Dear PERF members, 

Last Saturday’s Trending column generated more feedback than anything I have ever written in my 25 years at PERF. It struck a nerve that seems to permeate policing: we have a culture that is resistant to Monday-morning quarterbacking.

It was gratifying to hear from many chiefs who have already started what the column suggested. They are having those uncomfortable conversations about use of force – conversations that for too long have been blocked by the prevailing police culture.

Chief Dan Slaughter from Clearwater, Florida routinely takes videos of controversial incidents from the Internet, has his folks review them, and then asks them what they would do differently.

Chief Jeff Spivey from Irving, Texas regularly challenges his officers to consider different scenarios. What would happen, for example, if officers were faced with a relatively minor offense, but for various reasons it could be difficult to make an arrest?  If the officers knew the suspect’s identity and his address, what would make them decide to take action right away, versus letting the person go and making the arrest later?

Aurora, Illinois Chief Kristen Ziman brought her commanders together last Monday and showed them video of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. This started a conversation about policy and tactics.

Randolph “Tex” Alles, who was head of the Secret Service and a Major General in the Marine Corps, told me that they would have a “hot wash” after every major event. He used his Marine Corps experience to look at any operation where there was an opportunity for self-improvement.

What I took away from all of these comments was an enthusiasm for opening up these conversations, and the courage to challenge their personnel to learn from these incidents.

Some of you wrote about “sentinel event” reviews, which are similar to the model used by the NTSB to learn from airplane crashes and other transportation disasters. Chief Chris Magnus wrote about the Tucson Police Department’s newly formed Sentinel Event Review Board, which has been reviewing the events that led to an in-custody death in Tucson last April.

Sentinel event reviews are important, and they can help spot mistakes and improve performance. But I am talking about something very different, and in many ways is easier, because it doesn’t involve examining events that happened in your own department and involved your officers.

It is taking the videos that we all see almost every day from across the country, and asking the “what-ifs” as applied to your own department. It’s about asking, “How would our officers react to these situations?  What might we have done differently or better?”

I’m envisioning this as an exercise that would happen routinely, after pretty much any high-profile incident. This can’t be just a one-off exercise. It needs to become part of the DNA of your department.  Having open and honest conversations. Real give-and-take that solicits feedback from all levels of the department.

And the end-product can’t be just the discussion itself.  It has to involve changes to policy and improvements in training that result from the conversation. For chiefs and sheriffs, these conversations can significantly improve how they handle these incidents. That can mean changes in tactical decision-making, defusing incidents, how information is conveyed to the community, and how these lessons are captured in future training.

As Professor Charles Wellford reminded me, this is what business schools do every day when they use the case-study approach. It is designed to generate open discussion and identify lessons learned. For most police agencies, however, this represents a dramatic shift in culture.

Over the past five years, PERF’s staff has routinely circulated among ourselves videos of officer-involved shootings and other police encounters. We ask each other what should have been done or could have been done differently. We don’t always agree with each other, but we challenge each other to think more clearly and astutely.

At PERF, we experienced the culture issue firsthand back in 2015, when we issued our Guiding Principles on Use of Force. We received some pushback from people who said our recommendations were going to “get officers hurt.”  (Of course that has not occurred, and our Guiding Principles that once seemed controversial, such as the sanctity of life, proportionality, duty to intervene, and “slowing the situation down,” have become the new conventional wisdom.)

As we developed our ICAT training, we incorporated actual videos of officer-involved shootings throughout the training. Some of the videos show officers going above and beyond to successfully de-escalate situations. Others show questionable tactics with painful outcomes.

When we initially rolled out the training, again we experienced pushback. Tom Wilson and Dan Alioto, who oversee the ICAT program, would notice the body language among many officers – arms folded, leaning back in their chairs. And the comments, like, “We are already doing this,” or “We don’t know all the facts about this incident,” or “You are going to get cops hurt.”

We have come to realize that this pushback comes with the territory. There is a natural tension that comes with having these discussions. But at the end of the day, that tension is healthy and productive. What is not healthy is silence.

I should note that we have seen progress. Since PERF released ICAT in 2016, we have helped many agencies to implement it, and we have seen agencies becoming more accepting of conversations and critiques related to serious uses of force and critical incidents.

There is one critically important variable in all of this, and that is the role of the chief or sheriff in leading these conversations. Because that is where it all starts – with the chief or sheriff. This is a responsibility that cannot be delegated.

As the chief executive, you can’t just start this conversation and walk out of the room, handing it off to a subordinate. You have to own it. You have to make people feel safe having these discussions. And you have to be prepared for pushback.

Most of all, you must lead. You must be the catalyst.  And if you don’t feel confident doing this by yourself, then find someone from outside the department who can assist you.

As the leader of your department, you are the holder of the agency’s culture. You set the tone. You reinforce what is important. And by having these conversations, you are sending a message that the discussions are important and that continuous improvement is essential.

Having uncomfortable conversations is a sign of a healthy department. A department that is not having these discussions is a department that is next in line for a disaster waiting to happen. I am grateful to my colleague and friend Mary Ann Wycoff, who has taught me so much about the value of difficult conversations that improve performance.

Events of the past few months have demonstrated that policing needs to change – and change fast. What better way to change than to learn from one another? After all, what happens in one city now impacts all of us.

If we’re going to get better, if we’re going to turn the corner, then all 18,000 police agencies in the United States need to be Monday-morning quarterbacks every week. Until we do that, the profession will not change.

I really was gratified by the positive reaction to what we wrote last week. There is tremendous enthusiasm in the field for this major change, and many of you have been doing this already.  The challenge is that we need everyone to get on board.

Please keep me updated on the conversations that are going on in your agency.

I hope you’re able to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, and thanks for all you do for your cops and the community. 

Best,

Chuck