Earlier this year, I was working with a local sheriff’s office. (If you haven’t heard, I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with law enforcement which you can read about here). I do a lot of vertical coaching with these teams which is to say that rather than working horizontally — with a group of sergeants or a group of Lieutenants — we assemble a team that crosses ranks: a chief deputy, a commander, a couple of lieutenants, a bunch of sergeants (basically, all the supervisory roles — everyone besides the sheriff and the deputies).
The idea is that we take on topics that are normally avoided in day-to-day discourse. We talk about these issues not from officers’ individual perspectives but in terms of how the issue impacts everyone, across all the ranks, in totality. And we work to design a solution that creates cross-rank satisfaction and buy-in.
The goal here is to help everyone at every level understand that, contrary to popular belief, their boss does care, decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, and leadership does want to know what’s important up and down the chain of command.
My job is twofold: to help those in charge understand what sort of impact the decisions they’re making have on the people below them and to foster multi-directional communication that builds trust and facilitates better, more positive accountability.
In this particular sheriff’s office, we have four vertical coaching threads, and as a team, they are willing to go where others have feared to tread. And at times it can get contentious.
Take patrol, for instance. On one hand, they really want the coaching, but on the other hand, they fight it tooth-and-nail when it requires the vulnerability of truth and both the courage to speak that truth to each other and to recognize when they’ve been wrong in their assumptions and understandings.
Here’s a little backstory for context.
Before I entered the picture, patrol was sent to a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training in which the instructor essentially made a blanket pronouncement to the group: “you’re white, therefore, you’re racist.” Which, as you can imagine, went over like a lead balloon.
Even if we can arguably support such a statement, that is not how we bring people into a conversation.
At the same time, these officers were being instructed by the county DEI decision-makers to track every stop they make and tally certain pieces of information like color and gender. Patrol was understandably on edge in that particular meeting with the DEI trainer telling them that all the white people in the room were racist.
To make matters even more complex — and their response to the DEI instructor even more visceral — patrol had recently been instructed to conduct a sting where they were actively focused on people who were using their cell phones while driving.
Now this is where I come in.
This particular session with the sheriff’s office that day centered around profiling and responding to people of color. It was an issue on everyone’s mind at the time, and that was the topic du jour they had chosen for us to tackle.
Patrol was adamant that while they’re required to tick a box that describes the person’s race, those individuals are NOT pulled over because of the color of their skin — but rather because they are on their cell phone.
And the sentiment I kept hearing from patrol was this: “Every time I pull someone over and they’re a person of color, I get nervous. I’m afraid to do my job because I have to track it all.”
As a group, they were understandably worried. “What if we’re suddenly tracking more people of color than white people? It’s not doing anything good for us, this process. It’s making us anxious.”
They were frustrated with the process, stressed about the mandate to track this data, and salty about the DEI trainer’s approach during their recent training.
How could I help them build bridges and get to the bottom of some missed opportunities for communication, trust, and accountability?
The conversation that ensued was passionate, heated, and clearly riddled with fears and worries. During this exchange, the chief deputy asked a powerful question to move the discussion in the right direction: “Have you ever gotten in trouble for ‘targeting’ people of color?”
There was a pregnant pause, as the Sergeants considered their answer, followed by a somewhat surprised, “No.”
That opened up an important and frank conversation. I did my best to represent the bigger picture and to facilitate the conversation beyond just the perspective of the police in a manner that included their needs and concerns, as well as the community and the DEI office.
Perhaps, I sheepishly admit, I got a bit strong with them during this conversation because mine is the voice unlike all the others in the room. I’m not a cop. I’m not one of them. I can see perspectives in a way they simply cannot, given their proximity to the work and the deeply personal emotions that are involved with it.
The conversation didn’t end terribly, but it didn’t end well, and it was clearly unfinished. It was way too much to unpack in a single discussion and was to be continued for sure.
As they were getting up to leave, I could sense a frustration that the group doesn’t normally have. This one was big and real and personal.
I was still in the room talking with a few of the patrol officers, having a rather interesting spin-off conversation, while the other officers exited the room. As they walked down the hall out of sight, I thought I heard one exclaim, “fuck you, Fulmer.”
I walked away from that coaching session feeling, on one hand, proud they were willing to venture into uncomfortable territory but also bummed that I seemed to have pissed at least one of them off. Because that’s absolutely not my objective.
I’m a coach, not a consultant. My job isn’t to tell them how to be cops but to make sure they look at the whole picture, question their assumptions, and make clear, deliberate, and well-informed choices that align with their intentions for how they chose to be a cop — individually and as an agency.
At the same time, I realized I was a bit in over my head, not being well-versed or educated in the ways of DEI.
No one’s perfect at this.
Maybe this whole scenario sounds familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve experienced it with your team under different (or similar) circumstances.
We avoid difficult conversations for a reason. They’re difficult. And when they are emotionally raw as well, they’re even harder. But when we avoid them, we can’t communicate conscious and deliberate choices, and we can’t provide consistent directions.
If you have found yourself in one of these challenging conversations, what did you do to move forward? How did you respond instead of react?
In my next post, I’ll share what I did to try and move this issue forward — and address the issue of racial profiling with a bit more nuance and depth.