September 19, 2020

Police Executives Need to Monday-Morning Quarterback Themselves Too


Dear PERF members, 

As we continue to underscore the importance of Monday-morning quarterbacking, we need to recognize that despite all your best efforts, there will be incidents that will test the leadership abilities of chiefs and sheriffs. As we examine these cases, we should always ask this question: “How did the chief or sheriff do in leading their department through these crises?”

In other words, the focus of Monday-morning quarterbacking needs to go beyond how officers and front-line supervisors acted. It has to include a critical examination of how an agency’s top leaders performed as well. Police executives need to Monday-morning quarterback themselves too.

The good news is that in most agencies, the culture of leadership at the top recognizes the challenges of managing crises – and the importance of preventing one incident from defining your entire department.

Tell your officers to always bring bad news to you.

The first step in this process is knowing that an incident has happened in the first place, and recognizing its significance. 

This is where the culture of policing often works against the chief or sheriff. 

John Timoney, who grew up in the NYPD and then held the top jobs in Philadelphia and Miami, once told me that for police executives, there are two givens in almost every critical incident. The first is that the initial information you get is usually wrong. The second is that cops will tell you what they think you want to hear.  

I remember being in Boston in June 2008 with Ed Davis, who was Police Commissioner at the time. It was the sixth game of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers. I asked Ed if I could spend the evening with him, as Boston has the blessing of winning teams, but the curse of things going south on the streets of the city after a big win.

The Celtics won, and things seemed to be going well. As fans were celebrating, Ed was being briefed on the night’s incidents. The field commander assured Ed that everything was fine. There had been one arrest and a bit of a fight with a college student who had gone into cardiac arrest, but the student should be okay. Unfortunately, the next day we learned that the student had died, and of course it was a huge issue.

Getting information from the field that is accurate and timely is a must for police executives. They need to probe and pry and insist on getting the full story, even if others are reluctant to bring bad news to the boss.

Ignore the lawyers.  Release information in the first news cycle.

So let’s say you are able to get accurate information about a tragic, unfortunate, or ugly incident. What are some of the lessons that chiefs and sheriffs should heed about what to do with that information?

The first lesson is to get bad news out fast. I knew the Chairman of American Airlines, Al Casey, and he used to say, “Never sit on bad news, and if anything, hold back good news to bring in with the bad news.”

That is simple, straightforward advice, but it is often hard to follow in a police agency. Why? Because of three main obstacles: lawyers, prosecutors, and politicians.

Police department or city lawyers will tell you not to make any statements or release any videos, because that may acknowledge fault or create liability. Prosecutors will tell you not to speak, because it may interfere with the investigation. And politicians – mayors, council members, county executives or their staffs – may press you to hold back information if they think it may harm their political prospects. 

In addition, it is not uncommon to have your own top people advise against releasing information, “until you have all the facts.”

So what is a police executive to do? Very simply, ignore their advice! Get the facts you know out in the very first news cycle, especially if it’s bad news.

In the words of Chuck Ramsey, “Bad news isn’t like wine – it doesn’t get better with age.”

And follow the advice of the NYPD’s John Miller: Make sure you stipulate that the information you are releasing is preliminary, and will almost certainly change as more facts become known. 

Why is it so important to get information out fast? Because if you don’t, others will. You’ll see police union representatives talking about the incident on TV, along with various attorneys, advocates, and experts. Reporters have column-inches and airtime to fill, so they will find someone to interview, even if it’s random people on the street in the neighborhood where the incident happened.

Here’s a sure sign of trouble for a police chief:  An incident has made headlines, and the chief isn’t speaking, but the union president is. 

Letting others shape the story at the beginning sets the chief up for credibility problems when the full story eventually comes out (which it always does).  

In the last few months, I had a police chief tell me that he couldn’t talk publicly about an incident, “but there were important facts, and when they came out, that would shed light on the matter.” So he didn’t talk, and there was a huge public outcry and protests when the information became public.

Two good examples of what to do

Here are two recent positive examples of chiefs who were forthcoming with information following a critical incident, and why that is important.

In June, Fairfax County, VA officers responded to a man in crisis in the middle of a residential street. As they were attempting to establish rapport and de-escalate the situation, another officer arrived and immediately deployed his Taser multiple times on the unarmed man. The entire episode was captured on officers’ body-worn cameras. Chief Ed Roessler promptly released the video to the public, saying the officer’s actions “exceeded the boundaries of law, policy and professionalism.”

