Leadership Consciousness in Policing

Tragedies have the potential to claim thousands of lives, injure thousands more, , and generally cause disruption. Large-scale events such as the plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, New York; the backpack bombing at the Boston Marathon (Massachusetts); or, more recently, the major landslide that collapsed an entire street in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, bring these tragic events and their effects to the national stage. These events also elevate the consciousness of the courage of first responders in the face of pain, loss, and destruction.

Long before disaster strikes, police officers are seen serving throughout communities. Their uniforms, shields, and police cars are visible reminders of the decision each of these individuals made—to put service before self. Answering the call of the policing profession and to the role of leadership in these organizations is not to be taken lightly. The professional safety standards these individuals vow to uphold are surpassed only by the requirement that they exercise high levels of personal responsibility. The hallmark of that responsibility is to model behavior that is beyond reproach and that breeds positivity in the neighborhoods they serve. With this call to action, it becomes the duty of every member to be an agent for change in order to influence and design a sustainable culture of leadership consciousness within police organizations. Leadership consciousness can be understood as the awareness that there are consequences for all of the actions that one takes—either positive or negative—and that, as a public official, one has the ability to influence people through the authority of one’s position. So while police officers’ authority to take action in times of emergency is noble, their authority to influence a positive model within the community and throughout their agencies is just as significant.

Police officers are some of the most highly trained professionals in the U.S. workforce. They receive hundreds of hours of instruction to meet state certification requirements and countless hours of in-service training to maintain these credentials. They are taught to exercise this training during the course of their duties, and they revert to these teachings as second nature to enhance survival efforts during stressful situations. But leadership consciousness challenges law enforcement officials to train themselves not only to take action in the face of danger, but to weigh the implications of their actions and behaviors. They must consider the weight of their actions and how those outcomes could potentially affect themselves, their organization, and the community at large.

Leadership consciousness requires leaders to examine their thoughts and beliefs. This process requires honesty and recognition of the visibility and impact they have as others model their behaviors in reverence or rebellion to authority. As the character Julius Campbell in a well-known movie, Remember the Titans, states, “Attitude reflects leadership.”1

From the police officer on the front line responding to calls for service, to the department head of an agency, each individual has to have the consciousness to know that his or her every move and every action is being watched, critiqued, and followed by somebody. Officers need to realize that, by virtue of the positions they hold, the public’s perception is reality.

Former police commissioner of Baltimore City, Maryland, Leonard Hamm, once offered this sage advice in an address to a graduating class of the police academy: “Do what’s right in the face of what’s wrong.” One’s actions or behaviors have the potential to defy, or exemplify, departmental policies, local ordinances, or state and federal laws; therefore, officers should remember and honor the oath they took regarding their position.2 This oath should lead officials to examine their moral compass and act in a professional manner at all times.

In the wake of massive corruption scandals throughout the United States and the world, the face of public safety is being sullied by the actions of a few rogue officers. With every report of another incident in which officers decide to act outside of their prescribed training and oath of office, the public safety profession receives a black eye, and it cuts away at the fabric of society and the organizations their positions were created to uphold.

Respect is a vital ingredient in creating an effective public safety organization. When officials choose not to obey the laws themselves, the respect, public approval, and support that these offices are expected to garner, vanishes without a trace. Sir Robert Peele authored the Nine Principles of Law Enforcement in 1829; the foundation of all of those principles still hold true today, but the principle that resonates most strongly throughout the centuries is Principle Two.

The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior, and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.3

Throughout history, police misconduct has exposed the absence of internal, organizational, and community leadership. From the Rampart Scandal to the “stop-and-frisk” practices of the New York City Police Department, the inability to build rapport and create a positive working influence within communities contributes to a lack of public trust and a “us-against-them” mentality. This is not an indictment on the entire police profession—the majority of the individuals who serve within these organizations take pride in the jobs that they do and provide the highest quality of service to citizens of their communities.

These incidents of misconduct should serve as “lessons” as to how the failure of leadership consciousness can dismantle any organization. Law enforcement leaders and experts often speak of preparedness within the public safety field and attach the agenda of the day to it, but, perhaps, law enforcement professionals should view preparedness as the cognitive recognition of awareness. So, while agencies ensure that they have the right crime plan in place to take back the streets, and the latest equipment to respond to potential threats and dangers, they should not forget to make sure that they have the right people who exercise the highest level of ethical and moral behavior in the face of the communities they serve.

In a position of such great magnitude, fiduciary responsibility, and visibility, everything matters. People don’t usually give their behaviors or actions a second thought unless they have potential for adverse implication or consequences. Police are watched almost as much as the members of professional sports teams. Police officers have a duty to represent themselves and their organizations in a professional manner every time they put on their uniforms or engage in any way with the public. In the end, leadership consciousness within policing is the ability to understand that one represents something bigger than oneself. Each day, officers carry the reputations and images of fellow colleagues on their shoulders with every action and behavior that they exhibit, and it’s important to never underestimate the impact that their actions and behaviors will have on someone else. There is a famous quote, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, that resonates with and exemplifies the concept of leadership consciousness: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” ♦

Samuel Johnson Jr., is the regional training and exercise coordinator in the Baltimore, Maryland, Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, where he is responsible for providing emergency-preparedness training to more than 5,000 public-service professionals.

A former Baltimore police officer who also held a managerial position with the Baltimore Housing Authority, Johnson was recently recognized in Forbes Magazine as one of the Top 30 Law and Policy professionals Under 30 in the United States. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University Police Executive Leadership Program.

1 Gregory Allen Howard, Remember the Titans, directed by Boaz Yakin (Walt Disney Pictures, 2000).
2 International Association of Chiefs of Police, “What Is the Law Enforcement the Oath of Honor?” http://www.theiacp.org/What-is-the-Law-Enforcement-Oath-of-Honor (accessed January 6, 2015).
3 Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement 1829,” Durham Constabulary, https://www.durham.police.uk/About-Us/Documents/Peels_Principles_Of_Law_Enforcement.pdf (accessed January 7, 2015).

Please cite as:

Samuel Johnson, Jr., “Leadership Consciousness in Policing,” The Police Chief 82 (February 2015): web only, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/leadership-consciousness-in-policing.

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