Changing the culture of a police organization is a complex process. It requires a forward-thinking leader with a sound strategic vision for transforming his or her organization and strong relationships with both internal and external stakeholders.
There is a saying in policing, “Culture eats policy for breakfast.” Changes to policy will not influence the practice unless the culture and officers who make up the department are open to change. And the best way to effect change is from the ground up. Officers must have an opportunity to provide input to changes in policy, process, strategy and training. This creates a sense of ownership among those in the field who are carrying out the leader’s strategic vision from day to day.
Crucial to changing culture among officers are first-line and mid-level supervisors — sergeants, lieutenants and captains. Mid-level supervisors are the heart of every organization; their actions can inspire and motivate, and their inaction can create disarray and low morale. Leaders must engage first-line and mid-level supervisors as the strategic vision is developed. Their input, buy-in and ownership of the new vision for the department will ensure greater accountability and commitment to change, even beyond current leadership. Leadership in agencies like the Spokane, WA Police Department have developed internal engagement and communication strategies as a mechanism with which to engage mid-level and line officers in discussions about organizational changes such as revisions to policies, and training.
Equally important is the role of the community in instilling cultural change in a police organization. The community served by the agency must be part of discussions about changes to policy, training and policing strategies, especially those changes that directly affect them. The concepts of procedural justice are particularly important in engaging and gaining input from the community. Police organizations must view their communities as partners; this is especially important when implementing new technology or crime reduction strategies that will impact community members. Failing to engage communities early and throughout the implementation of new initiatives often leads to misperceptions about the department’s intent and can hamper what would otherwise be successful initiatives. Recent community concerns brought forth in response to LAPD’s data-driving policing strategies are just one example of how engaging the community about these strategies may address potential concerns and controversies.
Communities hold police agencies accountable, and a strong police-community relationship ensures that changes are understood and can be sustained. Strong community relationships that are honest and open, where the community and the police are mutually responsible for public safety, ensure a greater sense of transparency and trust. That trust is vitally important in times of crisis, most notably after a critical incident or questionable officer-involved shooting.
Waiting to engage both internal and external stakeholders — department personnel and community members—after new strategies have already been implemented and changes made will only hinder an agency’s ability to address public safety issues. Starting at the bottom is the most effective way to successfully implement and sustain positive transformation.