Post Ferguson, the pundits are working overtime to diagnose the various ills of American policing. The conclusions are sometimes infuriating, sometimes hilarious, but almost never accurate, which is a bi-product, I suppose, of the simple fact that none of them have ever been cops, or know the first thing about actual police work. So they deal largely in hypotheticals, academic versions of the police they would like to see, or think would actually be effective, but they are missing some very important, inside-baseball, information. To be sure, I shouldn’t care about this anymore. I’m out of the business, a simple civilian trying to raise a few tomatoes, and avoid jury duty. But I do. I care a lot, in fact. It bothers me that hundreds of thousands of police go to work each day and have no ability, in fact are largely prevented, from saying anything at all in their own defense, or face serious retribution for exposing some of the underlying problems with modern police work. And many of those problems, and the associated stress, are self-induced, products of a failed management model that destroys morale, perpetuates a culture of mediocrity, and ultimately degrades the public confidence. So here’s another bit in their defense.
What’s wrong with the police isn’t surplus military gear, or boots, or pants with cargo pockets. It isn’t some inveterate excessive force mentality. It isn’t criminal profiling, which is the essence of police work. It isn’t SWAT teams or armored rescue vehicles. It isn’t racism. It isn’t Officer Smith using the F-word in front of a drunk grandmother with neck tattoos. It isn’t virtually anything we are hearing about in the media. What’s wrong with the police is the utter collapse of civic education–citizens who know everything except that they know nothing– dump truck loads of nanny-state legislation churned out by nitwit lawmakers, a nationwide entitlement mentality, and finally, by a wide margin, it’s Police Managers.
The upper decks of American police stations are now crammed with arrogant, visionless, scheming careerists, a virtual army of Wharton School–Who Moved My Cheese–management types who, having shucked their uniforms and badges for a corporate widget mentality, seek daily to deprive officers of their most valuable tool–discretion–in favor of watch standards–read quotas–self-serving department policy manipulations, and the masturbatory ritual of Compstat meetings. The more sadistic variety seem to exist for the sole purpose of destroying their best officers, personally and professionally, and appear to derive a kind of sexual gratification–department policy as porn–from their rank alone, arriving to work each day eager to find fault in the ranks, a promotable attribute, after all, and to punish it absolutely. By and large, they have mastered the political arts of obfuscation, deceit, and camouflage, in a business where deception is a termination offense. Under the banner of accountability, they remain completely unaccountable themselves, and just arrogant enough to believe that the rank and file–trained observers all–can’t see what they are about. And still, in a ritual felt painfully by good cops everywhere, these very same management types, a morale crushing breed almost incapable of honest self-evaluation, presume to make honest and accurate yearly evaluations of the officers in their charge.
The use of the Compstat model in small to medium sized police forces, which constitute the vast majority of American police departments, should scare the bejeezus out of every American. While such a program likely serves a purpose in large American cities, shaping deployment strategies in a meaningful and effective way, its implementation in much smaller police agencies has warped into a productivity evaluation tool. It is nothing less than a widget calculator. A police widget looks like a field interview card (quantifiable), a ticket (quantifiable), an arrest (quantifiable). Particularly desirable would be a felony arrest, a grand widget, so to speak. Operating under these conditions, which still provide police managers a kind of plausible deniability about the existence of quotas, cops are forced to make stupid stops, write stupid tickets, and make stupid arrests, under pain of falling below the “watch standard” and facing administrative action. To anyone paying attention, that is a gigantic moral, ethical, and legal problem. But Police managers, lacking the imagination or leadership skill set to challenge and motivate lower performing cops, love it. They can use it as a shaming tool, a disciplinary cudgel or, perversely, a model of exemplary performance. There is, after all, nothing quite so accurate as a pie-chart or bar graph, a spreadsheet average, to evaluate and motivate the performance of a police officer.
