Why Police Chiefs Need Support–Not Vilification


Frank Straub

The role of the police is changing – how and in what direction no one is quite sure.

The threat of terrorism remains a real and constant threat as evidenced by the attacks in Paris. Active-shooter events directed at students, moviegoers, medical providers and their patients, are challenging police departments across the country to re-think their tactics and response. Violent crime continues to threaten the safety and security of neighborhoods in cities across our country, particularly those struggling with poverty, unemployment, substandard education, drugs, single parent families, and other socio-economic issues.

Municipal budgets are strained, police recruiting and hiring are at an all time low. Communities are begging their police departments to embrace them, at the same time as they are asking for increased oversight, for police officers to wear body worn cameras, and rightfully questioning police use of force.

Into this mix step women and men who embrace the challenges and commit to changing the police profession in a manner that delivers an array of services, sometimes services that conflict with each other, to communities desperately seeking police protection.

Today, as this week's removal of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy suggests, police chiefs find themselves in a tenuous position.

They must strike a balance between protecting communities from terrorism, violent criminals and deranged individuals bent on killing large numbers of innocents; at the same time they are “letting their guard down” and implementing an array of community policing initiatives.

Police officers, and the labor organizations that represent them, are trying to figure out, as are their chiefs, how to protect themselves from an increased number of deadly attacks, at the same time as they are being told that “military tactics and equipment” threaten their relationship with communities. And more and more political leaders, seem quick to abandon the women and men they have recruited and asked to navigate these difficult waters.

If police chiefs, and the departments they lead, are to successfully navigate these turbulent times and accomplish their noble mission, they need the support of political, community and faith leaders who recognize the magnitude of the task they have asked these women and men to take on.

Instead of walking away from police chiefs and vilifying them, political leaders must stand with them, as they take on the challenging and dangerous work of protecting communities, changing embedded cultures, and seeking ways to better serve their communities.

Community and faith leaders must hold their police chiefs accountable as they endeavor to build relationships built on trust and legitimacy.

In the end, while we live in challenging times, they are times of great opportunity and promise. If we are to navigate them successfully, we have to stop looking for scapegoats, commit to sustainable action, and recognize that the path ahead is long, and the future uncertain.

Police chiefs, political, community and faith leaders must come together and stay together through good times and bad. We owe it to the communities we serve to get it right.

Frank Straub, Ph.D. is former chief of the Spokane Police Department.He welcomes readers' comments.

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