July 9, 2022

The value of steady leadership during anxious times


Dear PERF members,

Thursday’s PERF Daily Clips included a Washington Post article by Marc Fisher that I really liked (and not just because I was quoted!). Fisher described “just how anxious and jittery” the country has become. “The good news about Monday’s celebration of the country’s 246th birthday was that large numbers of people felt safe enough to attend traditional parades, concerts and fireworks shows, many of which had been suspended or scaled back during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic,” Fisher wrote. “But the edginess in the crowds was palpable in one city after another.”

I think Fisher captures something we’re all sensing right now: Americans are anxious. The past two years, and even just the past couple months, have left people on edge.

Unfortunately, there are legitimate grounds for many of their fears. Mass shootings, while a small portion of overall gun violence, are on the rise. Homicides sharply increased over the past two years. Drug overdose deaths increased by nearly 50% from 2019 to 2021, and traffic fatalities increased 18% over the same period. And, of course, there have been more than one million U.S. deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That all contributed to a 1.8-year decrease in U.S. life expectancy from 2019 to 2020, with 2021 data expected to show a further decrease, leading to “a decline not experienced since 1943, the deadliest year for Americans in World War II.”

In addition to these mortality risks, people are anxious about societal changes. In the spring of 2020, society as we know it was turned upside down.  Kids weren’t going to school, many people weren’t going to work, and some hardly left their homes. The summer of 2020 brought widespread demonstrations and, in some cities, rioting and looting. In January 2021, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to interrupt the democratic process. Since February, people have been exposed to horrific images of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And in the past two months, mass shooters have killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 7 people at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois.

In anxious times like these, people look for leaders. I think local law enforcement officers – including police chiefs, sheriffs, district commanders, and cops on the beat – are well positioned to fill that role. Despite concerns about the country at large, people are largely positive about their local communities. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 24% of people said they were satisfied with the way things were going in this country, but 65% said they were satisfied with the way things were going in their local community.

And people are generally confident in the police. In a late-2021 Pew Research Center poll, 69% of people said they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the police to act in the best interests of the public, behind only scientists and the military. This was down from 78% in early 2020, but it was well above the 24% of people who report having a great deal or fair amount of confidence in elected officials. I see these challenging times as opportunities to make a difference in the lives of those who most need the support of good policing.  

That leadership can come from any level. In just this past week, we’ve seen it from patrol officers across the country. In Highland Park, officers ran towards danger when they heard gunshots during their city’s Independence Day parade. Officers in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, put their own lives at risk while pulling a 55-year-old man out of a burning vehicle. And in Norwalk, Connecticut, officers saved a man on the ledge of a bridge over Interstate 95.

Two years ago, I wrote a column about “the good cop,” an honorific that I’ve heard repeatedly over the years but is hard to define. As I wrote in that column, “when you are in crisis and need help, there is nothing better than a good cop.” The officers in Highland Park, Ridgefield Park, and Norwalk exemplify “the good cop,” and show how a response from the right officer at the right time can be the difference between life and death.

Recent mass shootings have shown the value of strong leadership from police chiefs and sheriffs. In the immediate aftermath of these incidents, people look to their leaders for reassurance and a steady hand. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia filled that need after 10 people were killed in a mass shooting at a supermarket in May. The day after the shooting, he spoke plainly about the shooter’s motivations. “The evidence we have uncovered so far makes no mistake,” Commissioner Gramaglia said. “This is an absolute racist hate crime that will be prosecuted as a hate crime. This is someone who has hate in their heart, soul and mind.”

In this statement, Commissioner Gramaglia showed an understanding of his community’s fears, a willingness to publicly confront the racist aspect of this massacre, and the courage to lead the community through one of the most painful moments in its history.  

Police like Commissioner Gramaglia excel during times of enormous stress. Officers run towards danger and calmly respond when others may panic. Chiefs provide steady guidance and reassure communities that someone shares their concerns and will help lead them through life’s greatest struggles. Police officers’ willingness to risk their lives to save others is perhaps our profession’s most distinguishing characteristic. 

A programming note

I began writing this Trending column on February 15, 2020, right before we were hit by the first wave of the pandemic, and since then I’ve sent you 123 of these updates. I enjoy the opportunity to stay in touch with PERF’s membership and share my thoughts, while recognizing the many challenges you face and your need for an occasional laugh.  Some of my favorites have been those less serious columns, like the one about police “stuff” and the one about my favorite movie: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. You all work extremely hard during the week, so on Saturday mornings, I try to inspire you, make you think, or make you laugh. 

But it’s been tough to keep this schedule all summer as I’ve been traveling back and forth to Boston for SMIP, so I’m going to take a hiatus for the rest of July and August. I’ll be in Boston spending time with the SMIP students (and maybe catching a Sox game), in Baltimore checking in our internship program with the Baltimore Police Department, and in Washington managing PERF’s many other projects, including a few new ones. I’ll also be taking a little time off to be with my family, which I haven’t done enough of lately. This column will be back in September (unless there’s a topic I can’t resist writing about before then). Have a great summer – you all deserve it!