Last week, I had the pleasure of spending the day with about 60 public servants in Baldwin County, Alabama, whose success is critical to the safety and well-being of their communities. My colleague Robert Spence and I conducted Unit Solutions' first "Career Survival" workshop with law enforcement professionals from Alabama and Mississippi, and I think they walked away with a new perspective on the multi-layered approach that is needed to fix what's wrong with modern-day policing.
For the last year or so, all the discussions about police reform have focused on why (and sometimes if) changing policing practices would be good for communities. Too rarely, however, has there been much discussion about how the state of policing, as well as proposed reforms, impacts the careers of officers. As a result, cops' responses to a lot much of the reform talk has been to write it off as a passing fad or resist it as a political intervention that will make their jobs harder and more dangerous. The problem for reformers is that if street-level law enforcement personnel don't believe in reforms, they won't implement the programs that may get whatever program gets imposed on their departments. And the problem for cops is that they are going to be told they have to make changes without ever being asked what they think.
So I'm taking a different approach. I actually believe that policing reform is not just good for the communities a department serves; I am pretty certain that cops' lives can improve with change as well. The career survival training that we introduced in Baldwin County aims to help cops connect the dots as to why rethinking approaches to policing doesn't have to be about limiting or weakening cops but can also be about liberating them from the unacceptable risks they've been facing at an ever increasing pace in recent years.
The fact is, it is tough to be a cop and it gets tougher by the day. There are a lot of reasons for this: we have seen an increase in violent behavior in society; we see more and more mentally ill people being dealt with by police rather than served by health professionals; and there has been an uptick in drug use. But another element, which we in the policing community have been loathe to acknowledge, is that for years we have been encouraging officers to engage violent and potentially violent people - meet force with more force. To do otherwise would be a sign of weakness.
While departments alone may not alone be able to tackle issues like mental health or the rise in heroin use, they can start thinking about how they've been training their officers to deal with difficult and high-stress situations. What we did in Baldwin County, and will be doing with other departments around the country, is get them encourage officers to think about how they might make themselves safer and more effective by de-escalating rather than escalating when confronted by violence or potential violence. I like to think of a police officer's job as more about how to de-conflict a situation than how to be victorious in conflict. In my mind there's a lot more risk, personally and for society, associated with engaging in conflict than in preventing it.
But before we can get officers to think seriously about retraining their minds and bodies when it comes to dealing with these high stress situations, we have to get them to acknowledge that things aren't looking good for cops these days.
We all know how rapidly our forces are shrinking simply because of attrition. So we talk about how to reduce those high-risk factors of the profession that are driving so many officers to leave it. We point out that things do not look are not looking great through the lens of public opinion. So we talk about where the public is and why trust in our profession has declined (not, by the way, so much that most people distrust cops, but enough that it is significant). Perhaps most importantly, we talk about the ways actual police tactics and police behavior has moved the public to be concerned.
I have found that a lot of cops, while reflexively supportive of other officers, recognize that there have been enough problems out there that we can't ignore it. And for those who want to ignore it, I point out that change is coming, and if they don't get involved in defining what that change looks like, then it will be defined for them.
We know that the larger public discussion probably won't focus much on how police reform impacts officers. Sure, police voices can all chime in and oppose reform, but that's both bad policy and bad strategy. First, we can always get better and it's foolish to say otherwise. Second, it will be the departments that take some meaningful steps in the direction of reform that will get a say in the shape the inevitable reforms take, and I think officers will be better served when their departments are seen as partners in reform rather than impediments to it.
So last week, in Baldwin County, we began to have that discussion. And I look forward to continuing it during future workshops.
Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is also the retired Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, a former National Sheriff's Association "Sheriff of the Year," and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.