Ending police abuses requires culture change

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There has long been a law making it illegal to shoot someone in the back. But that law did not save Walter Scott.

Although unarmed and not threatening his killer, he was shot in the back by a South Carolina policeman while running away during a routine traffic stop. It is certainly appropriate to ban chokeholds by the police in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody. But I doubt the law will save anyone’s life. Laws by themselves haven’t been shown to protect people of color. Hence the call for “systemic change.”  

John Calia

But what is systemic change? And, how will it change the outcomes for millions of African Americans who have suffered not only the abuse of police officers but also ongoing discrimination in their pursuit of economic opportunity—from housing, to banking, to employment?

The challenge for lawmakers, particularly at a federal level, is that there is little they can do to change outcomes that hasn’t already been done. We have extensive legislation backed up by the courts that prohibit discrimination in every arena. Victims of discrimination can pursue remedies in court and win. Beginning with major civil rights legislation in the 1960s and continuing as educational, business and government opportunities opened up for African Americans, the system can be said to have already changed. And yet, discrimination persists. 

While systems must continue to be examined to root out discriminatory practices, the primary focus of leadership, particularly in municipal governments and police departments, should be on culture. While training and routine practices define the system, behavior and language define the culture. In some cities, the behavior of police is less a function of race than it is of police department culture and its momentum. 

Consider the case of Freddie Gray. He died in the back of a Baltimore police paddy wagon. Six officers faced criminal charges ranging from murder and manslaughter to negligence and false imprisonment. Three of those officers were African-American, as were the city’s police commissioner and mayor. No reasonable person would assume any of them were guilty of racial bias against a member of their own race. Yet, Freddie Gray still died. (The trial against one officer ended in a mistrial, two others were acquitted, and the charges against the remaining officers were dropped.)

The question now is how do we change the outcomes? Not only how do we prevent police from doing harm, but also how do we modify the behavior of thousands of educators, bureaucrats and employers to ensure people of color have the opportunity to improve their lives?

While federal legislation is important in signaling direction, we must rely on thousands of cities and towns to examine their own institutional behavior. It is unlikely that such dramatic change will occur spontaneously and simultaneously. We must hope there will be a handful of local governments that will experiment boldly, have some success and serve as examples to others. Change management is hard work and few organizational leaders have a clear understanding how to achieve it. Success in this realm requires a willingness to challenge orthodoxy, take on powerful people, and suffer the slings and arrows of detractors all while maintaining focus. 

Numerous business turnarounds have been documented in academic studies and the Turnaround Management Association certifies professional businesspeople with expertise in business turnarounds. Consultancies that specialize in municipal turnarounds are fewer in number. Nevertheless, there are concepts that translate from business turnarounds that would serve in the effort to change police department culture.


Leaders must communicate constantly to be effective. Consistency and clarity are essential. The chief executive and his or her lieutenants should all have the same brief stump speech telling everyone “where we’re going (goal), why we’re going there (purpose) and how we’re going to get there (plan).” The same short speech should be delivered whenever the subject comes up. It should be repeated so often that subordinates begin to roll their eyes when they hear it. 

Of course, a speech has no meaning unless it’s backed up by action. A plan should be developed that is clear on what will be done, who is accountable to do it, and how success will be measured. It’s easy to lose sight of goals in the throes of getting it done. So, it’s also incumbent upon leadership to celebrate each milestone achieved in the context of the stump speech: where we’re going, why we’re going there, how we’ll get there.

Change the metrics

Police officers who are fast, proficient and productive are highly rated in many police departments. But the metrics by which productivity is measured are based upon crime statistics. Such metrics as response time and clearance rates are widely accepted as prime measures of effectiveness, particularly when coupled with a reduction in crime rates. The data required to calculate those measures are easy to collect.

But these measures are only part of what makes a good police officer in the minds of community members. Officers must have the soft skills and emotional intelligence necessary to engage with the community and gain the trust of its members. In Rochester, Police Chief La’Ron Singletary was a prime mover in the development of a new set of metrics before rising to his current role. The document outlines more than a dozen new measures in the categories of community engagement and service. 

New metrics and leaders who hold officers accountable to them are essential to any effort to improve police effectiveness. By themselves, however, such an upgrade will not change the culture of a police department. 

Break up power centers

No chief executive (or police chief) wants to be dragged into day-to-day management of the detailed activities of their organization. So, they often rely upon those who have more influence than their position would normally indicate. They may have achieved their status by some combination of expertise, tenure, effectiveness and relationships developed over a long career. They make the trains run on time. 

