“These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Thomas Paine, 1776

In today’s troubling times, the ability to lead under crisis is paramount. No one could have predicted at the start of the 2020 calendar year that we would be living under our current conditions. But we are and civilization as we know it appears to be changing right before our eyes. Our way of life, family, work and schooling (or lack thereof) have all seen a dramatic upheaval over the past several months. Many questions are left unanswered and we seem to live in a constant state of limbo. As doctors and scientists continue to research the causes and effects of the COVID-19 virus, government officials struggle to monitor its impact and seek to reduce its influence in their states and local communities.

In law enforcement we are customed to responding to and dealing with crisis. These crises responses are usually for short durations and do not last for prolonged periods of time. Depending on your geographic location, you may have experience dealing with earthquakes, wildfires, tornados or hurricanes. These types of events can be prolonged but are usually region specific and there are typically generic based response plans in place for responding to these type of multi-agency, multijurisdictional incidents. For those fortunate enough, tabletop exercises are run on these types of events as well which can assist in preparing first-responders for the “what ifs” of these situations.

This is not the case that we are currently operating under COVID-19 which has no regional bounds and is affecting every nation on planet Earth. Over these past several months police departments have had to dramatically change their day-to-day operational plans. From responding to calls for service, enforcing motor vehicle laws, conducting briefings or roll-calls, vehicle exchange procedures, and even to eating meals (when and especially where). The basic way we’ve “played the game” has changed.

Critical Attributes

Some of the most important traits or attributes that leaders dealing with crisis display include the following:

Trust – The ability to have and retain the trust of your people through transparency and truthfulness is essential for any leader.

Communication – Your ability to clearly communicate through clear instructions along with sound policies and expectations.

Emotional Intelligence – (EI/EQ) is the ability to relate, recognize and display empathy toward others as well as understand and assess people’s behaviors, management styles, attitudes, interpersonal skills, and potential.

Accountability – Needs to be set at all levels of the organization, especially the executive themself.

Leading People

As communities slowly come out of quarantine restrictions, it will bring with it numerous uncertainties. Many have lost their jobs, careers and loved ones as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Strong leadership at all levels of your organization is needed to guide and direct communities to get back on track. Our communities need courageous leaders who display the basic tenants of emotional intelligence and have the ability to be humble in these troubling times.

Impact on staff

Remember that your staff are people too. They may be going through a difficult period (both mentally and physically) due to the pandemic. Whether they themselves have contracted the virus or a family member, leaders need to be aware of this and take an emotionally intelligent approach. Encourage members of your agency to seek any additional services they may need which are provided by your agency/entity for assistance.

One of the key elements of leading people is the ability to provide them the necessary resources to complete their job in a proper and efficient manner. Beyond providing methods of transportation and defibrillators, agencies may have to provide extra PPE gear such as additional gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes as well as masks or face shields. These particular resources may be difficult to obtain as they are all in such high demand but any efforts you make to obtain such “valuable” resources at this time will show that you care about the health and well-being of your staff.

Impact on communities

The COVID-19 pandemic has not reduced the need for law enforcement to respond to non-urgent citizen calls, it has just made it necessary to do so while maintaining social distancing. This response may be dictated by the impact and spread of the virus in your community as some parts of the country are being hit harder than others.

Urban areas with higher population densities which often relates to a higher volume of calls for service will probably be more effected than those agencies in more rural based communities. As an example, here in New Jersey, which was one of the hardest hit states in the nation with COVID-19, significant differences in exposure/diagnosis rates were found based on geographic location. Counties in the northeastern region of the state (just outside of NYC) which are more densely populated municipalities have significantly more cases than those counties located in the lower portion of the state which is generally less populated. As a result, the agencies policing these communities may have different operational priorities while still maintaining a “best practices” or “universal precautions” approach.

But what will these “best practices” look like and how will they be perceived by the general public? In an effort to adapt, law enforcement agencies need to rethink how to meet their mission-critical demands all while keeping the public as well as their officers safe. These agencies are looking into and considering new concepts in technology to assist them in this process.

Leading Organizations

Try to remember, great ideas can come from anywhere, especially in crises. This means that you should openly listen to your people. This means all your people, not just those you keep in your inner circle or on the fringes for your convenience. Several years ago, while instructing a course on research techniques, the group was involved in a discussion on focus groups. One person in particular was interested in gathering information through a focus group and wanted to select five or six of her friends to participate. When I questioned her method of selection and bias, she replied “Well, I want to choose my friends because they all think and have the same opinion as me.” I told her in response that she was better off having a cup of coffee and a complaint session with all her friends’ instead. The moral of the story is – Just because you don’t have the same ideas as someone, it doesn’t mean they are wrong and it’s always good to get another perspective. A true leader will take into account various individual strengths and background that people bring to the table – even though you may not always agree or get along with them.

Focus on the future and not from past mistakes. Learn from those mistakes but do not dwell on them. But what will the future hold? None of us really know for sure, but we need to be prepared and have plans in place to address any future concerns.

Keep it Simple

It’s an old adage but could not be truer under the circumstances. Leaders should not complicate the situation from an operational level. They should do their best to maintain continuity of services and trust that their officers will operate as they have been trained. In reality, your agency’s response should not reflect a “business as usual mentality” as certain best practices should have already been put in place by this time. Nor should you complicate the situation by adding unnecessary “busy” work to account for their time.

What the Future Looks Like

No one knows. It’s really that simple. As we move forward from the COVID-19 crisis and more data becomes available for decision makers to create “the new norm”, we simply don’t know how we will live our lives. Whether it is the pleasures of going out for dinner, to the movies, concerts, family vacations or more everyday activities such as how we work or how our kids will be attending school, things are going to be different. Leaders need to be aware of these factors and how they impact both their employees and their organization.

The COVID-19 crisis has affected law enforcement agencies and communities in different ways. Some have thrived as they have been able to adapt to the changes while others have continued to fail by responding with the “business as usual” theory.

In the end, leaders need to make decisions based on “real-time” information and data that they have available to them. Stay in touch with your staff and other stakeholders to provide continuous dialogue and feedback to evaluate your agency’s current status and situation. Above all, stay safe and stay healthy.

Brief Biography of Dr. John Decker

Dr. John Decker is an experienced training course developer and writer who completed his law enforcement career in 2019 at the rank of Lieutenant for a large municipal police department in New Jersey. He was named the 2012 PBA/SOA Supervisor of the Year by his peers and subordinates in April 2013. He successfully completed the FBI’s Law Enforcement Executive Development Trilogy and is an Accredited Command Executive (ACE) with the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

In addition to his law enforcement background, he has served several roles in higher and continuing education at the university level instructing hundreds of public service employees throughout the state of New Jersey. He is an alumnus of Seton Hall University’s Police Graduate Studies program where he went on to complete his Doctoral degree and served as an adjunct faculty member for many years. Since 2015, Dr. Decker has served as a cohort advisor for the Rutgers University’s State of NJ Certified Public Manager® Program (CPM).

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