Police officers are brave. They run toward danger while others flee. They respond to crimes in progress, not knowing if the call will lead to a gunfight or a high-speed chase. They must be trained and prepared to sacrifice their own safety to serve and protect the communities they police. Society expects police officers to be ready when needed, and fast. But the traditional model of law enforcement is being challenged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Distrust of law enforcement officers is at an all-time high, and understandably so.
How do we support and respect law enforcement while also ending gut-wrenching and unnecessary loss of Black lives? By training officers in empathy and vulnerability as critical aspects of courage.
You might not think of vulnerability when you think of courage. And you probably don’t think of empathy when you think of cops. I didn’t, despite being a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator trained by Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown’s research focuses on the roles of vulnerability, shame and empathy in leadership. According to Brené, vulnerability is our greatest measurement of courage.
“Vulnerability is the emotion we feel when we are faced with uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure. Society typically equates vulnerability with weakness but when posed as a question – name an act of courage that does not require uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure? - so far, it doesn’t exist.” says Brené.
I had trained different teams and industries in the Dare to Lead™ model, but I hadn’t considered its applicability to cops, until a quote in the Chattanooga Times Free Press (link) stopped me in my tracks.
"We are asking for not only help in our recruiting efforts but also help in understanding, should we have some revisions or improvements in our processes," Chief David Roddy said.
"We believe a stronger police department reflects its community… unfortunately, we have not had the success in our African American community that we would have hoped for….We ask the community's help not only in bringing new minority officers to us, but perhaps remove barriers or implement better processes that would help us in those endeavors."
I didn’t know Chief Roddy at the time and policing was not something I thought much about. But Chief Roddy’s ask for help struck me as incredibly brave, and also vulnerable. When a leader asks for help, they take a risk, acknowledging that they do not have the answer but are open to finding one.
I felt compelled to email Chief Roddy, so I followed my instinct and wrote, “You don’t know me, and I feel like I can support you. You asked some important questions about the future of your community and policing. What do you think will prevent you from moving forward?”
We met for coffee and talked about the future of policing. Chief Roddy acknowledged that lacking trust within his department was a significant barrier and that if there were some way to get his team talking to each other and not about each other, he would consider that a huge win. Perhaps these skills could help diversify the police department and improve outcomes, too.
So, we made a plan. In October of 2019, Chief Roddy and his team went through a 16 hour Dare to Lead™ Workshop; an intensive self-awareness leadership development program. Participants were encouraged to “embrace the suck,” a term made popular by the military regarding physical training exercises. In short, leadership and self-awareness work is similar to rigorous exercise in that there is no growth without discomfort. Chief Roddy and his team began to get curious about how a broader view of courage might improve outcomes. Eventually, they decided that to rebuild trust with one another, it would require a word not associated with policing – vulnerability.
CPD took a bold step and developed leaders from Neighborhood Policing to Violent Crime to SWAT to Internal Affairs. In a wide departmental training, leaders learned to embrace the suck of discomfort that comes with a continuous improvement mindset. By practicing difficult conversations, the CPD can begin to engage in complex problem solving.
The team continued to meet regularly to dig into the skills of courage. They realized that they were tapping out of hard conversations internally and with the community. They set an intention to integrate these skills into CPD culture going forward so that every law enforcement officer understands the power of vulnerability.
Sergeant David Young, a 15 year veteran of the CPD shared, "It's just going to take the police department building a better relationship with the community to earn the trust of the community. And then the community earning the trust of the police department. If both of us can work on that trust level, then it'll work itself out." This insight connects the relational needs of cops and community. There must be mutual trust and empathy. By recognizing that vulnerability is the pathway to courage, empathy and trust, and by placing value on courageous conversations, connection and healing are a potential, long overdue outcome.
Chief David Roddy began serving in the Chattanooga Police Department in 1995. He became Chief of Police after the retirement of Fred Fletcher in 2017.
Sabrina L. Moon, MEng is a leadership consultant based in Fort Wayne, IN. She is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator who develops leaders and organizations in the skills of courage. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org