You can’t legislate culture — here’s how to really implement change

Changing culture is quite possibly the most difficult leadership challenge a police executive will ever encounter


Police reform advocates are calling for change across a spectrum of issues.

AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File

Across the country, state and local governments are currently debating the condition of policing and, in some cases, seriously considering police reform efforts aimed at increasing transparency and reducing incidents of policing misconduct.

The groundswell for this is not new, it has been building since Ferguson in 2014 and before. But it has become even more urgent since the events of this past summer. One thing is clear, the policing profession as we have come to know it is about to change.

Police reform advocates are calling for change across a spectrum of issues, dealing with everything from restricting the use of force, to changing the tactical response to riots, to adding civilian review boards that oversee local agencies.

Many of these changes been suggested before, but now they are being positioned as the societal answer to the perception that the police and policing organizations are “out of control.”

Is that perception accurate, and are more restrictive legislation and policies the answer to stop instances of police misconduct? This is the focus of the current debate and, regardless of how you approach the problem, it is evident everyone wants the same result. But, unfortunately, the current public debate is more focused on addressing the symptoms of the problem than the root cause. As one national policing expert recently commented, “There is nothing you can do to prevent terrible officers from doing terrible things.”

Actually, there is. But it won’t come from legislation.

We must address the cause, not just the symptoms

There is a commonly held view of departmental policies that they are the answer to any and all behavioral and performance issues. Have a problem? Write a policy.

Likewise, the current reform efforts by federal and state legislators, although in some cases well-intended and not simply reactionary, can often be put into that same pile. They are intended to resolve problems, but they fail to understand the deeper-lying issues that are evident in the problems themselves.

The question we should be asking within our profession is, “What separates those policing agencies that serve their communities with honor, dignity and respect for all humanity from those that have consistent problems with misconduct?”

The answer to that question is much more profound and needs to be a part of the current national discussion.

Culture drives behavior

There are some outstanding policing organizations in this country, led by some of the best policing leaders the profession has ever known. Many of these organizations have two things in common. The first is organizational policies. The second, and most important, is culture.

Policies don’t drive behavior, culture does. You can develop all of the policies (or legislation) you want, but if the culture of the organization is not in line with the terminal values of the profession and the highest organizational expectations, your policies are worth little more than a campaign promise.

At its most impactful level, the culture of an organization is determined by the underlying assumptions the members have internalized regarding those behaviors that are acceptable to the organization, and those that are not. Over the long term, the behaviors of the members will mold into the cultural norms. How do these members develop these internal assumptions about the organization? They follow their leaders.

Leadership systems that become complacent in addressing problems, look the other way when bad things happen, or keep officers that have no business remaining in this profession undermining their own agencies by poisoning the culture. They create organizational dysfunction and allow an environment to exist in which egregious acts of misconduct will eventually surface. Certainly, the individuals themselves are responsible for their misconduct, but their leaders are responsible for the cultural environment in which the misconduct occurs.

Like many organizational entities, policing organizations are simply not built well for innovation and change, it is easier to stay the course than to steer into new directions. But in a time when the public’s faith in the ability of our profession to provide legitimate procedural justice across all segments of our communities is being questioned, the option of simply staying the course and riding out the storm no longer exists.

Vision and values

The process of implementing a transformational change in an organization’s culture, however, is not as easy as hitting the reset button. Implementing change of this type is quite possibly the most difficult leadership challenge a police executive will ever encounter.

To be successful in implementing cultural change police executives need to engage in a deliberate and sustained effort to remove all attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate the old culture, and replace them with new standards and expectations. The baseline for these new cultural standards should be the organization’s vision and values statements.

The vision statement connotes the standards of excellence towards which the organization strives. It portrays an ideal and sets the stage for new behavioral principles that are values-based, as opposed to policy-driven.

The organization’s values statement defines those core values around which all member actions must be centered. To be truly effective they must be more than just slogans or suggestions, they must be endorsed as the guiding principles for all members, and the organization itself. And they must come with the expectation that they will not be compromised for the sake of convenience or to avoid internal conflict. Most importantly, they must be the reference point upon which all daily decisions, actions, and behaviors originate, and they must be exemplified by the leaders.

Research has shown that values-based agencies have strong organizational cultures, are resilient in times of struggle, and have a significant impact on employees’ attitudes and work performance. Having a shared sense of values can help to sustain motivation, especially in high-stress times, and encourage unity and ethical behaviors across the organization.

Policies and directives remain a critical part of an organization’s success, and as a profession, we should welcome transparency and fair scrutiny with the shared goal of providing equal protection and justice for all. But ultimately we have to create internal cultures that demand the highest level of professional service and accountability and don’t allow the roots of misbehavior and misconduct to take hold.

Whatever form the external demands take in seeking to transform policing across the country, they cannot address the true need for cultural change. That is, and always will be our responsibility.

NEXT: 5 steps to begin leading transformational change in your agency

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.