinion, that doesn’t mean that the police, as a whole, are bad. The impediment between community and police is well-earned from many perspectives. But it boils down to gaps in communication, trust, and accountability.
Communication, it’s been said, isn’t what someone says but what the other person hears, and it doesn’t seem like what either side is saying and meaning is what the other side is hearing. The problem with this gap between intention and reception is that it undermines trust on both sides. Each party feels that the other isn’t being honest, acting fairly, or communicating in good faith. If trust is undermined because communication is unreliable, how do we ever reach a state of positive and productive accountability? I’m not sure you can.
The police are not wholesale wrong. The community is not wholesale right. But that’s not the point, is it? While the whole thing masquerades as trust, underlying that trust is fear.
Look, I get it: I am white, middle class, and male. I am not the target audience of negative police behavior. I have no credibility, no authority, no position, no agency in that public discourse. And I recognize that. I absolutely own up to my privilege.
What I do have, ironically, is my gift of separation. And the realization that any law enforcement agency is a microcosm of the community in which they serve. If there are democrats and republicans in the community, there are democrats and republicans in the police department. If there are people in the community who think the Second Amendment is the most powerful thing written in the history of humankind, there are people in the police department who believe that, too. If there are people in the community who feel misunderstood, there are people in the police department who feel the same way.
Inside the walls of these agencies, they struggle with those same conversations among their peers, among their friends. Add to that a dangerous profession and a need to rely on your peers in those dangerous situations, and conversation and conflict inside an agency can be more difficult than conversation outside the agency or between law enforcement and the community. As a result, inside law enforcement, there’s a reduction of effective communication. There’s often an absence of trust between and within ranks. There’s the difficulty of accountability — of good cops holding bad cops accountable, yes, but even just basic accountability: doing tasks, enforcing internal policies, getting stuff done, consistency, and following through on commitments.
If we can’t do it inside an agency, how can we expect to do it between the agency and the community they serve?
The more effective we make law enforcement and public safety internally — the more they’re able to ask themselves the difficult questions and engage in the conversations far too often avoided — the more effectively we’ll build trust inside that agency.
When they have trust inside that agency, they’re emotionally stronger and less likely to be triggered. And, having mastered those levels of communication, they’ll feel less threatened and worried and more capable of having those conversations outside the agency.
And it works.
They are repairing internal relationships, owning their responsibility in transgressions with one another, facing difficult conversations, and ending with decisions and clear action items. As a result, we are able to address issues of morale, when the ranks feel a decision from leadership fails to “have their backs,” difficult conversations that prevent and even repair abuse or the misuse of rank and power.
We’re not talking about whether to stock the break room with Coke or Pepsi. We are talking about the real issues that agencies face. The same issues that are rooted in the community. And the same issues that stand between that community and the policing unit sworn to serve and protect them.
The bottom line is, the more effective they are internally, the more effective they are externally.
My gift isn’t being a cop. It’s having the courage to face law enforcement and invite them into some difficult conversations in a way that draws them to conclusions, solutions, and actionable items for how things can be different. That changes everything.
I’m finding my calling working with 911, law enforcement, sheriff’s offices, police agencies, etc., not because I know how to be a better cop, but because I can help them improve their abilities around communication, trust, and accountability internally, and that has a massive impact externally, both in the community and in their personal lives.
We have the power to change the relationship between community and police through experience, not through debate or conflict. If we can transform the way police show up internally and externally moving forward, everything will be different.
If your organization is in need of that kind of change, I’d love for you to get in touch.