I was driving home after a tough day. Two officers were wounded, a friend called to tell me he had been diagnosed with cancer, and I was told to begin searching for ways to cut the upcoming budget by 10 percent. I was not in the best of moods.
Then came the capper. As I backed out of my parking stall at Parker Center I heard a SigAlert warning, indicating the freeways were clogged due to a series of traffic accidents. I had to negotiate my long drive home through heavy traffic on surface streets.
I drove northbound on Alameda Street, passed Union Station and crossed over to North Broadway. Driving through Chinatown, I noticed a black and white ahead with the lightbar illuminated. I slowed to see what was going on. The officers were giving someone direction over their PA system. I lowered my side window to listen.
A car was stopped in the curb lane marked “No stopping 4 to 6 p.m.” The officer was ordering the car to move, adding “What’s the matter? Can’t you read English?”
The driver was an Asian lady. I could see by the reaction of the mostly Asian pedestrians in the area that the officer’s remarks were not appreciated, even though the car was clearly blocking a needed traffic lane at this time of the day. On top of an already bad day, I though to myself, we don’t need this.
The car blocking traffic responded quickly, moving forward with the flow. The patrol car followed for a couple blocks and then passed on the left. I pulled alongside it at the next traffic light and got the cops’ attention. The driver recognized me. I shouted that I wanted to talk. They turned left on a side street and pulled to the curb. I pulled in behind them. Both officers exited the squad and walked toward me. I recognized the two-striper, but his partner must have just graduated from the academy. He was really young and had that gaunt, run every day look.
My initial impulse was to give the training officer a ration of my thoughts in the “D.I.” format: What a terrible example for a recent graduate. Then, fortunately, I remembered the words of one of my most respected mentors. “Praise in public, chew out in private.” This would be tough. I felt like venting, but I had observed the validity of this adage many times. I had also reaped the failure of not applying it. My failures convinced me of its authenticity.
I broke into a big smile. “Hi Russ. Do you still have that fast ski boat?”
After some more small talk, I asked the trainee to wait in the patrol car. I explained that Russ and I went back a long way and that we needed to talk. Russ figured it out. He knew what was coming. He just stood there, head down. It was obvious that the voice on the P.A. system was his. I didn’t have to say much. He was wrong and knew it.
“The kid,” I said, “in front of the kid.” I shook my head with disappointment.
He was silent.
“Do I have your word that you’ll make it right with the kid?” I asked him. “You’ve got to let him know that even good cops like you make mistakes, but regret it when you do. At some point you need to explain just how wrong you were tonight. We all have our bad moments. The only question is: Will you make it right?”
“Oh, I’ll make it right, Chief,” he assured me. “You’ve got my word on that.”
Several months later, I saw Russ at the Academy Revolver Club Caf . He waited until I finished my lunch with another colleague. As we exited the caf , he asked to speak with me privately. During that conversation he made two points. He assured me that he had taken several steps to let the trainee know he was wrong and give him proper guidance.
He spent most of our brief encounter, however, telling me about a leadership principle he learned that night. He explained that he appreciated not being belittled in front of his trainee. He stated that the experience resulted in him changing his own approach to correcting trainees.
Sometime it’s necessary to immediately stop inappropriate behavior without regard for preserving the ego of the offender, such as stopping excessive force at the conclusion of a pursuit. Also, making a punishment public in matters demanding formal discipline can have a positive impact on an entire organization.
But, in the daily responsibility of improving performance or correcting minor deviations from professionalism, the principle of “chew out in private” can be the best way to go on point.
Former Assistant Police Chief Vernon supervised all departmental police operations for Los Angeles’ 18 police stations. Chief Vernon is an author, speaker, and consultant who speaks on the need for change in the moral fabric of our nation. Chief Vernon has presented leadership and ethics seminars to the military and police leaders in foreign governments and seven foreign parliaments.