And earlier this month in Washington, DC, Chief Peter Newsham released body-worn camera video of a potentially controversial officer-involved shooting less than 24 hours after the incident. Officers had been alerted to two men live-streaming from a vehicle while holding semi-automatic weapons. When they spotted the vehicle and the occupants fled, officers pursued on foot. One officer rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the gunman. The officer fired once, striking and killing the man. Tensions in the community were high that night, with rumors that the officer had shot the man in the back. Releasing the video quickly allowed the community to see what happened and helped to ease some of the tension.  

In both instances, the prompt demonstration of transparency at least helped to take the notion of a “cover up” off the table. Being open and transparent may not completely eliminate public skepticism or anger, but it can help turn down the temperature. In many instances, releasing information can provide additional clarification or context to a situation that wouldn’t otherwise come out. And it says a lot about the chiefs and their character and integrity when they are forthcoming.

Don’t be afraid to take responsibility.

Another important lesson in managing a crisis is taking responsibility. When your department is wrong, acknowledge it. Apologize. As former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard always likes to say, “When you mess up, you ’fess up.”

Many examples of this come to mind.

In Boston, then-Commissioner Paul Evans was awakened one night by a longtime friend, a lieutenant on the department. He told Paul that the drug squad had made a mistake and hit the wrong address, terrifying a Black minister who subsequently died of a heart attack. Because Paul had been immediately notified of the facts, he was able to quickly and publicly apologize to the family and the entire Black community. Taking responsibility helped to prevent a terrible situation from becoming even worse.

David Couper, when he was chief in Madison, Wisconsin, displayed similar leadership when he was told that a sergeant had made racially troublesome comments over the radio. David brought her to a meeting of Black community leaders, where she apologized and took responsibility. And in addition to handing down a five-day suspension, David ordered the sergeant to perform community service. Responsibility and reconciliation.

When she was Boston Police Commissioner, Kathy O’Toole learned that on the night the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 American League Championship Series, an officer outside Fenway Park deployed a pepper ball that struck a 21-year-old college student in the eye. She later died at the hospital. Kathy immediately met with the parents to offer her condolences.

In New York City, after a sergeant shot an elderly woman who was holding a baseball bat while other officers were still negotiating with her, then-Police Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill said, “The NYPD failed today.” His remarks upset many rank-and-file members, but they sent a strong and unequivocal message to the community and to his officers.

When Chuck Ramsey was Philadelphia Police Commissioner, he learned that some DUI equipment used to measure blood alcohol content had been calibrated incorrectly, thereby jeopardizing thousands of drunk driving cases. When asked how this happened, Ramsey had a simple answer: “We screwed up.”

And in the wake of a major corruption case in the 30th Precinct in Harlem, then-New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton went into the precinct and held up the badge of one of the officers who had been arrested and said, “No New York police officer will ever wear this badge again.” It was a powerful acknowledgment – within the department and to the community – of the gravity of the situation.

None of these actions could undo the mistakes made by the police departments, but they were good responses to bad situations, and they likely prevented further damage to the communities’ trust in the police.

All of these examples point to something important. Chiefs and sheriffs need to develop a culture that rewards the ready flow of accurate information within their organizations. In a healthy department, subordinates are not afraid to deliver bad news up the chain, and leaders “don’t shoot the messenger” when they do.

Importantly, police executives need to model these behaviors themselves. They need to be the ones insisting that the information they get is complete and accurate. They need to stand up to the department lawyers, prosecutors, politicians, and maybe their own commanders who are not inclined to promptly release information – including videos – to the public. And they need to acknowledge mistakes, accept responsibility, and apologize when apologies are in order.

So the next time you hold one of your Monday-morning quarterbacking sessions, make sure you look beyond the actions of the front-line personnel. How did the chief executive and the command staff perform? Did they follow the principles of openness, honesty, and transparency? What did they do well, and what could they have done better?

For our profession to improve and for the culture to change, chiefs and sheriffs need to be Monday-morning quarterbacking themselves, the same way they do with officers on the street. 

Have a good weekend.  Thanks for everything you do.