Such people represent the status quo. They have an entrenched interest in continuing the momentum of an organization. As important as they are, they also are the people who should lose their jobs. That is not to say they should be fired. A bigger title, a move into a senior advisory role or a promotion may be required to keep them in the fold and to curb their natural tendency to fight the changes leadership endeavors to make. 

Breaking up power centers forces leaders to become engaged, to learn the details and to engage with key people on the front lines. A new perspective will be gained. An understanding of how things must change will be emerge. Relationships with the people delivering critical services (police officers in this example) will improve.

In any turnaround, this is the most difficult phase to affect. Allies will falter. Doubt will be sown. Opponents will engage in disinformation. This is where resolve and true leadership is required. 

Find peer group leaders

Enlightened leadership—new metrics, organization changes, front-line engagement—will excite some of the participants. For sure, many will demur and many more will fight change tooth and nail. But some will be surprised—delighted even—at the effectiveness of a new program and the opportunities it presents. Most police officers, after all, are initially motivated to pursue their careers by a desire to serve. 

Senior leaders must find those acolytes and highlight their successes. Awards should be given, publicity should highlight their results, and, over time, those who have delivered on the new program should be promoted. Their peers will follow their lead if they see them as supported by senior leadership.

Ground truth

It’s easy to ascertain the effectiveness of corporate programs. Customers will be pleased, more units will be sold, and prices can be raised. Life’s not that easy for government leaders. No matter who or how many citizens are pleased, the loudest voices will come from detractors.

The ground truth—the real impact of any set of change programs—can be validated only by leaders getting out and engaging with community leaders and members. How are they feeling about what’s happening? Have they noticed the changes? Are their expectations of the police being met? Are there examples of something that pleased them?

The simple act of asking such questions will have a positive impact not only on the community but also, by extension, on the police officers themselves. 


President Harry Truman famously kept a sign his desk saying, “The Buck Stops Here.” It’s a simple phrase conveying that he was accountable for not only his successes but also his failures. True leaders take responsibility for all of it. True leaders don’t play the blame game. True leaders listen to those on the front lines. They admit mistakes. They adjust their sails and find a new course.

Any new program will be seriously flawed. Mistakes will be made. They may be big mistakes; they may be small mistakes.  But mistakes will be made. Community leaders should be transparent about what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Failure to admit mistakes will undermine any progress that’s been made and risk loss of support from subordinates and the public. 

This list is not exhaustive. But it is foundational. Any change management program—any effort to change organizational culture—will vary depending upon the circumstances of each city and town. But these concepts must be included. Only leaders who make an honest assessment and take bold action will succeed in the effort to improve the lives of people of color. 

Many of these themes are echoed by Rochester’s Chief Singletary. In a recent interview with the Beacon, he outlined the thrust of his Community Policing Plan and the importance of accountability and engaging members of the community. The challenge, of course, is that the real results are difficult if not impossible to measure. For members of the most affected communities, the question might be, “how do you feel when you see a cop coming down the street?” If one feels safer because of his or her presence, it’s a mark of success. If one feels as though they should run away, there is more work to do. 

John Calia is a former managing partner of turnaround consultancy Tatum LLC and is author of “The Reluctant CEO: Succeeding Without Losing Your Soul.”

4 thoughts on “Ending police abuses requires culture change

  1. While I appreciate the effort to apply corporate management tools to a complex social problem, I think you’re missing a few things here.

