The following is a post from The Virtus Group member Louis Hayes, Jr.

Many call it a profession. Others, an industry. Some, a community. About 800,000 currently call it their career. But aside from what you call it, American law enforcement has strong tradition… and even stronger CULTURE.

One of my favorite descriptions of culture is: the collective beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, and values that make up the difference (either positive or negative) between what is written in policy…and how things really get done day-to-day.

Along with the broad array of functions that an American police officer may attend to (in both a single day and an entire career), there must be an equally broad set of allowances for creative problem-solving. It’s the CULTURE that fills in the gaps where police department policy, law, and other standards leave off.

American police culture is complex. There are many identifiable sub-cultures within it. Police culture varies by region: West Coast versus East Coast. Culture varies by rank: command staff versus patrol officers. It varies by shift: daytime versus nighttime. It varies by assignment: SWAT versus traffic versus public relations versus drug investigations. It varies by officer background: military veterans versus university graduates.

And policing in the United States is undergoing a “culture crisis” right now. In essence, those unwritten beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, and values are being challenged. The public no longer accepts:

The Thin Blue Line

Rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.


Sweeping the streets

Do it to them before they do it to you.


Good versus Evil

Taking out the trash

Rule #1: Go home at the end of shift.

There are those in this country that believe the law enforcement community is filled with dispassionate self-preservationists, thriving on an “Us versus Them” environment. That it’s a defensive camp when asked about its methods and strategies. That it’s an industry made out to exaggerate the daily risks and dangers of its work. Seen as a group that hippocritically swears to help others, yet is so quick to inflict harm. That it’s a profession quick to point out the flaws in others, yet takes so little responsibility in their own mistakes. That it demands science or statistics when confronted with critique yet refuses to accept research into its own operations. Seen as a violent clique who puts no value on the lives of others, especially those of young black men.

And this is how we are being branded by a very vocal segment of the American public.

The first question is whether or not we, in American law enforcement, should acknowledge these claims and perceptions.

I argue we should.

Then secondly, how?

I suggest a rebranding of our culture. This requires careful analysis of our unwritten beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, and values.

We must develop a foundational philosophy of risk management and mitigation.

We must reexamine the concepts and principles that are being taught in the police academies and during in-service training.

We must ignore anecdotal stories rooted in myth and blind tradition.

We must challenge the strategies and tactics used on the street.

We must reacquaint with our communities.

We must nurture a climate where mistakes are corrected rather than ignored.

We must demand accountability from our peers.

We must be cautious of which behaviors and decisions (and people associated with them) we are rewarding, disciplining, and promoting.

And shifting this culture begins with individual people. Some say it starts at the top, with the Chief or the Sheriff. Others argue the training staff holds the strongest influence. Or that change hinges on the front line supervisors. I can accept all of these. But the real answer is in the mirror.

Culture changes starts with me. And you.

It starts with the language we use to identify ourselves. In how we relate with our communities. In the dignified manner in which we hold ourselves. In the respect we show to all. In our demeanor. In the thought we put into our response plans. In how we expose our vulnerabilities. In the courageous conversations we have with our coworkers. In the compromises we make. In the risks we take for the greater good. In apologizing when appropriate. In how we listen and how we explain.

Cultures change by the collective actions of those individuals within it. And I am one of them. And so are you.

We need to ensure that our collective beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, and values become realigned.  They’ve slipped a bit over the years. They’re not as consistent and robust as they should be. There are double standards and excuses for everything. We’ve been falling for well-intent mistruths.

American police culture is in need of a change. And a rebranding. We on the inside are all invited to take part in this change…if we acknowledge our brokenness and accept the challenge.

It’s up to us. And the time is now. Will you join me?


Louis Hayes, Jr is a system thinker and provocateur for The Virtus Group, Inc, a firm devoted to developing public safety leadership. He is a law enforcement trainer with biases in Constitutional law, crisis intervention, and tactical policing. Lou can be reached on Twitter @LouHayesJr and under #ThinkLE.

Be sure to follow these ideas at @TheVirtusGroup.