Feburary 27, 2021

The Unsung Heroes of Policing


Dear PERF members, 

They are often the unsung heroes of modern-day police agencies. People who walk the halls of law enforcement practically unnoticed at times – until there’s an emergency or crisis and their contributions come into sharp focus. In many ways, they’re the glue that holds their organizations together. They bring a variety of skill sets, and they work in all parts of their agencies.

Some of the unsung heroes are the call-takers and dispatchers who are the public’s initial contact with a police agency – the first of the first responders, who manage a steady stream of large and small crises every day. One minute they’re talking to a frantic mother who just found her son on the floor and unconscious, the next minute they’re taking a call from someone who walked in their front door and found their home ransacked.  Call-takers need steady nerves, because often 9-1-1 callers are rattled and not thinking clearly.  So it’s the call-taker’s job to ask all the right questions, listen carefully, and discern what to tell the responding units as they approach the situation.

Others are crime scene technicians who cross the yellow tape to capture the elements of a gruesome murder scene. The accuracy and diligence of their work can determine whether detectives are able to solve the case and bring justice to the survivors.

Some are analysts who work behind the scenes to make sense of the vast amounts of data that come into police agencies every hour of every day. They spot crime patterns that might otherwise go undetected, and offer timely information that can help stop an armed robbery crew or a serial rapist from terrorizing a neighborhood.

They’re the IT technicians who work their magic in the middle of the night when a server crashes, or who tell you about a way your computers can analyze data that you didn’t know existed. They’re the researchers who measure and evaluate what a department is doing, and find out what works and what doesn’t. The lawyers and policy analysts who enable chiefs to do something groundbreaking while advancing the ethical and legal standards of the agency.  

Others are the people who keep things moving in a police agency. The personnel specialists who make sure everyone gets paid on time and their benefits are kept up to date. The educators who develop the latest curricula and make sure everyone gets trained. They’re the administrative staff in nearly every division and unit of every police agency, who calmly do their work and put out fires when necessary.  

When others say something can’t be done, these are the people who usually find a way to do it. They tend to be fastidious problem-solvers, or creative idea people.

I’m speaking, of course, about the vast number of “civilian” employees working in police departments and sheriffs’ offices across the country. In many ways, they are among the most underappreciated people in the profession.

Just look at the language we use to refer to them: “civilian” staff. I’m not sure whether it’s a conscious distinction or simply a part of the para-military structure and culture of police organizations, but the terminology clearly distinguishes these employees from their “sworn” colleagues.  By making this distinction between “sworn” and “civilian” members, are we unintentionally contributing to the impression that one group is different from the other – or perhaps more important to the organization than the other – in ways that are counterproductive to the overall work environment?

I think it’s time to rethink this arbitrary distinction and get rid of this vestige of the past. It’s time to refer to these employees as what they are: smart, dedicated, professional staff.

In some police agencies, professional staff represent one-third or more of the total workforce. And they are taking increasingly important roles at every level of their organizations, including executive teams. A successful police chief or sheriff today recognizes the value of professional employees and leaders, and puts them in positions of responsibility where they can contribute and succeed.

When Kathy O’Toole was police chief in Seattle, she put several professional leaders on her executive management team who were not sworn members, including some who oversaw operational commands. Similarly, when Chuck Ramsey became chief of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and later commissioner in Philadelphia, he brought with him a small cadre of innovative, forward-thinking professional employees. They were a key component of his efforts to reform and re-energize both departments. One of those transplants from Chicago was Kevin Morison, who oversaw communications at MPD and now works at PERF. He’s one of the most creative and hard-working people I know.

When Bill Bratton was commissioner of the NYPD the first time, he took a very street-savvy and tenacious reporter and put him in charge of public information. Later, when Bratton became chief in Los Angeles, he made that same person head of the LAPD counterterrorism unit. I remember that Bratton took heat for putting a “civilian” in charge of counterterrorism. But John Miller knew counterterrorism from research and experience – he was the last Western reporter to interview Osama bin Laden.  And he took the time to go through the Police Academy and learn the policing job firsthand. Today he is considered the preeminent expert in the field as he oversees counterterrorism efforts for the NYPD.

When PERF conducts executive searches, we often advise new police chiefs coming into departments from the outside to negotiate for the ability to bring some trusted advisers, usually professional staff, with them. Our experience is that new chiefs looking to implement change need to be surrounded by like-minded individuals they know and trust, who can help them navigate their new role and identify others in the organization who are on board. 

Is there a police chief or sheriff in America who hasn’t relied on the skills and instincts of the professional administrative staff in their own offices? Some of these people have worked for police chiefs or sheriffs for 30 years or more. They’ve seen chiefs come and go. They’re an invaluable source of intuition and institutional knowledge that can save the job of an idealistic new chief from out of town.  