    One of the things you’re missing here, and it’s behind the perhaps poorly named “Defund the police” movement, is that we need to make fundamental changes to our system of justice, and to what the police are responsible for:
    * Overwhelmingly the system of justice is designed to put people of color and poor people and ESPECIALLY Poor and POC people behind bars. There are numerous ways that this works against anyone who is not white and not moneyed in the first place and the system is literally set up to put them there. Many times the “crimes” they’ve committed (drug possession, etc) are mostly victimless. Marijuana laws are a great example. If you’re a white teen in the suburbs and you’re caught with weed you’re going to get a slap on the wrist and that’s about it. If you’re black from the inner city you go to jail. Don’t believe me? Check the stats. People of color are routinely jailed for not making bail on minor offenses, or racking up heavy fines they cannot pay for vehicular charges, etc. Without fundamentally changing this we can’t change the system. And yet when the Democrats and Cuomo try to reform something as simple as bail the right characterizes this as “putting criminals back on the streets”.
    * Prisons for profit – prisons should never have been and should never be a profit center. You’re basically “turning slavery back on” as prisons are the only place where slave labor is allowed. Running prisons for profit puts all the motivations in the wrong place – in a profit prison the best way to run it profitably is to ensure full occupation, increase recidivism to put people back in jail and encourage prosecutors, lawmakers, and the general public to characterize those people that enter the system or might enter the system in a way that ends up with them in jail. Any prison system that makes housing prisons profitable for ANYONE is a bad system. POC see this – they know that this is just slavery in a different form. White people do not. This is slavery with the illusion that the POC had a choice in the matter of whether they end up there or not.
    * The police are responsible for far too much. Many police emergencies are mental health emergencies. They are social services emergencie1s. They are drug addiction emergencies. They are disabled person emergencies. They are for heavens sake dog and pet emergencies. None of these are things the police should be handling. We should have better, free mental health care and in a mental health emergency a mental health expert should be deployed BEFORE we deploy the police. We should have adequate support systems for homeless and poor people so they don’t end up in a situation where police are needed in the first place. We should have more counselors and mentors and family dispite experts and fewer cops. Addictive Drug users should get treatment not jail. Non addictive drugs should be legalized, taxed and regulated. All of these things put extra burden on police to do jobs far outside the job of just “protect and serve”.
    * The military and the police need to be placed FAR FAR apart. Since we’ve not been fighting overseas wars the military industrial complex has not re-tooled to provide non-military tools. As such local police departments are gearing up like they’re going to war. Police should not need tanks, military assault rifles and other lethal tools as everyday wear. And when you create a culture of carrying around lethal weapons everywhere the likelihood of those weapons being used also vastly increases. Cops spend far more training on the shooting range than on conflict deescalation and call referral. They have far too few non-lethal and non-dangerous ways to control or subdue suspects than they should have, which means too often the gun is a first resort not a last one.
    * The culture of gun ubiquity in America is a dangerous one for police. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. The vast majority of American want reasonable gun control. But republicans and the NRA resist that at every turn. The more guns there are, the more trigger happy everyone is, and the less likely that a cop has an opportunity to use or deploy less lethal options. Remove that threat and reduce it and the need for guns to be used by officers goes down, and their options for non-lethal methods goes up.
    * Our social culture AS A NATION fantasizes about a world of police that does not or should not exist. Movies, cultures, and popular televsion have a vast panopoly of cop shows, and in many cases the way everything is portrayed in those shows is not helpful to the racist memes and cultural assumptions that are made as a result of what’s seen there. “Bad guys” are routinely people of color. Routinely cop shows show cops “bending the law” to “put someone deserving in prison” which normalizes the exact sort of behavior you see REAL cops on the street do, and makes it “more acceptable” for everyone. It reduces the outrage and increases the likelihood something bad will happen and it will be backed up in court.
    * While you are correct that culture must change, that cultural change must come from the top and be ubiquitous throughout society, not just in the police department but everywhere. Followers only do what examples their leaders set for them 100% of the time. If youre leader is chanting “lock em up” well…. guess what you’re going to see? If the union leaders tell their cops – don’t be transparent about your actions guess how often that body camera is going to be left off.
    * Your metrics that you suggest are too limited. Let’s follow ALL the metrics of officers, for every encounter. How often do the people arrested by EACH SPECIFIC OFFICER end up actually brought to trial and convicted. If you have an officer with a bad record of bringing the correct people into the system – that is consistently making bad choices that result in innocent people being jailed – that officer needs intervention. And that means that the entire process MUST be transparent. Arresting officer stats should be public and monitored by external entities, NOT a part of the system that is already established to be there mostly to protect those officers. This will change the way officers do encounters you say – YES EXACTLY. And metrics cut both ways too. If you have an officer with a 100% arrest to conviction rate – maybe there’s something hinky about the way they are arriving there. Reasonable metrics need to be established, and full transparency for those metrics is imperative. Drive the change you want by measuring it.
    * The metric that is most important here especially, over and above conviction rates though, is the one involved with violent confrontations of any sort. If there is ANY struggle or violence of ANY kind both to the officer and to the suspect, then something failed in the first place. Each of these incidents needs an independent root cause analysis, and possible retraining. The task of doing this should be outside the control of the police department or the police union, like the PAB locallly established.
    * Saying that a POC police officer cannot be involved in racism is also false. They can. Being black doesn’t automatically mean you don’t subscribe to the cultural phenomenon that you see others of your race in a negative light or treat them differently from the way you would treat non POC suspects. Cultural bias is real in the police community IN GENERAL: https://psmag.com/social-justice/black-cops-are-just-as-likely-as-whites-to-kill-black-suspects

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