This Is Not a Law Enforcement Issue – It’s an Organizational Culture Issue

Like just about everyone else I know, I have watched the news about the massive protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. As that incident and similar incidents have become topics of the national conversation, I have found myself confronting some major questions about accountability in the nation’s police departments.

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with a good friend of mine, and a client, Sheriff Joel Richardson, to discuss these issues. Joel heads up the Randall County, Texas, Sheriff’s department. Joel also served for eight and a half years as the presiding officer for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. He brings four decades of experience as a law enforcement officer to the table. With his permission, I share some of his remarkable, and pertinent, insights on what is now taking place in police departments across the United States.

The first and most important thing I took away from my conversation with Joel was his belief that the problems now being tackled by local police departments across the country are not law enforcement issues. They are cultural issues.

“Back in the eighties,” he told me, “following a number of bank robberies in California that were perpetrated by people with automatic machine guns, many police departments began taking on what came to be known as a warrior frame of mind. The guiding belief in many departments was that the smallest incident could end your life. The goal for the officer became to take control of the situation and fight to the end.”

This warrior mindset became, in many municipalities, the dominant model for policing. It contrasted sharply, and in many communities eventually replaced, a very different model for law enforcement: the guardian mindset. (These two concepts are not Joel’s invention — they have been around for years.)

“The guardian mindset,” he told me, “means seeking to protect. It prioritizes service over crime-fighting. It uses short-term encounters to build long-term relationships. It emphasizes communication over commands, which are so central to the warrior mindset. The guardian mindset promotes cooperation where the warrior mindset is all about compliance. The guardian mindset is all about legitimacy; the warrior mindset is all about authority. The guardian mindset is all about patience; the warrior mindset is all about control.”

“What we saw in Minneapolis and in so many other settings where there was misconduct from the police,” Joel told me, “was a tragic outcome that was rooted in an over-reliance on that warrior mentality.  The reality is that, if you are an officer, you only need that warrior response maybe one or two times in your career. But in too many departments, the warrior response has become the dominant response to most or all of the situations that arise. And that is not really a law enforcement issue. It is a cultural issue. It is a failure of leadership to set and uphold the right standards. Our number one job as law enforcement professionals should not be to fight crime to the end of the world. Our number one job should be to protect everyone’s civil rights. What actually happened in Minneapolis and Atlanta and these other cities where we see shocking videos in which the police overstep the boundaries was a cultural collapse. Every time you get out of the car with that warrior mindset, people sense that right away. The relationship goes downhill the minute that attitude comes across. It is abrasive, it is distracting, and you lose trust in the community. And that is down to leadership. For allowing the warrior culture to eclipse the guardian culture.”

That, as I see it, is the problem with policing in America today. In my next blog, I will share the solutions that Joel and I discussed.

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