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Following the Rules Is Never Enough

In “Courage: The Backbone of Leadership,” Gus Lee identifies that there are only three high core values; courage, integrity and character. No matter what other “rules” may be in place we must bring our high values into every decision we make. Relying on rules to guide our actions is a mistake that will never build trust. Following rules alone not only fails to inspire trust it leads to a culture of “compliance with the letter of the law” and finding “loopholes” to achieve the lowest level of compliance necessary to stay out of trouble. Rules, standards or laws will never set the bar high enough to draw out the excellence that can only come from character and integrity. My friend Lou Hayes has written an excellent article on this topic as it applies to police use of force. If we are going to establish and build trust in the communities we serve we would do well to listen to Lou’s message and lead with courage – not simply by following a set of rules.

Integrity has no need of rules. – Albert Camus

Rules cannot subsitute for character. – Alan Greenspan

Lou Hayes starts here:

I was among the 600 attendees listening to a police practices expert addressing tactical officers at a training conference. In the middle of his presentation, he said something that struck me hard: “There’s no law requiring anyone to step out of the rain; it’s just a good idea.” Here was an expert witness who testified in court on behalf of police officers urging us to look beyond law. It was the first time someone in that position, with his vast court and legal experiences, posed such a challenge. We are amidst a national discussion on law enforcement use of force – with an unprecedented interest, reach, and participation. Matters of law are appropriately included in these complex debates. But to fully grasp the various factors controlling and influencing police force, we in policing must courageously open the conversation’s bounds beyond that of law.

One of my main police trainer and consultant responsibilities to is educate officers on the complexities of use of force. I also have responsibilities in social media. I have my finger on the pulse and my ear on the track. I’m listening and participating; reading and writing. I spend considerable time and effort trying to understand the questions posed to the police…whether asked by hard-core activist or merely concerned citizen. I’m also watching the responses by my peer officers and trainers. What troubles me is a recurring message from some police trainers to their students, “If you comply with the law, all will be fine.” This is often paired with a sentiment that our citizens just need to learn more about the law and human factors of force…ignoring any other concerns. This bothers me. A lot.

This is not because law is trivial. Law is a tremendously important component to police force. But it is not the only factor.

I imagined standing out in the rain. Though I was doing nothing illegal…I was still soaking wet.

So what are the standards that govern police force? Here are a few standards:

  • Criminal Law – If an officer does not violate penal code, s/he does not go to prison.
  • Civil Law – If an officer complies with Constitutional case law, s/he or the agency does not write a check to the plaintiff.
  • Agency/Department Policy – If an officer adheres to department directives, s/he gets to keep his/her job and retirement pension.
  • Officer Safety Priority – If an officer places importance on his/her own life, s/he will “go home” and live another day.
  • Community Expectations – If an officer listens to and follows the local expectations, s/he and the agency maintains a healthy reputation and sense of trust with the community and citizens.
  • Peer Acceptance – If an officer conforms with local police culture, s/he maintains trust and likability among his/her co-workers.
  • Personal Philosophy – If an officer sticks to his/her religious, spiritual, emotional beliefs, s/he can sleep well at night.
  • Science – If an officer exceeds research-based human performance or perception factors, s/he should be wearing a cape…because s/he is denying laws and limits of nature.
  • Risk Management – If an officer understands risk analysis and mitigation, s/he will defend his/her decisions based on common sense factors of urgency, potential, and consequences.

The law is fairly generous to police officers. The courts understand the complex, dynamic, chaotic nature of public safety emergencies. As such, officers are given quite a bit of leeway to function in compressed time constraints with limited information. A lawyer friend of mine (and staunch police advocate!) bluntly says, “The law ensures for little more than D- grade policing.” Wow. That strikes to the heart. But it makes complete sense; law is essentially a pass/fail system of grading a police officer’s decisions and actions. Were the officer’s actions “objectively reasonable” or not? If this same logic were applied to medical school, we would never know if our doctors were performing at a barely passing D- grade level…or receiving straight As! If we agree that society is better off with doctors who do more than set their goals to just “pass” medical school, can’t we say the same for our police officers with their adherence to law.

If we agree that society is better off with doctors who do more than set their goals to just “pass” medical school, can’t we say the same for our police officers with their adherence to law.

The law is quite forgiving; right now, more forgiving than many of our critics. The courts in most Circuits do not evaluate officer strategies or tactics – also called pre-seizure conduct. (I highly recommend reading this piece on police incident strategy and on strategic versus tactical thinking.) However, case law is a living, breathing interpretation of a very old document. If we in law enforcement do not start considering our own pre-seizure conduct (AKA: strategy), the law will change. And we will not like the new restrictions. It’s up to us in policing – especially those of us in police training and supervision – to spearhead this change of thinking to one of strategy, and put more emphasis on factors not required or mandated that law.

There’s an old saying in police work: I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. Aside from staying alive, compliance with established law is a vital component of police force. But it’s neglectful if I didn’t point out the other factors that, when considered and when applicable, can increase our chances of even greater successes. This attitude might even open the door to growing some incredibly strong relationships inside and with our communities. We can design better, more effective police training. We can prepare our officers for the realities of force incidents – before, during, and after! Successes in the street, in internal affairs, in the court room, in solitude, in the locker room, in the press, in social media.

When police officers take a purely legalistic or licensed view of force, a strong lawful foundation is built. But without considering anything else, we may be leaving ourselves open without anything covering our heads. And if you haven’t figured it out yet…the rain has been coming down harder and harder lately. It’s time we get out our umbrellas and head for shelter. There’s no bravery awards for standing out in the storm.

CHALLENGE: Share this post with your police friends and open the discussions to include topics beyond law! Follow the #GrowingCourage hashtag to learn more about educational opportunities on courageous leadership through The Virtus Group!

Louis Hayes is a systems thinker for The Virtus Group, Inc., a firm dedicated to the development of public safety leadership. Lou is a 17-year police officer and a co-developer of The Illinois Model  law enforcement operations system (LEOpSys). He’s developed and teaches several courses rooted in its theory and concepts.  A full compilation of articles on The Illinois Model can be found here.

This was originally posted at and is reprinted with permission.

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  1. Thank you, Kevin! An honor to share with your followers.

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