By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
While I am no expert in race relations, community organizing, or political science, I do know a lot about leadership and organizational culture. Cultural norms are driven by leaders and they pervade every social system in every form. Culture creates consistency in behavior among a group of individuals. And it is impossible to change culture without bold leadership, which is precisely what we need from police leadership today.
The words we are (still) hearing in the streets, and now in the halls of congress, and (finally) from some enlightened police chiefs, are important and must be heard: Black Lives Matter. We need to hear these words, understand what they mean in our own lives, and show our solidarity with black people. The black community has suffered far too long at the hands of police who have a long history of behaving as if black lives do not matter. But, importantly, after speaking and hearing these words we need to act. We need swift responses to individual acts of violence and we need to prevent future violence. Specifically, we need to change the culture in the justice system that perpetuates racist behavior by the police.
Black people are routinely tormented by police in every corner of this country: That’s the fact, and it has to change. Now is the moment.
The only way to fix this problem is with bold leadership committed to changing police culture. We need politicians, district attorneys, police chiefs, police sergeants, and police unions to stand united together and insist on a culture of equity and respect for all whom they serve. They must hear these words and speak these words. Black Lives Matter. And then they must live those words every single day with actions that include swiftly removing and punishing those who continue to perpetuate racism in their ranks.
Police violence against black people is not only the result of a few “bad apples.” The problem we face is a persistent police culture that reinforces violent, often deadly, racist behavior. Until police culture changes, the problem will persist.
Changing culture requires understanding its components and how it is shaped by leaders. Simply put, organizational culture is created by the behavior that leaders a) model personally, b) encourage in others, and c) tolerate in others.
To truly change police culture, leaders within police departments must first model race-positive behaviors. Leaders need to listen deeply to the concerns of black people. They need to reach out to black communities and hear their stories. Understand their pain. Understand and accept the reality of the problem and then partner with leaders of these communities to heal wounds.
But listening and modeling is not enough. Encouraging and tolerating is where change efforts succeed or fail.
Police leadership must create mechanisms that encourage police to enforce race positive behaviors in their ranks. The police must stop seeing their work as “us against the world.” This will only happen when police leaders support officers who stand up to racism and when leaders regularly speak to the importance of standing up for racial equality. These messages need to come from the top, the middle and all levels of police leadership. And they need to be visible, loud, and frequent.
Lastly, and most important, police leaders at all levels simply must no longer tolerate racist behaviors. Swift, unambiguous action must be taken by all levels of leadership when racism occurs. Officers will continue to exhibit the behaviors that leaders tolerate. When racism is no longer tolerated by police leadership, then we will see change.
Now is time for leaders to step up to the challenge, face the facts of the situation with honesty and integrity, and then lead courageously to change the culture.
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 2022 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 7th Edition.