No one likes making mistakes, but admitting to them can be an even more loathsome prospect. In policing though, there is no better way to move forward – not just from the mistake but as an industry as a whole. Recent surveys show that people have less confidence in the police on a national level, and much of that is borne out of a loss of public trust.
Interestingly, those same surveys show that the public does have greater faith in their local police officers. At first glance, it’s hard to know exactly why there is a difference. Based on what I have seen in my career, I believe it stems from the relationships local departments have developed with members of their community. That provides a foundation for a greater level of trust between citizens and police.
Often times, a critical reason for that trust comes from acknowledging when errors are made by police officers. More often than not, people base their beliefs on the experiences they have had, and when they know a mistake has been made and handled correctly, it builds trust. The reason is pretty simple: everyone makes mistakes, and people generally understand that reality.
From my perspective, police officers make two types of errors: mistakes of the mind and mistakes of the heart. A police chief must recognize the difference and be ready to deal with both.
Everyone makes mistakes of the mind – backing a car without making sure it is clear. For police officers, they range from a momentary lapse of judgment to facing spur of the moment decisions in crisis situations. The reason we give our officers so much training is so they react instinctively during those instances, but as I have seen time and again, no textbook can cover the multitudes of complex issues coming together at the same time. And when that happens, errors are sometimes made.
Mistakes of the heart are different – they occur when an officer makes a decision knowing at the time they take the action that it is wrong. One example is the police officer who conducts a search without meeting the legal threshold and discovers incriminating evidence; then takes steps to “improve the facts” in order to get the necessary search warrant.
Both mistakes must be dealt with immediately, although handled in different ways. Both may call for further training to help ensure the officer understands why the mistake was made and how not to in the future. But mistakes of the heart require the use of disciplinary measures. At times it may require termination of employment after taking a look at the officer’s past mistakes.
In some of these instances – typically more frequently with mistakes of the heart – it is necessary to address those issues publicly. That’s usually based on a couple of factors: how egregious was the error? What is the level of harm? Sometimes the issues are presented to the public as a whole; other times, it is simply to the person who was affected by the behavior. In both cases though, the explanation must include not only what happened but what the department is doing to ensure similar mistakes are not made.
The key in preventing both types of mistakes is for officers to understand what is expected of them. That starts with the chief and is reinforced throughout the command structure. These expectations must be clear so everyone in the department understands them thoroughly.
Ultimately, it is communicating clear expectations and reinforcing them on a day to day basis that the culture of the department is established and maintained. Police officers are human beings engaged in sorting out complex and emotionally charged situations – they are bound to make mistakes. It is how the department responds to them that will determine whether or not trust will be won or lost.
There’s one other way where being proactive and truthful is a benefit. The fact that a department acknowledged an error in the past, explaining that it didn’t happen in the way it should have nor how the officer wanted it to happen, only helps trust to grow with the public. When you tell people you’ve made a mistake, they are more likely to believe what you say in the future.
Through transparency and a culture that emphasizes service, we can heal the divide between the police and community. The public has granted police tremendous authority, and with that comes great responsibility. The old maxim – treat others as you would like to be treated – applies to policing tenfold.
There’s no better way to show that than to own a mistake, explain what happened, and show the public how it will be fixed.
Darrel Stephens is the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Stephens has spent more than 30 years of his career as a police executive. His career began as a police officer in Kansas City in 1968.