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Back to Archives | Back to November 2004 Contents 

A Chief’s Role in Prioritizing Civil Rights

By Charles A. Gruber, Chief of Police, South Barrington, Illinois, and Past President, International Association of Chiefs of Police

few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The museum is a testimony to the struggle for equality in this country and a fitting monument to the accomplishments of those individuals who devote their lives to preserving civil rights and bringing about justice for all people. While I enjoyed the tour very much, I confess that I walked slower the more I saw of the pictorial display of law enforcement throughout the museum. Picture after picture, headline after headline, step after step, I moved through the entire civil rights era. It seemed my steps were slow and tempered because I saw in those pictures and in those headlines a looming negativity about my profession—whether I saw sworn officers providing police escort for schoolchildren in the newly desegregated South or national guardsmen called at the request of some governor to restore municipal order, distressing pictures and words that depict police officers with canine units attacking citizens, sheriff’s deputies turning hoses on neighborhood residents, police officers on horses clubbing individuals with nightsticks or military style tear gas set off in an attempt to “control” crowds. Law enforcement— our profession, the government entity entrusted to protect and guard our citizens’ individual civil liberties—has a very visual history that had stopped me in my tracks. We, the police, either willingly or unwittingly contributed to history as participants in denying our citizens their constitutional and individual human and civil rights. It seemed that the police—the protectors—had become, in the eyes of many, the very source of the weight of the government against its own people. As I stepped out of the museum, I realized that in this part of our history we, the police, were used, and became antagonists for our role in denying people their individual human and civil rights.

While distressed by the portrayal of our profession I had witnessed in the Civil Rights Museum, I am also aware of the substantial steps taken by my predecessors and colleagues to combat this reputation and become sentinels of individual human and civil rights. I am heartened by the strides that are being made by law enforcement agencies throughout the country to contest this reputation and to become more the true guardians of civil rights. I know a police chief on the East Coast who requires all of his new hires to visit the Holocaust Museum in New York to appreciate the significance of the German police and the Nazi SS policing together through the streets of Germany—and we all know what happened there. He knows the value of building into his staff, from day one, respect for individual human and civil rights.

We, the police, are the instrument by which government enforces its laws, policies, and legal mores. No institution is more visible than the police. We are scrutinized daily for our actions, our inactions, what we did, what we didn’t do, our intentions. Our policies and procedures are debated daily in the newspapers and reviewed countlessly in the courts around the country. And, the most visual area in policing, use of force, continues to be the pinnacle issue for civil rights infractions.

In one sentence, our jobs as police chiefs is to put in place a policing organization that institutionalizes the proper values that emphasize the power of authority over the power of force. This can only be accomplished, in my experience, through visionary leadership. Our personal belief system—what we believe, why we believe it, and how we communicate it to our organization—is a precursor to our organization’s behavior. It is our belief system that brings it all together. We balance the mission with the vision; that is, our values are reflected in our policies and procedures. Our policies and procedures are based on our professional evaluation of what the law enforcement function is, again, based on what we believe. We train our officers in the programs and approaches to law enforcement reflected in our policies and procedures that, of course, reflect what we believe. We hold accountable ourselves and our officers and even, at times, our community for adherence to those policies and procedures, which of course, are all based on our beliefs. Can you see how everything comes full circle? We are what we believe.

At some time, all police chiefs face incidents that challenge their vision and leadership. We must have in place mission statements and values that rethink our traditional use-of-force strategies and concentrate on the problem-solving police skills that we have learned through community policing. And, most importantly, we must train our police officers how not to use force.

When I was a police chief in Elgin, Illinois, my detectives had tracked down a wanted murderer who we knew was armed. Our detectives notified SWAT to be prepared and put in place a plan to effectuate the arrest. There is no question in my mind that the suspect who committed the murder had the ability to do it again. He was a known gangster and the murder had been committed execution style. He was, however, staying in his girlfriend’s home in a high-density residential neighborhood, and we knew that at least one, and possibly two, small children were in the residence as well. The SWAT commander developed a plan to wait until two o’clock in the morning and then execute a full SWAT assault entry while the residents slept. They brought their plan to me and I rejected it outright. I wanted something that did not place innocent persons (and my officers) at such great risk. Frustrated, my SWAT commander approached me later and became more insistent that we execute his plan. When I asked him why, he exclaimed, “But Chief, this is what we train for!”

