By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
I recently wrote that the words “Black Lives Matter” were important for us all to share but that words alone were not enough to change police culture. I suggested that to change the police culture that is fueling racist behaviors, leaders needed to take action to model and encourage different behaviors. Last week, at least one leader made one small but significant step toward changing police culture.
On July 16th, Bill Scott, the Chief of Police for the City of San Francisco mandated all police departments in the city display a 24 inch by 32 inch poster with the words “Black lives matter” (not capitalized to emphasize the concept rather than explicitly endorse the BLM organization) in a place visible to visitors. This may seem like a small thing, but it is an important step in the right direction for changing police culture. It also perfectly reflects an important aspect of the way leaders can start to change culture in any organization. Visible artifacts (e.g. posters or statues) provide an important external reflection of the underlying beliefs in an organization’s culture. They provide a constant reminder of the values and beliefs that help guide individual behavior.
In corporate life, “cultural artifacts” include things like how people dress, whether private offices are common, or where people are located. For example, something like an exclusive executive lunchroom can be a strong indication that status and power are important values for a company. Changing these cultural artifacts may seem very small and insignificant, but this is exactly the kind of thing that begins to change and shape organizational culture – for better or worse. Putting the words “Black lives matter” in a visible place makes it clear to all what the police leadership believes. Behavior to the contrary is visibly out of step. Of course, putting up a poster will not change individual officers by itself, but it does make the values clear and gives leaders something to reference when behavior is out of line.
I can only hope in San Francisco Bill Scott’s small, but visible change of putting “Black Lives Matter” posters in police stations can provide one of many sparks needed to change police culture in the city. And that police leadership in other cities follow his example. I am heartened that he is on the right track – he seems to understand the opportunity he has. He also seems to understand that posters alone are not enough. When announcing the change he said “as the person who is charged with speaking on behalf of the department- and I can speak for the command staff and members of this department- Black lives do matter, and they matter to this police department.” This is exactly the kind of leadership police departments need. But, let us not pretend that a poster will shift the culture by itself. It is a good start, but there is more work to do.
The good news is Chief Scott seems to get this. He followed his mandate with the statement “this is just one small step to the reforms we know need to happen.” Those steps involve new laws, new training, new ways of policing, and truly holding officers accountable for their behavior. Like change in any organization, success will depend on persistence and consistency at all levels of leadership. While we can continue to encourage the police to make those changes, let us not forget to celebrate the little things that can add up and support these bigger efforts. If police brutality toward black people is to stop, the behaviors of the police need to change. To make that change they need prevalent visible reminders of the values police leadership will model, encourage, and are willing to tolerate.
Bravo, Chief Scott. Change must start somewhere…now let us keep up the momentum.
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.