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Changing Police Culture From the Inside Out

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
December 1, 2023

The struggle of law enforcement to keep pace with sociocultural shifts about expectations of police and their role in civil society is not new. Even before the pandemic and highly publicized reports of police malfeasance, there were warning signals that recruitment and retention of police officers was strained.  In 2019, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recognized an emerging crisis in hiring and cited social, political and economic forces at play in exacerbating the crisis, if not causing it. Most law enforcement agencies in the United States have grappled with maintaining staffing levels that provide minimal coverage of service for the communities they serve. Many reasons exist for the gap between staffing needs and realities such as difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates, retirement and resignations and the public image of policing in general. 

The greatest law enforcement taboo is a candid and realistic view of police culture itself as contributing to the crisis in policing. Policing, as an institution, has failed to keep pace with changing expectations about public service resulting in service gaps where as many as a quarter of agencies across the United States have reduced or eliminated services, units or positions because of staffing difficulties. The result is that some departments cling to what they see as the tried-and-true approach to professional policing that focuses on paramilitary structure, authoritarianism and an emphasis on tactical and technological training. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work for a new generation of police officers who have significantly different ideas about what policing can and should look like compared to those who make hiring decisions. 

There are several strategies law enforcement agencies can take to address the role of police culture, close the gap between current staffing levels and needs and better serve communities. 

  1. Normalize Inclusive Hiring Processes. To be clear, this doesn’t mean lowering standards for police personnel, but recognizing that a new generation of law enforcement expects to be treated equitably and fairly from the time they make their application throughout the full onboarding process. Consider strategies such as first level review of applicants being blind. That is, remove references to gender, age, race and ethnicity, and details about educational background to allow reviewers to focus on qualifications and avoid being distracted by bias.
  • Create Psychologically Safe Workplace Culture. A psychologically safe workplace is one where there’s a shared sense by the team that it is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A psychologically safe police organization supports innovation and team functioning and at the same time makes space for individuals to speak up without fear of retribution or retaliation. In these organizations, staff can voice opinions, ideas, innovations, concerns and make mistakes with a reasonable expectation that their views are valued and important. Making this transition requires work and dedication for leaders, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It means creating and continually reinforcing a culture that is genuinely curious and open to learning. 
  • Education on Respect, Communication and Empathy Is Equally Important as Tactical and Technical Training. In past decades, traditional police departments deemphasized so called “soft skills” education in favor of technical training.  For decades, attempts to introduce soft skills training were met with open hostility, resistance, and criticism.  Forward-thinking police leaders lean more toward thoughtful, collaborative, and empathetic organizations.  Leaders must ask themselves whether they’re trying to solve immediate problems or strategically building a culture for the future. 
  • Tone Down the Military Atmosphere. There are lots of good reasons why paramilitary structure and culture may be effective. One of those reasons is that policing provided job opportunities for veterans returning from combat to an environment with a familiar feel and purpose. Paramilitary structures are efficient and authoritative which can have some benefit in critical incidents. The problem is that we’re not at war, communities are not enemies and “them versus us”-thinking has gotten police agencies nowhere—and in some cases caused harm that municipal governments and communities are literally and figuratively paying for now. 
  • Be Open to Multiple Sources of Innovation. Innovation ranges from technology such as remotely piloted aircraft systems to different ways of thinking about the role of police in civil society from the perspective of the communities they serve. One of the greatest opportunities for innovative thought is from within the organization itself, but internal innovation can only be accessed when sufficient psychological safety exists for personnel. Listen to and learn from staff, communities, crime victims, academics, consultants and anyone else with an idea or solution. Take advantage of opportunities to combine technological innovation with innovation of thought.   

Changing police culture is no small task and resistance to change is inevitable. Policing in America is on a precipice and there’s a choice to be made. Ensure failure by doing nothing, or take a courageous and bold step to change the future of police culture to overcome organizational challenges and make communities safer. 

Author: Tanya Settles CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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