That was the problem. My SWAT commander was right. That is what we train for, and therein lay our leadership dilemma. Maybe we are training for the wrong things. We train for force but we don’t spend enough time problem solving to ensure that we are using the least possible force necessary. For every hour we spend training our officers in the skills necessary to deescalate conflict and to avoid the use of force, we spend many more hours teaching officers use-of-force tactics. The message is clear to our officers: use of force is not only appropriate but it is the favored tool for controlling subjects and situations. By the way, I came up with a quick plan to apprehend the suspect—namely, to sit outside the residence and wait until he came out. And that’s what we did. The next morning he went outside to get the newspaper and we arrested him without incident.

Police chiefs have a responsibility to put in place a system of truth and consequences. Our mission must be clear with regard to civil rights, our values statements must be unambiguous and effectively communicated, we must support and reward positive behaviors starting at the top and working our way down to every single officer, and, most importantly, we must have in place a system that holds accountable all personnel for their actions. What good is it to publish values statements that offer rhetoric about valuing human life and dignity, civil liberties, and high standards of integrity, and then ignore police officer misconduct and civil rights violations for the good of the order or to save the organization from embarrassment?

There is a great dichotomy in law enforcement. On the one hand, we are tasked with the responsibility of upholding all citizens’ constitutional rights, including their civil rights to be free from unnecessary use of force, and to not be unreasonably detained or searched. On the other hand, we are the arm of the government empowered and sanctioned to enforce laws and protect law-abiding citizens from non-law-abiding citizens. And yet our mission tasks us with respecting the rights of all individuals. This balance is not an easy task and challenges our police leadership daily. Does respecting individual human and civil rights make us soft on crime? Is being tough on crime a rule of engagement between our officers and citizens that aborts the civil rights of our citizens? I believe that some of our officers get a clear message from leadership that it does, but we know that it does not.

For law enforcement, the advent of community policing has greatly contributed to changes for the better. Law enforcement leaders want to become more responsive to our citizens and to protecting their civil liberties while serving the police mission effectively. I have visited numerous police departments throughout the country, many of whom are fraught with civil rights violations and systemic abuses. While dismayed at the abuses (and they are unconscionable) I am encouraged by the many, many police chiefs and supervisors who are committed to change and committed to the sincere implementation of community policing ideals and practices that are respectful of individual human and civil rights. Police professional organizations, too, are committed to this goal and have conducted honest research into the issues that face us and are working as we speak to help us create the necessary tools we need to achieve our goal of respectful policing.

As police chiefs, what are our tasks? First and foremost, we have to believe in the fundamental responsibility of law enforcement to protect civil rights. We can’t talk the talk and not walk the walk. We cannot publish specific mission and values statements that validate individual civil rights and then implement police policies and practices that tacitly condone civil rights abuses. We cannot enact specific use-of-force reporting policies and then not hold individual officers and their supervisors accountable for their actions or omissions. Our work must be proactive. Officers must be trained properly and then held accountable for their actions, including discipline.

Police chiefs must have the following:

1. Vision and leadership. Chiefs must fully appreciate the importance and complexity of reducing and eliminating civil rights violations internally and externally. They must take the agency in that direction through their actions in both word and deeds.

2. Mission and values statements. The police department must possess a clearly defined mission statement and values statements that reflect our responsibility for the constitutional protection of human and civil rights. The stated values must be reiterated in written policies as well as unwritten practices within the police department.

3. Training, retraining, and training again. Department policies are ineffective unless they are intellectually and practically processed by the field supervisors who communicate them to the police officers and enforce them. Training is paramount to our mission of accountability.

4. The knowledge that the concepts of community policing and the concepts of protecting human and civil rights are inseparable. They are one and the same. And for law enforcement you can’t have one without the other.

As I continued to walk in Memphis that day, I was struck by a revelation about how politically defined law enforcement was at that time with regard to the civil rights movement. Civil rights proponents were represented to the left and the police were represented on the right. And it seemed that the two were diametrically opposed. I believe it is our challenge in law enforcement to bridge that gap and to continue to build the communication necessary to bring us together. I think we can agree that as a people, as profession, and as a country, we have come a long way since the 1960s with regard to individual civil rights. The civil rights movement in this country was revolutionary. The law enforcement movement, or what I like to refer to as community policing, is evolutionary. And the truth is that by many accounts we still have a lot evolving to do. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has been in existence for well over 110 years and is widely respected as being at the forefront of policing issues, but it wasn’t until 1989 that we even formed a civil rights committee. My point is that we have one now and it is working well.

I am hopeful that instead of taking small steps and lamenting unprofessional police conduct as I did at the Civil Rights Museum we begin the process for taking bold steps providing the visionary leadership that will ensure respectful, professional policing that honors the human and civil rights of all our citizens.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 11, November 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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