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Policing at the Speed of Trust

By Stephen M. R. Covey, Cofounder and Global Practice Leader, FranklinCovey’s Global Speed of Trust Practice, Alpine, Utah

hile there may be a few bad apples within the ranks, the overwhelming perception of the U.S. police is one of trust. And what a difference trust makes in how we view the world and what we can accomplish. Because of that critical difference, the first job of policing is to inspire trust. And the second job is to extend trust—that is, to give it to others.

The Mission: To Protect and To Serve

Policing is a duty of the highest honor—also of the highest responsibility, the highest visibility, and the greatest challenge. Excellence in carrying out the policing mission to protect and serve inspires trust. The people of law enforcement are and must be the best, the brightest, and the most dedicated in defending the laws, the ideals, and the citizens that make this country great. More than anything else, law enforcement must be trusted to carry out these duties with the highest level of ethics and character. The reason is because in many ways, law enforcement embodies and represents the ideal of the rule of law that governs civilized society.

The Issue: Perception

Defending and maintaining ideals in a society defined by constant change is often challenging, especially when public perception is often worse than the reality. This is especially true of the public perception of trust. Most people never stop to think about how present and pervasive the impact of trust is in every relationship, every organization, every interaction, and every moment of life. They assume trust. They take it for granted. They neglect it, underestimate it, and ignore it—until they lose it. Then they suddenly become painfully aware of it. The great investor Warren Buffett put it this way: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.”1

But there are significant social and economic consequences to low trust, just as there are significant social and economic benefits to high trust. When trust is low or even absent, everything takes longer and costs more. Think about your own experience. What additional time and effort does it take in low-trust situations to communicate and get things done? What costs are created by time wasted, missed deadlines, renegotiation, rework, or redundant effort? This is a tax: a low-trust tax. In high-trust situations, however, everything happens faster and costs less. Communication is open and fast. People can work together freely to maximize effort and avoid redundancy. This is a dividend—a high-trust dividend—and it is just as present in policing as it is in business and personal relationships.

New York University professor Tom Tyler, author of Trust in the Law, cites studies indicating that “legal and political systems work more effectively when people have trust and confidence in their authorities and institutions. Trusting citizens are more willing to follow the law, pay taxes, and take on obligations like fighting during wars. . . . These same social factors [are linked] to everyday deference to law and legal authorities.”2

According to U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, “Police can’t do their job unless they have the trust of the community. Trust is their passport. And every officer knows that and understands it.”3

Transparency International’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer shows that 63 percent of respondents perceive public officials and civil servants to be corrupt.4 This is a remarkable number of people saying, essentially, that they believe civil servants cannot be trusted to do the right thing nor to take care of the citizenry they serve. By contrast, police are one of the higher trust institutions in our society. A 2010 Gallup survey showed that while only 11 percent of Americans have “a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, 19 percent have this same level of confidence in big business, and 34 percent have this same level of confidence in the public schools, a clear majority—59 percent—have this level of confidence in the police.5 Though this figure may not be as high as we would all like, it is significant when compared to other institutions.

But how can perception be improved? Specifically, what can police chiefs and police officers do to build even greater trust, both within their organizations and with the communities they serve?

The Key: Credibility

The foundation on which all trust is built is credibility. In fact, in the long run, none of us ever has more trust than we have credibility. This is particularly true for police chiefs and law enforcement officers. The word credibility comes from the Latin term credere, which means “to believe.” Credibility literally means believability.

Credibility is made up of four foundational elements that make one believable both to oneself and to others—what I call the Four Cores of Credibility. The first two cores flow from character, and the second two grow out of competence. All four cores are necessary to build credibility and trust.

One way to visualize the importance and trust-building potential of these four cores is through the metaphor of a tree—a living, growing organism that can be nurtured. The first core, integrity, is essentially beneath the surface. Integrity refers to our honesty, our truthfulness, and our congruence. It is like the root system out of which everything else grows. The second core, intent, is like the trunk that emerges from beneath the surface and out into the open, becoming more visible. Intent refers to our motive and our agenda. The motive that best builds credibility and trust is caring; the agenda that best builds credibility and trust is mutual benefit or “win-win.” Integrity and intent are the two cores that flow out of character.