Of larger concern is the fact that law enforcement is, and always will be, a reactionary endeavor. Even so-called Pro Active policing is reactionary–a response to a reasonable suspicion, or the development of probable cause. Widget policing, widely adopted and internally enforced, by its very nature, erodes an officer’s most fundamental tool: discretion. Where police officers lose discretion in the performance of their duties, a decline in public trust, and questionable behavior under color of authority are bound to follow. The upside? Managers have lots of numbers to throw up on a powerpoint presentation for city council meetings.
It is interesting to consider the popular administrative insistence on management practices, rather than leadership qualities, bogus “leadership retreats” and quarterly “leadership meetings” notwithstanding. In the essay “What is Leadership”, Christopher Kolenda notes that “Leaders without the intellectual courage to make decisions in the realm of uncertainty rapidly become crisis managers, only making decisions in the intellectual comfort of simple necessity.” This is a precise illustration of the institutionalized administrative paralysis endured by line-level police officers nationwide. It is true enough to suggest that merely managing almost always leads to an unending cycle of crisis. Kolenda again: “Once crisis management becomes a habit, the organization becomes rooted in the labyrinth of short-term decisions, moving in many different directions but no closer toward achieving the organizational purpose.” To my cop readers, this will simply scream of their working environment.
It would be one thing, we can suppose, if even once the best practices discussed in those catered leadership charade parties were ever actually implemented. But they aren’t, ever, the finer points of the mandatory reading left wadded up on the table with the napkins and cake crumbs. It seems clear that rather than actually lead, which requires creative thinking and problem solving abilities, modern police administrators simply must fall back on ineffectual management practices, no matter how egregiously byzantine, unnecessary, or even dishonest. Why lead at all, when hiding behind rank, spreadsheets, completely manufactured “big picture” claims, and policy manuals, is so much easier. And while they might haul in Gordon Graham for an hour of comedic presentation–the “Predictable is Preventable” group guffaw, they somehow always miss any opportunity to actually implement Graham’s message. And so the predictable, and preventable, cycle of organizationally immature management continues unabated.
In the Marine Corps, perhaps the finest leadership-based organization on the planet, we were taught that leaders take care of their people first. Always. It is the essence of leadership, and one of the principle reasons they are so very good at what they do. The leaders know they can count on their people, and the people know they can count on their leaders. They trust each other, which is the first visible sign of a mature organization. Too often, police officers live with the knowledge that their managers are on another team altogether, deliberately, and in fact some of those managers view harboring disdain for their fellow cops as an absolutely essential part of promoting through the ranks. They are quite insistent on an Us vs Them mentality, and perform their functions that way. I am aware of at least one manager who told a prospective lieutenant that he would never promote until he decided “which side you are on.” This same Rasputin has publicly mentioned the joy he derives from injecting friction and tension into the workplace. And finally, years ago, after a week of hard SWAT training in which he did not participate, I watched this same manager pull up in his take-home car, leap out of the driver’s side, and sprint to the front of the chow line–before we had even taken off our gear–in order to feed his filthy face. There are far too many just like him, and looking back, I think that moment, and everything it revealed and represented, was likely the beginning of the end of my own police career.
This should not be construed as a wholesale condemnation, and no one disputes that effective discipline is an essential ingredient in a professional police force. Neither do I believe that police officers should merely sit in their cars and wave at the people. I think cops should get out of their cars, and take out the trash. That’s what I want in a cop, and most honest citizens want that too. And so, having said all that, know that there remain a few actual leaders in the higher ranks of police departments. They are critically endangered, but they still exist. Cherish them. Start a relief fund and host charity events to preserve them. They lead by example, every day, and if you can find one, and you are a cop, do whatever it takes to work for him or her. You will likely destroy your own chances for promotion, because the cabal of self-serving managers, who confuse rank with leadership, and motion with action, will see that you have refused to drink the Kool-Aid, but you’ll have your self-respect, and your discretion, and that is worth more than all the widgets in the world.