The Solution to the Accountability Crisis in Law Enforcement

NOTE: I set up several calls recently with Sheriff Joel Richardson, a man I respect immensely, to discuss the difficult issues facing today’s law enforcement organizations. Joel leads the Randall County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department, which includes part of the city of Amarillo; he served for eight and a half years as the presiding officer for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Joel presents, in my view, a perfect example of what accountable leadership in law enforcement looks and sounds like. It is an honor to reproduce our discussion here.

We have already talked about the difference between the “guardian” model for police work and the “warrior” model. Which model is dominating the scene today, would you say — and why?

To answer this, we have to go back to the 1990s, when there was a highly visible violent bank robbery in Los Angeles where automatic weapons were fired at police, and we began to notice that we were outgunned. We saw that the police officers might have been carrying a revolver, but they were being assaulted by people with automatic weapons. So beginning in the late ‘90s, we began to teach our officers that the most important thing is to go home at the end of your shift. That makes perfect sense, of course–but the underlying message, and the message that was hit hard over and over again, was that every encounter had the potential to turn violent. And so our focus became to survive at all costs in a hostile or potentially hostile environment.

And this is that warrior model we see so much of today. And the question I would ask is, who are we at war with? I don’t think we’re at war with anybody. But, especially after 9/11, we began to really turn up the warrior training. What that has led to is all kinds of unnecessary confrontation. And unfortunately the warrior mindset is predominating now, and the problem is that it doesn’t give you the opportunity to have a short-term encounter with the public, the kind of encounter that leads to a long-term relationship. If you approach everyone in a way that is combative or about to be combative, if what you believe in is total dominance over the situation at all times, if you have to be in total control all the time, then there is a big problem. Because that is just not an accurate picture of good police work. In 99% of the contacts, you don’t need that kind of mentality. You can be a guardian of the public and still survive violent or potentially violent encounters. But the problem is, you cannot build trust within the community if the only conversations you are having with people are confrontational.

What is the police officer’s job?

Our job is public safety. Period. And we need to do that job in a way that fosters public trust. So in support of that, we ought to be requiring our officers to have non-law-enforcement contacts. Meaning, interact with people in ways that have nothing to do with arresting them or getting ready to arrest them. We do require that here in Randall County, but I think we ought to require that nationwide. We’ve got to be empowering to the people we are protecting, and we’ve got to be fair, respectful, and considerate. And then when there is a law enforcement priority, I think we ought to be emphasizing tactical restraint. In other words, when somebody vandalizes a memorial, you may be better off trying to identify them and get a picture of them, and then back out of there, rather than following the warrior approach and charging in and escalating the tension in the situation. Because escalating the tension is just not in the interests of public safety. Maybe you get a warrant and an arrest later. We don’t have to come on like gangbusters all the time. Not everybody is going to try to kill us. And we have to stop acting as though that’s what people are trying to do.

Where would you say the warrior mindset is most prevalent now?

Warrior thinking is most prevalent in the major municipal police departments. It is not as dominant in the smaller law enforcement agencies. In the smaller agencies, we are more likely to know our communities, and more likely to be in a position where our community knows us. Which is where we want to be. The good news is that, in some metropolitan police departments, the guardian mentality is starting to take hold and is starting to show some real promise.

What makes you say that?

I say that because community policing that is built around the guardian mentality is what actually works. People in larger cities are starting to pick up on that. I’ve seen it. Here in Amarillo, minority neighborhoods have a police force that is very closely connected to the neighborhoods they are responsible for protecting. The police might be operating out of a church or a community center, rather than out of a police station or a sheriff’s office. These officers are building trust in their community. And the people in the community want those officers there. They love these guys. Why? They don’t have the warrior mentality. They have the guardian mentality. They are there to serve. The big problem with the warrior mentality is, you can’t be there to serve if you are there to dominate. And that whole mentality of service that is built into the guardian mentality actually helps you to fight crime more effectively. Instead of assuming “everybody’s a crook,” you start from the assumption that you can make friends and allies in the community, especially the young people. And the community helps you to fight crime.

How do you turn things around on a law enforcement team that is having problems?

You have to change the culture, and you have to be willing to invest some time in that process. It doesn’t happen overnight. When I took over as sheriff, I had to change the culture. It took me a year and a half. The change has to start from the top down. It never happens from the bottom up. You’ve got to identify your leaders in the department, whether they are formal or informal leaders, and you’ve got to have their help to change the culture. I was resisted for a long time by both the administration and by the line officers in my efforts to change the culture of this place. And this wasn’t just about developing and sustaining the guardian mindset. There were a lot of other issues, too. Some people were lazy and not carrying their load. There was a war between the jail officers and the field officers. There were a lot of problems, and it was just a ridiculous working environment, and I was having a hard time with it until finally, after eighteen months, I got fed up. I called up all my administrators, and we went out to Colorado, where we had rented a lodge. And I paid a facilitator to come in, so we could address and resolve all the issues we were facing. And by the time that administrative retreat was over with, we were able to come back to work as a team.

Again: That outcome did not come easy. It took hard work on everybody’s part. And it took everybody being willing to be vulnerable. The best way for me to describe what happened on that retreat was that we got naked — figuratively, I mean. If you had an issue with somebody, you had to go out and take a walk with them, or sit down and have a cup of coffee, or whatever, and the two of you did not come back to the group until you had worked it out. No more games. No more changing the subject. No more doubletalk. The two of you had to resolve it.  And that happened, over and over again. We literally wrote our problems and disagreements down on paper, and then once they were finally resolved, we burned the paper. We resolved all the issues and we rebuilt the culture from the ground up that way. And frankly, that is what I think needs to happen in a lot of law enforcement organizations today. They need to get vulnerable, own the issue, and rebuild the culture from the ground up. That’s the only way to address some of the problems we are all facing now.

It has to happen at the local level. This is not something that can be mandated from Washington. This is purely a question of local leadership. This is about creating accountability at the personal level within that particular department, which is unlike any other department. But a cultural change has to happen. And the people involved have to start investing the time and attention necessary to make it happen.

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