The third core, capabilities, is like the branches of the tree. These are the capacities that enable us to produce—our talents, our abilities, our skills, our expertise, and our knowledge. The fourth core, results, is like the fruits—the visible, tangible, measurable outcomes that are most easily seen and evaluated by others. Capabilities and results are the two cores that grow out of competence.

As people see the positive fruits of the tree—or the results that grow out of these four cores—credibility increases. For example, in a major break with Latin American tradition, community policing—where officers are assigned to a specific neighborhood for several years at a time—has made a huge positive impact. In Colombia, two-man teams of Bogotá’s 1,000 community police officers patrol areas of between 2,000 to 4,000 people, riding on bikes instead of in cars, working to build relationships with the residents, and participating in community- building affairs. In the early 1990s, the idea of crime prevention or cooperation with local residents in order to address the root causes of the situation was not even considered. Now it is evident that rethinking the approach to law enforcement and security has paid off. Today, Bogotá has the lowest homicide rate of any major city in the country.6

One reason is because, according to the Inter-American Development Bank,

public perceptions of law enforcement have been turned upside down. In a 1983 survey, 73 percent of Colombians interviewed said they had a negative image of the police. But in 2002, a survey conducted by the Javeriana University found that 85 percent of Bogotá residents said they had a positive view of community policing. In addition, 86.3 percent said the community policing program had addressed their needs and complaints, 99 percent said community police were friendly toward the public, and 86.5 percent said the police’s performance had improved.7

The Solution: Behavior

The most visible manifestation of the fruits of the four cores is behavior. By behavior, I mean our actions, our conduct, what we do, and how we do it. And in policing, what officers do and how they do what they do makes all the difference in inspiring trust.

Due to law enforcement leadership and individual officer excellence in improving and maintaining high-level competencies, competence is often the easier part. So the focus to create change shifts heavily to character, the key dimension every officer and chief must choose to work on personally.

My father, Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, often said, “A person’s character, once developed, becomes the armor that protects and the standard that inspires.” Los Angeles County Sherriff Lee Baca interprets this kind of character in the policing profession as becoming a “convincingly good” leader or law enforcement officer.8 My colleague, Commander Michael J. Nila (retired), in an article he coauthored with my father, succinctly put it this way: “The nobility of policing demands the noblest of character.”9

Despite some perceptions to the contrary, the reality is that most officers want to make a difference, serve the public, and strengthen communities. It is what draws most to the profession. This takes a tremendous strength of spirit and of character. But how can that character best be communicated to others in a way that will build trust?

The key is behavior. As former San Diego Police Officer Lance Wyckoff has said, “Only when law enforcement leadership makes it a priority to bring trust back into position as the number one competency, will the behavior change. And then the stereotype will change. Like a ripple in a pond.”10

Policing at the Speed of Trust: The 13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders

Behaviors of Character

1. Talk Straight

Be honest. Tell the truth. Let people know where you stand. Use simple language. Call things what they are. Demonstrate integrity. Don’t manipulate people or distort facts. Don’t spin the truth. Don’t leave false impressions.

Keep in mind the spirit of the Dell Incorporated Code of Conduct: “What we say is true and forthcoming—not just technically correct.”11

2. Demonstrate Respect

Genuinely care for others. Show you care. Respect the dignity of every person and every role. Treat everyone with respect, especially those who can’t do anything for you. Show kindness in the little things. Don’t fake caring. Don’t attempt to be “efficient” with people.

The respect an officer shows for the one can have an effect on the many. The more respectful officers are, the better and stronger the community partnership becomes.

3. Create Transparency

Tell the truth in a way people can verify. Get real and genuine. Be open and authentic. Err on the side of disclosure. Operate on the premise of “What you see is what you get.” Don’t have hidden agendas. Don’t hide information.

When trust is low, people don’t trust what they can’t see. What can you do? Open things up. Show that you have nothing to hide. The more transparent you are, the faster you will build trust.

4. Right Wrongs

When you’re wrong, make things right. Apologize quickly. Make restitution where possible. Practice “service recoveries.” Demonstrate personal humility. Don't try to cover things up. Don't let personal pride get in the way of doing the right thing.

