Leadership and policing in the age of the viral video

A week after IACP 2016 in San Diego, our Founding Director, Rory Geoghegan, reflects on some key ideas that emerged from four days of discussions and conference tracks informed by some of the more than 17,000 delegates that attended.

Leading and policing in the current environment

Listening to policing leaders from across the globe share their experiences of and reflections on key public safety issues certainly underscored the importance of effective leadership. Their collective insight also highlighted the critical importance of transparency and community engagement.

With many police officers feeling at risk of or actually being under attack, it is perhaps tempting to batten down the hatches, to go dark, to go offline, to step away from difficult conversations and to leave what may seem insoluble ‘political’ issues to the politicians.

In fact, communities require police leaders to be more visible than ever, to listen more and to engage more. This should not be confused with acquiescing to the demands of the community or a particular individual or group. Leaders need courage.

The public rightly expect strong and assertive leadership. They expect leaders with integrity, to tell it how it is and to publicly defend the good in policing and to challenge and hold accountable the bad. At the same time, the police themselves will be watching to see how their leaders handle the “awful, but lawful” scenarios that are sure to “go viral”.

It’s not going to get any easier

The presence of a video-capable smartphone in the pocket of virtually every citizen – coupled with widespread and ready access to social media – has fundamentally altered the environment in which police – and other public safety professionals – operate.

Chicago’s Superintendent of Police, Eddie Johnson, described it as nothing less than a “game-changer”. The genie is out of the bottle. Commentators, such as Heather Mac Donald, have described a “war on cops”. Whether you agree with that narrative or not, the reality is that the battleground itself has shifted and the rules of war with it.

If army generals are guilty of always preparing for the last war they fought, rather than the one they will next have to face – then the same criticism may come to be levelled at those policing leaders and others who have yet to grasp this new reality.

This new reality is a dangerous one. The traditional threats to public safety remain – as does the threat posed by radical extremists. Some seek to deny police the use of tools that are fundamental to keeping the public safe. Leaders and agencies should work with all those seeking to develop genuine insight into these tactics – just as many are working with those who openly oppose the tactics.

One major test of police leadership in the months and years ahead will be the extent to which police personnel in agencies feel compelled to retreat to the comparative safety of reactive activity versus either maintaining or increasing pro-active activity.

With lives and livelihoods at stake – both within and outside of the policing family – the stakes could not be higher. The loss of proactive policing capacity and capability can and will exact a toll on those communities who can least afford it, while empowering some of the most serious and violent criminals.

The dividends from effective community policing will only increase

The importance of effective community policing was a recurring theme throughout IACP. It is the foundation on which all other police encounters are shaped. It also happens to play a vital role in building trust and legitimacy.

The Commissioner of Garda Síochána, Nóirín O’Sullivan, in an important keynote speech suggested “we are at our best on the beat, building trust and legitimacy”. She is not wrong. The reality – as both French and Belgian delegates with first-hand experience of the recent terror attacks testified: even the most serious global threats will manifest locally.

Comments from some in and around UK policing that the era of “the bobby on the beat is over” are jettisoning the very thing that so many other countries are presently seeking to develop. Community policing is about far more than “random foot patrol” as some have claimed. It is as vital to the defence of the realm as the security services and the armed forces.

Community policing must therefore be recognised as the golden thread that can deliver very real benefits – to both trust and legitimacy of an entire agency, helping buy leaders time in the wake of a critical incident – but also in terms of tackling some of the most serious threats to public safety, including terrorism.

Policing as combustion chamber: don’t be the spark

The take-home message from IACP 2016 must be that the game has changed, the smartphone video and the ability of any citizen to broadcast a “viral” encounter with police turns what may once have been a slow-burn community concern or citizen complaint into a raging wildfire.

It was heartening to hear so many departments, large and small, and their leaders recognising this shift – and the need to adapt in response. To get out ahead of issues, to pro-actively fill in the blanks for the media and the public and to recognise that building bridges through effective community policing must sit at the heart of any policing philosophy that expects to survive the next critical incident.

It was also reassuring to see and hear many leaders recognise that for them to successfully navigate the path ahead, they will need to both win the trust of the community – but also the trust of the police officers and staff who serve. Neglecting either constituency will surely result in failure.

There are lessons for UK policing: there is an urgent and pressing need to extend community engagement and to do so authentically. The public communications and media teams must get ahead of issues and embrace the growing appetite for information from both the media but also individuals and groups who wish to involve themselves in policing. Civic engagement in and around policing is to be embraced, not repulsed. Police – and crucically the IPCC – must also be prepared to respond decisively, to learn to communicate effectively and to act with transparency in the wake of a serious or critical issue, such as an officer-involved shooting.

This is not meant to come as harsh criticism – but rather, to be a pointed reminder of the importance of this issue. If you doubt the stakes, remember the events of August 2011.

Just as frontline officers have learned to adapt to the commonplace and daily reality of being filmed during the course of their work, policing leaders, their media and communications teams and those charged with civilian oversight must catch-up and embrace this new state of play, or risk being the sparks that ignite the next combustible situation.

P.S. The strong tradition of community policing in the UK remains under serious threat and the government – and opposition – would do well to heed the voices of those who express concern at a withering of community policing under the pressures of austerity and the failure of other public services to manage their own demand.


The International Association of Chiefs of Police 123rd Annual Conference and Exposition was held in San Diego, California, from Saturday 15th October 2016 through to Tuesday 18th October 2016 at San Diego’s Convention Center.

iacp2016_session

IACP 2016 Critical Issues Forum

 
This should not be confused with acquiescing to the demands of the community or a particular individual or group. Leaders need courage.
 
 
 
 
 
The loss of proactive policing capacity and capability can and will exact a toll on those communities who can least afford it, while empowering some of the most serious and violent criminals.
 
 
This new reality is a dangerous one. The traditional threats to public safety remain – as does the threat posed by radical extremists.
 
 
iacp_garda_commissioner

IACP 2016 International Delegate Keynote

 
Community policing is about far more than “random foot patrol” as some have claimed.
 
 
 
It’s a rare and very special thing for so many leaders, practitioners and interested parties ... to assemble in one place, to learn and share, over several days.
 
 
 
[P]olicing leaders, their media and communications teams and those charged with civilian oversight must catch-up and embrace this new state of play, or risk being the sparks that ignite the next combustible situation.
Rory Geoghegan
Rory Geoghegan
Rory is the Founding Director of The Centre for Public Safety and has experience in frontline policing, public policy and consulting. Read more about Rory Geoghegan, follow him on Twitter @RoryGeo and connect on LinkedIn. We also encourage you to subscribe to our email updates.

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