They can tell the chief who in the vast bureaucracy of government they need to connect with, and who gets things done. They stay late into the night and make themselves available when the world of policing interferes with their personal lives. When chiefs are on travel and their flight gets canceled, they find a way to get them home. They often have keen political skills and provide a window into the intangible aspects of being a police chief that no book or class can prepare a chief for.

Why do I think professional staff are so essential to policing today? A couple of reasons.

First, they bring different and desperately needed skill-sets to their agencies. In the past, it was common for a police chief searching for a new Director of Technical Services to look around their agency, find a lieutenant who “seems pretty good with computers,” and promote that person to the job. Similar processes were often used when filling positions in Personnel, Training, Emergency Communications, Public Information, and other key roles.

Today, police executives recognize that these assignments are essential to the functioning of the agency, and they require specialized skills and training that many sworn police personnel typically do not possess. And this applies not only to the top people in these units. Highly skilled, specially trained professional employees at all levels are making meaningful contributions throughout their organizations.

It goes beyond skills. Professional staff bring different perspectives to their organizations and to policing in general. They may not have walked a beat or pushed a scout car, but they understand the business. They have studied criminal justice or worked in a police agency for years. Some have also worked in jobs outside policing, in both the public and private sectors, and they bring those experiences as well.

They are close enough to the job to appreciate its complexities, but at the same time maintain a broader perspective, one that may be more in sync with what the community is thinking. In a police culture that can sometimes be isolated and insular, it’s that combination of knowledge and perspective that can help chiefs or sheriffs challenge conventional thinking and create new ways of doing things.

Three winners of PERF’s Gary Hayes Award illustrate what I’m talking about. Barbara McDonald, the 1994 recipient, was the civilian Director of Research and Development and later the Deputy Superintendent of Administrative Services in the Chicago Police Department. An educator by training with experience in state government, Barbara helped to design Chicago’s groundbreaking community policing strategy in the 1990s, and brought new training and technology to the department. She upended how people in the department confronted problems and developed solutions.

One of the things Barbara did was identify a sharp young police officer named Ron Huberman and elevate him to a professional staff position managing technology. What did he do? He implemented, among other things, a state-of-the-art camera network in Chicago and a sophisticated system to better manage crime information for cops. Ron had sent his resume to me at PERF while he was on leave from the Chicago Police Department. I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall, but I liked his attitude and imagination and so we hired him. He came back with me to Chicago while we were working for Terry Hillard, and Barbara immediately recognized his talent and convinced him to come back to Chicago and work with her. He would go on to head the Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s Emergency Management agency, and the Chicago Public Schools, before launching a successful career in the private sector. He was PERF’s 2002 Gary Hayes Award recipient.

Like Barbara and Ron, last year’s Gary Hayes winner, Ben Haiman, has had a tremendous impact on his agency, the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., where he serves as Executive Director of Professional Development. A former MPD Reserve Officer, Ben has used his previous experience in municipal and federal government to bring about reforms. Working with teams of officers and professional staff, he has streamlined the hiring process, reengineered academy training, and expanded and professionalized the Reserve Officer program.

Barbara, Ron and Ben are all “idea people.” They were able to combine their understanding of policing with insights gained from formal education and professional experience to bring about dramatic improvements in their agencies – changes that benefitted all employees and the community. And all three had the support of their police chiefs.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for all professional employees who work in police agencies. Professional staff who bring new ideas and fresh perspectives can be perceived as a threat by some sworn personnel. As someone who worked in the Boston Police Department years ago, I know it isn’t always easy for professional staff to earn the confidence and respect of their sworn colleagues.  I will always look back on my experience in Boston with considerable fondness and  gratitude. I started out in the Academy and worked with some of the best cops and civilian staff.  We got along really well, and many are still very close friends. But I know other civilians had a tougher time.

Back in 2008 and 2009, during the Great Recession, it was common for local governments to proclaim that they would not cut sworn police officer positions, but they would turn around and slash from the “civilian” ranks, as if they were expendable. And what did many police departments do?  They took cops off the street to fill in for the civilians who had been let go, because that work was vital and still needed to get done.

Could the police agencies of the future get rid of this arbitrary distinction and start talking about all of their employees as professional staff – some who carry a badge and a gun, and some who don’t? As Chuck Ramsey often said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Before we became cops, we were all ‘civilians’ too. And at the end of the day, when we take off our uniforms, we’re just the same as everyone else.”

This sense of unity has been on display over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation. All members of police agencies have continued to serve, and sadly, far too many have died from the virus. Of the nearly 50 members of the NYPD who have died of COVID-19, 35 were professional civilian employees and another 7 were members of the auxiliary unit.

So as police agencies look to tackle the challenges ahead – violent crime, community trust and legitimacy, and so much more – it’s time to bridge the divide between sworn and “civilian” employees. Yes, they play different roles in their agencies, but they all share the same mission and the same dedication to service. In these challenging times, we need to acknowledge and support all the heroes of policing.

Weekend Clips are below.