We always pay a double tax for a cover-up—a tax for the original wrong, and then a 10 times or even 100 times tax for trying to cover it up. It’s far better to simply right the original wrong as immediately as possible.

5. Show Loyalty

Give credit to others. Speak about people as if they were present. Represent others who aren’t there to speak for themselves. Don’t bad-mouth others behind their backs. Do not disclose others’ private information.

The loyalty we show to the one quickly builds trust with the many. Building rapport fast is often essential for officers to find out what they need to know.

Behaviors of Competence

6. Deliver Results

Establish a track record of results. Get the right things done. Make things happen. Accomplish what you’re hired to do. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Don’t make excuses for not delivering.

Results matter! They matter enormously to our credibility and to the trust we create. People evaluate our results and performance on three key indicators: past performance, current performance, and anticipated performance. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow astutely observed, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.”12

7. Get Better

Continuously improve. Increase your capabilities. Be a constant learner. Develop feedback systems—both formal and informal. Act on the feedback received. Thank people for feedback. Don’t consider yourself above feedback. Don’t assume current knowledge and skills will be sufficient for tomorrow’s challenges.

The importance of improvement applies to mental, emotional, and physical health as well as to knowledge and competency. Don’t underestimate the critical need to tend to the mental and physical ramifications of the difficult job of policing.

8. Confront Reality

Tackle issues head on, even the “undiscussables.”Address the tough stuff directly. Acknowledge the unsaid. Lead out courageously in conversation. Don’t skirt the real issues. Don’t bury your head in the sand.

Jon Hunstman Sr., founder of the Huntsman Corporation, advises, “Leaders need to be more candid with those they purport to lead. Sharing good news is easy. When it comes to the more troublesome negative news, be candid and take responsibility. Don’t withhold unpleasant possibilities and don’t pass off bad news to subordinates to deliver.”13

9. Clarify Expectations

Disclose and reveal expectations. Discuss them. Validate them. Renegotiate them if needed and possible. Don’t violate expectations. Don’t assume that expectations are clear or shared.

Blaine Lee, one of the original founders of the Covey Leadership Center, said, “Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations.” 14 Law enforcement officers can avoid and resolve conflict by treating others with the dignity and respect they themselves would like to have. They can clarify expectations by modeling the behaviors they would like the public to demonstrate in return.

10. Practice Accountability

Hold yourself accountable. Hold others accountable. Take responsibility for results. Be clear on how you’ll communicate how things are progressing—and how others are doing. Don’t avoid or shirk responsibility. Don’t blame others or point fingers when things go wrong.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, says, “Remember, when you were made a leader, you weren’t given a crown; you were given a responsibility to bring out the best in others. For that, your people need to trust you.”15

Behaviors that Combine Character and Competence

11. Listen First

Listen before you speak. Understand. Diagnose before you prescribe. Listen with your eyes and heart as well as your ears. Find out what the most important behaviors are to the community. Don’t assume you know what matters most to others. Don’t presume to have all the answers or even all the questions. And don’t judge a book by its cover.

Perhaps more than any other behavior, this one—done well—can enable officers to build immediate rapport and ultimate trust in the communities they serve. To genuinely listen is to understand, and to really understand is to have more accurate, real-time decision-making information. In addition, helping people feel understood inspires trust and collaboration.

12. Keep Commitments

Say what you’re going to do. Then do what you say you’re going to do. Make commitments carefully and keep them at almost all costs—or communicate and renegotiate if you absolutely can’t. Making and keeping commitments is a symbol of honor. Don’t break confidences. Don’t attempt to “PR” your way out of a broken commitment.

Keeping commitments is especially important with today’s public focus on accountability and transparency. The research shows that making and keeping commitments is the number one behavior in growing trust.16

13. Extend Trust

Demonstrate a propensity to trust. Extend trust abundantly to those who have earned trust. Extend trust conditionally to those who are earning trust. Learn how to appropriately extend trust to others based on the situation, the risk, and the credibility of the people involved. Don’t withhold trust because there is risk involved.

