Learning how to make peace is something that we all need to learn how to do, especially with people or situations that we find difficult.  But what if that is your job?  In working with law enforcement agencies over the last twenty years, I have come to appreciate those who really understand what it means to be a “peace officer.”

Take “Big Red,” a cop that was well known in his community and who knew almost everyone in it as well.  When the inevitable bar fight broke out on a Saturday night, all it took was for “Big Red” to walk in, break it up, look people in the eye, and tell them to go home or they were going to jail.  Contrast that to the same bar in the same town a few years later, after “Big Red” had retired.  When a bar fight broke out, five squad cars would descend on the scene and officers would rush into the bar.  Instead of calming the scene, they often further enraged bar patrons and owners by escalating the situation with their actions and words.

Somewhere along the line, the process of policing began to change not only in this city but across the country, moving from a sense of mutual respect and accountability to that of a well-armed and unapproachable law enforcement agency.  Historically, with the advent of patrol cars, police officers took to their squads and left their walking beats, becoming more and more disconnected from the communities they served.  And after the Vietnam War with a lot of vets returning home, anyone who knew how to handle a gun and defend themselves seemed like a good fit for law enforcement, especially since there was little required firearms training to get them started.  But as any good cop will tell you, learning how to defuse a situation – or make peace – is the more important skill and not something that was really taught.

“When public trust and service are combined, police organizations are able to keep the peace and improve the quality of life for their community.”   

While it is fortunate that in recent years a large emphasis has been placed on de-escalation training for officers, many police departments still fail to recognize that they are not the law, but simply enforcers of it.  Their power comes from the community that charters them and the trust that people have in them.  When public trust and service are combined, police organizations are able to keep the peace and improve the quality of life for their community.    But this requires a completely different mindset than ONLY resorting to physical tactics when something goes wrong – much more finesse, with an eye toward short- AND long-term community relations, is necessary.

A number of years ago, I worked on a consulting team composed of a retired Chief of Police, a retired SWAT guy, and a law enforcement researcher.  We were hired to help a city police department improve its relationship with the community.  There was a fairly low crime rate and there were no active lawsuits, but there was a growing dissatisfaction with the police department, as well as complaints about police behavior that seemed to fall on deaf ears.  With shrinking city revenues, lawmakers wondered about whether this was a good investment of their money.  When a new Chief of Police was appointed, both he and the City Manager thought it would be a good time to make some changes.

As external consultants, we conducted an overall assessment of the situation and quickly realized that we needed to focus first on the department’s management team.  There were five managers – a Chief of Police and four Lieutenants – that did not get along well or respect each other.  They ran the department like four different “mini-departments,” because each shift had its own supervising Lieutenant who had his own management style and priorities.  Citizens said they simply had to look at their watches to know when police would be setting speed traps, looking for drunk drivers, or simply waiting at the local donut house for a dispatch call.  None of their priorities were based on actual crime data or community input.

We began with a 2 ½ day “deep dive” leadership retreat that confronted the Command Staff with data and feedback from the community, their officers, and civilian staff, as well as key choices to make about the future.  What did they want to create together?  As individual leaders, were they “in” or were they “out?”  Were they willing to put aside their differences to work cohesively as a team?  What would they do differently, as a leadership team, and each individual, going forward?

The talk was difficult, and it was real.  By the time we finished the session, the team had come together around what they saw as the purpose of the department, their goals and aspirations for it, and how they needed to manage differently.  In addition, each person got personal feedback from his or her peers about what they wanted to see changed in order for that person to be a better leader and team player.  The result was that although one Lieutenant decided to retire, the remainder recommitted to their work and a new leadership team was born, carrying a united message to their staff and the community.

The Command Staff’s vision was that this police department was going to help raise the quality of life in their city, by working with citizens and other governing bodies to address safety issues that needed attention.  It meant that the management team would need to redesign police services and retrain their officers to focus on smaller problems to keep them from becoming bigger problems.  This required a huge shift in thinking, because the average cop would now be accountable for getting to know the citizens of his or her assigned geographic area, learning what was important to them in terms of safety and quality of life, and working with them and other city agencies to solve problems creatively.

A great example of this was the installation of streetlights in a dark downtown alleyway that attracted problems after bars closed.  Business owners would often have to clean up trash the next day before opening their doors.  The police department was unable to “stakeout” the alley every night due to resource constraints.  Rather than just respond to the crimes as the occurred, the officer assigned to the downtown business district worked with business owners to propose additional streetlights to the City Council, and then worked with the City Engineer on where to install them.  Better lighting and selective enforcement made the problem go away.

Although the new approach made sense, it was counter to the current police culture in which officers felt that everyday nuisance issues were beneath them to handle.  The leadership team had to tackle a great deal of internal resistance and union pressure to implement this approach, and needed to be resolutely consistent and united in its purpose.  They worked at it, and slowly but surely, their department started to change.   Several years later, the department was recognized by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police for their community policing success.  Five years later, it was ranked as the best department nationally with respect to citizen complaints, based on interviews conducted in undercover visits.

Making peace, from city-wide initiatives, to defusing violence, is an invaluable gift to us all.  And as an incredibly famous person once said, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called children of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)

Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC and the author of “Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us” (2017), available on Amazon.

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