How to Transform the Culture of Your Police Department

Sydney R. Roberts

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Oct 27, 2022

Across the country, changes are starting to happen in our 18,000 local police departments – sometimes quietly, almost behind the scenes, and other times in big, noisy, awkward jolts. I could be talking about effective outreach to communities. Or more extensive officer training in use of force and de-escalation. Or the systematic implementation of procedural justice at every level of operations. But I’m not.

Although good things are happening in each of these areas, I’m talking about the department’s culture and the promising, if fitful and uneven, progress that some police executives are starting to make in improving and professionalizing the culture of their agencies.

How exactly does a chief go about changing the agency’s culture? While every department is different, there are best practices that can help affect change at the “esoteric” level of attitudes, behaviors and mindsets. It can be powerful for both officers and the public when an entire department collectively reflect these.

  1. Conduct a 360-Degree Survey of Your Department.
    First, don’t assume you have all the answers. Ask your constituencies – both inside and outside the department – for their insights and ideas. Develop a survey to elicit perceptions on the department’s culture and its various components. Make it anonymous to encourage authentic sharing.
  2. Undertake the Survey on a Periodic Basis.
    Data on its own doesn’t mean anything. Data tracked over time, however, highlights progress. Your first survey gives you a baseline. Your second and future surveys let you measure whether you’re making progress against your objectives, falling behind or stalling out.
  3. Measure the Perception Gap Between Officers and Your Community. Ask the same questions of both audience groups. That way you can examine gaps in perceptions and use that data to explore root causes, create potential solutions and precipitate good working discussions with various stakeholder groups.
  4. Be Transparent and Share the Survey Results Openly.
    How you elect to handle the survey results is critical. Let’s say your baseline survey returns data that identifies and confirms, for example, low morale among officers and distrust of the department among the community. Should you be open with the results or hide the data and hope for better numbers on the next survey?

    Be transparent and share it widely. Transparency ultimately builds trust. If the critics of your department are convinced that you are authentically committed to measuring results and improving over time, opportunities for real partnership may emerge.

    Moreover, even if your initial results are low, you can start to reinforce a positive narrative by driving hard to make some early changes, and then capture the measure of this progress with a new survey. Think of it this way: the lower your numbers are, the more easily you should be able to show movement in the right direction. That kind of “good news” tends to get many different stakeholder groups excited and invested in the outcomes.
  5. Get Yourself and Your Officers Out in the Community.
    Culture change starts at the top. Get out on the street. Visit the neighborhoods where the most conflicts occur with police. Doing so ensures that your understanding of matters “on the ground” is direct and not cycled through your command staff.

    Your presence also sends a message to the community and your officer corps. It tells them that having a strong relationship with the community is important to you and that you are personally invested in making the department’s culture more open and collaborative as well as more effective and efficient.

Of course, you could always decide not to conduct a survey. But is that the best idea? In the absence of data that accurately measures the perceptions of all your stakeholders, not just the loudest ones, you cede the greatest influence – and maybe even control – to “external” sources.

Without a complete picture of your department, it becomes easy for others to project their perspectives and, in some cases, tarnish your agency and its reputation with inaccurate narratives, disinformation, rumors, and even conspiracies. As the leader of your agency, you need to be the one who defines who and what your agency is.

Once you conduct your survey and share its findings with your stakeholders, the hard work to shape your culture begins. As for the three initiatives I referenced – community outreach, de-escalation training and a prioritization of procedural justice throughout the agency – focusing on taking actions that address these key issues will make your department’s culture vibrant, positive, collaborative and progressive.

Learn more about how Jensen Hughes’ law enforcement consulting services can help your agency improve oversight and management, promote transparency, and deepen community trust.

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About the author

Sydney R. Roberts, JD
A proven leader in police accountability, Sydney has provided insight and guidance on civil and human rights matters impacting law enforcement, including illegal search and seizure, denial of counsel and officer-involved shootings.