The following post was published in the Rochester Beacon on July 26, 2020

There has long been a law prescribing it is illegal to shoot someone in the back.  But that law did not save Walter Scott.  Although unarmed and not threatening his killer, he was shot in the back by a South Carolina policeman while running away during a routine traffic stop.  It is certainly appropriate to ban chokeholds by the police in the wake of George Floyd’s death.  But I doubt the law will save anyone’s life.  Laws by themselves haven’t been shown to protect people of color.  Hence the call for “systemic change.”  

But what is systemic change? And, how will it change the outcomes for millions of African-Americans who have suffered not only the abuse of police officers but also ongoing discrimination in their pursuit of economic opportunity – from housing, to banking, to employment.  

The challenge for legislators, particularly at a federal level, is that there is little they can do to change outcomes that hasn’t already been done.  We have extensive legislation backed up by the courts that prevent discrimination in every arena.  Victims of discrimination can – and have – pursue(d) remedies in court and win.  Beginning with major civil rights legislation in the 1960’s and continuing as educational, business and government opportunities opened up for African-Americans, the system can be said to have already changed.  And yet, discrimination persists. 

While “systems” must continue to be examined to root out discriminatory practices.  The primary focus of leadership, particularly in municipal governments and police departments should be on culture.  While training and routine practices define the system, behavior and language define the culture.  In some cities, the behavior of police is less a function of race than it is of police department culture and its momentum.  

Consider the case of Freddie Gray.  He died in the back of a Baltimore paddy wagon because of the negligence of police officers involved in his arrest.  Six officers were criminally charged.  Three of those officers were African-American, as were the city’s police commissioner and mayor.  No reasonable person would assume any of them were guilty of racial bias against members of their own race.  Yet, Freddie Gray still died.  

The question now is how do we change the outcomes?  Not only how do we prevent police from doing harm but also how do we modify the behavior of thousands of educators, bureaucrats and employers to ensure people of color have the opportunity to improve their lives?

While federal legislation is important in signaling direction, we must rely on thousands of cities and towns to examine their own institutional behavior.  It is unlikely that such dramatic change will occur spontaneously and simultaneously.  We must hope there will be a handful of local governments that will experiment boldly, have some success and serve as examples to others.  Change management is hard work and few organizational leaders have a clear understanding how to achieve it.  Success in this realm requires a willingness to challenge orthodoxy, take on powerful people and suffer the slings and arrows of detractors all while maintaining focus.  

Numerous business turnarounds have been documented in academic studies and the Turnaround Management Association certifies professional businesspeople with expertise in business turnarounds.  Consultancies that specialize in municipal turnarounds are fewer in number.  Nevertheless, there are concepts that translate from commercial turnarounds that would serve in the effort to change police department culture.


Leaders must constantly communicate to be effective.  Consistency and clarity are essential. The chief executive and his or her lieutenants should all have the same brief stump speech telling everyone “where we’re going (goal), why we’re going there (purpose) and how we’re going to get there (plan).”  The same short speech should be delivered whenever the subject comes up.  It should be repeated so often that subordinates begin to roll their eyes when they hear it.  

Of course, a speech has no meaning unless it’s backed up by action.  A plan should be developed that is clear on what will be done, who is accountable to do it, and how success will be measured.  It’s easy to lose sight of goals in the throes of getting it done.  So, it’s also incumbent upon leadership to celebrate each milestone achieved in the context of the stump speech: where we’re going, why we’re going there, how we’ll get there.

Change the metrics

Police officers who are fast, proficient and productive are highly rated in many police departments.  But the measures by which productivity is measured are based upon crime statistics.  Such measures as response time and clearance rates are widely accepted as prime measures of effectiveness particularly when coupled with a reduction in  crime rates.  The data required to calculate those measures are easy to collect.

But these measures are only part of what makes a good police officer in the minds of community members.  Officers must have the soft skills and emotional intelligence necessary to engage with the community and gain the trust of its members.  In Rochester, the current police chief was a prime mover in the development of a new set of metrics before rising to his current role.  The document outlines more than a dozen new measures in the categories of Community Engagement and Service.  