The reason extending trust is so critical in policing is because trust tends to be reciprocal in nature. When we trust others, they tend to respond with trust. When we lead out with distrust, they respond back with distrust. So if we want to receive the trust of the community, we need to lead out by extending trust to them first. Abraham Lincoln said, “The people, when rightly and fully trusted, will return the trust.”17

There are numerous actions and behaviors that affect the trust in relationships—both internal relationships with our own people and external relationships with the public and communities we serve. At FranklinCovey’s Global Speed of Trust Practice, we have identified the 13 key behaviors that high-trust leaders—including police chiefs and law enforcement officers—have in common (see p. 64). The first 5 behaviors are primarily character-based; the second 5 are primarily competence-based. The last 3 are equal parts character and competence.

What is most exciting is that these 13 behaviors can be learned and applied by any influencer at any level within any organization. The net result for police chiefs and officers applying these behaviors is a significantly increased ability to generate trust inside the police department and with the public they serve in order to achieve better results.

In Conclusion: Becoming the Change We Seek

There are entire societies, such as New Zealand, where the police do not carry guns, and even conducted energy weapons are rare. Yet New Zealand has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Few contend that this could work in America, but the fact remains that trust is the key that enables people to work together, to accomplish goals together, and to do business with one another.

Trust is the essence of a civilized society. A high-trust society is more invested, more creative, more motivated, and harder working. Indeed, trust makes the world go round. Nothing is as inspiring as an offering of trust. And nothing is as fast as the speed of trust.

Ghandi challenged all of us to “be the change we seek in the world.” Law enforcement officers are in a unique position, each and every day, to change the world with one action, one smile, one handshake, and one extension of trust.

I encourage you to be the change you seek because when you do, the world will see. And when the world sees, perceptions, too, will change. And when perceptions change, trust, too, will increase. ■

Stephen M. R. Covey is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The SPEED of Trust and Global Practice Leader for FranklinCovey’s Global Speed of Trust Practice. For more information, visit For further information on Speed of Trust training, consulting, and offerings for law enforcement officers and leaders, please contact Preston Luke at 801-975-1776.


1Chris Sandlund, “Trust Is a Must: It’s Up to You,” Entrepreneur, October 1, 2002, (accessed August 16, 2011).
2Tom Tyler, “The State of Trust Today,” Forbes, September 25, 2006, (accessed August 16, 2011).
3“U.S. Atty ‘Erosion of Trust’ between SPD, Public Prompted DOJ Review,” KOMO News, January 28, 2011, (accessed August 16, 2011).
4Juanita Riaño, Finn Heinrich, and Robin Hodess, Global Corruption Barometer 2010 Report, (Berlin, Germany: Transparency International, 2010), (accessed August 16, 2011).
5Lydia Saad, “Congress Ranks Last in Confidence in Institutions,” Gallup 2010 Confidence in Institutions Poll, July 22, 2010, (accessed August 16, 2011).
6Charo Quesada, “The People’s Police: Why the Residents of Bogotá Have Come to Love Their Police Force, after Years of Suspicion and Resentment,” IDBAmerica, June 2004, (accessed August 16, 2011).
8Stephen R. Covey, The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (New York: The Free Press, 2004), 304.
9Stephen R. Covey and Michael J. Nila, “Enhancing Public Trust: It’s an Issue of Character and Leadership,” The Police Chief 70, no. 4 (April 2003): 129.
10Lance Wyckoff, interview, December 2010.
11Dell’s Code of Conduct: How We Win (Round Rock, Texas: Dell Inc., July 2010), (accessed August 16, 2011).
12J.D. McClatchy, ed., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2000), 703.
13John M. Huntsman, Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values We Learned as Children (but May Have Forgotten) (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2005), 37.
14Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: The Free Press, 2006), 192.
15Jack Welch, Winning (New York: Harper Business, 2005), 72.
16AMA/HRI Business Ethics Survey 2005, ; and World Economic Forum, Voice of the People Survey, 2002, conducted by Gallup International and Environics International, (accessed August 18, 2011).
17Jerry Johnston, “The Biggest Setback Is Our Nation’s Loss of Trust,” Deseret News, October 12, 2008, (accessed August 16, 2011).

Please cite as:

Stephen M. R. Covey, "Policing at the Speed of Trust," The Police Chief 78 October 2011): 58–70.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 10, October 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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