New metrics and leaders who hold officers accountable to them are essential to any effort to improve police effectiveness.  By themselves, however, such an upgrade will not change the culture of a police department. 

Break up power centers

No chief executive (or police chief) wants to be dragged into day to day management of the detailed activities of their organization.  So, they often rely upon those who have more influence than their position would normally indicate.  They may have achieved their status by some combination of expertise, tenure, effectiveness and relationships developed over a long career.  They are the kind of people on which chief executives of businesses, government bureaucracies and police departments come to rely.  They make the trains run on time.  

Such people represent the status quo. They have an entrenched interest in continuing the momentum of an organization.  As important as they are, they are also the people who should lose their jobs.  That is not to say they should be fired.  A bigger title, a move into a senior advisory role or a promotion may be required to keep them in the fold and to curb their natural tendency to fight the changes leadership endeavors to make.  

Breaking up power centers forces leaders to become engaged, to learn the details and to engage with key people on the front lines.  A new perspective will be gained.  An understanding of how things must change will be emerge.  Relationships with the people delivering critical services (police officers in this example) will improve.

In any turnaround, this is the most difficult phase to affect.  Allies will falter.  Doubt will be sown.  Opponents will engage in disinformation.  This is where resolve and true leadership is required. 

Find peer group leaders

Enlightened leadership – new metrics, organization changes, front line engagement – will excite some of the participants.  For sure, many will demur and many more will fight change tooth and nail.  But some will be surprised – delighted even – at the effectiveness of a new program and the opportunities it presents.  Most police officers, after all, are initially motivated to pursue their careers by a desire to serve.  

Senior leaders must find those acolytes and highlight their successes.  Awards should be given, publicity should highlight their results, and, over time, those who have delivered on the new program should be promoted.  Their peers will follow their lead if they see them as supported by senior leadership.

Ground truth

It’s easy to ascertain the effectiveness of corporate programs.  Customers will be pleased; more units will be sold, and, prices can be raised.  Life’s not that easy for government leaders.  No matter who or how many citizens are pleased, the loudest voices will come from detractors.

The ground truth – the real impact of any set of change programs – can only be validated by leaders getting out and engaging with community leaders and members.  How are they feeling about what’s happening?  Have they noticed the changes?  Are their expectations of the police being met?  Are there examples of something that pleased them?

The simple act of asking such questions will have a positive impact not only on the community but also, by extension, on the police officers themselves. 


President Harry Truman famously kept a sign his desk saying, “The Buck Stops Here.”  It’s a simple phrase conveying that he was accountable for not only his successes but also his failures.  True leaders take responsibility for all of it.  True leaders don’t play the blame game.  True leaders listen to those on the front lines.  They admit mistakes.  They adjust their sails and find a new course.

Any new program will be seriously flawed.  Mistakes will be made.  They may be big mistakes.  They may be small mistakes.   But mistakes will be made.  Community leaders should be transparent about what’s going right and what’s going wrong.  Failure to admit mistakes will undermine any progress that’s been made and risk loss of support from subordinates and the public.  

This list is not exhaustive.  But it is foundational.  Any change management program – any effort to change organizational culture – will vary depending upon the circumstances of each city and town.  But these concepts must be included.  Only leaders who make an honest assessment and take bold action will succeed in the effort to improve the lives of people of color.  

Many of these themes are echoed by Rochester’s police chief LaRon Singletary.  In an interview published in the Beacon, the Chief outlined the thrust of his Community Policing Plan and the importance of accountability and engaging members of the community.  The challenge, of course, is that the real results are difficult if not impossible to measure.  For members of the most affected communities, the question might be, “how do you feel when you see a cop coming down the street?”  If one feels safer because of his or her presence, it’s a mark of success.  If one feels as though they should run away, there is more work to do.  

John Calia is a former Managing Partner of turnaround consultancy Tatum LLC and is author of “The Reluctant CEO: Succeeding Without Losing Your Soul.”

2 thoughts on “Ending police abuse requires culture change NOT systemic change

  1. Hi

    I have a question regarding your book I believe I should not post in public. Could you please send me an email so I can ask away?


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