Why Do You Want To Be a Cop?

Why Do You Want To Be a Cop? Utilizing Strategic Leadership to Improve Community Policing


I remember the feeling of fear from residents when a crime spree was happening in a neighborhood. That anger, frustration, distrust, towards all my zone partners and me for not solving the problem fast enough. Nothing I could say or do would be enough, short of solving the crime. To make all those feelings go away from the members of the community I swore to give my life to protect, no matter the crime.

Years before, I remember being a nineteen-year-old kid fresh out of the academy. A little cocky, I passed one of the top-ranked state tests the first time taking it, receiving my law enforcement certification and ready for a job! Not even legally of age to buy a handgun, I set forward to my first destination for a position in law enforcement. I was also a little more arrogant (internally) with this position due to the fact my dad knew the Chief Deputy. I figured I was a shoe-in for a deputy sheriff.

After applying I got a phone call for what was called an “Oral Review Board”. They taught us about these in the academy; the candidate sits on one side of the table and three to four members of the department sit (in uniform) on the other. Typically, a line officer, a line supervisor, and a command staff member, I was lucky enough to have the the number two; the Chief Deputy, [sarcasm]. I never really figured out if that Chief Deputy liked my dad or if he just wanted to torture me as that entire nine months of processing was horrific as I did ninety-percent of their process, received a conditional offer of employment, almost rented a house, still didn’t get the job.

My father worked in politics, so maybe it was payback. However, it exposed me to experience and one experience, in particular, I learned to take with me to all thirty plus Review Boards I went to in three-years, before actually getting a job. “Why do you want to be a cop?”, This innocent, simple question gave me a lot of trouble, and after speaking with people sitting on the boards, it always gave candidates trouble. I imagine that’s why it’s chosen as a question. The most common answer from an inexperienced person, especially a young person, “I want to protect and serve” or “I want to help people.” Which most boards immediately saw both as a negative. In fact, it wasn’t until later in my career did I understand that question and the answer they are looking for is founded in more of the first word of that entire question, why.

Fast forward well over a decade, October 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Seminole Heights neighborhood is experiencing a spree of connected homicides[1]. Some in the media are calling this the work of a serial killer, however, to the best of my knowledge Tampa police have not labeled it as such. Tampa police are only saying the murders are connected by location (all four are within blocks of each other) and other circumstances. These additional elements are likely secrets Tampa police want to be kept close to link the suspect when they catch them. Those in law enforcement understand this. More than likely, total speculation based on experience, the same gun –  at least a known caliber – was used, and that is part of the more circumstances among other things.

Victims from a 2017 Tampa Bay Serial Killer.

On November 14th, 2017, a local reporter interviewed a high school student about how this crime spree in the neighborhood has affected her life, and it brought back a lot of passion, anger, and other emotions within me[2]. I haven’t been a cop in six years; I still research law enforcement because, at heart, I’ll always be one, I’ve now moved to the private side – the dark side. However, to listen to this young lady articulate her story of how this one person is affecting her ability to better herself, to live a free life, to enjoy being a kid, just having a massive impact on her quality of life. Those words reminded me of all those Review Boards I sat in, all the times I was asked WHY? Why do you want to be a cop? The emotional wave of passion that filled my blood was almost forcing me to get up and go there; to solve this problem. It was anger, but it was a controlled, compassionate anger that quickly led to the realization that I can’t do a lot. However, I know the police officers that are working the case feel the same way, they are built just like me, with that same passion flowing through their veins. I think to myself, if you’re a cop and this doesn’t invoke a deep desire within you to want to do something about it, you might have chosen the wrong career.

So, what does this long story have to do with leadership and community policing? As we speak, in Tampa, the NAACP is nervous because the suspect that has been listed is a tall black male[3]. Tampa police have been saturating the area, the Mayor of Tampa (above photo) has “ordered” the police to bring him the killers head[4]. Well, when you have more officers enter a fixed area and are proactive, the numbers of arrest, stops, and general activity is going to go up. The suspect they are looking for is a tall and skinny black male, so a reasonable person would assume the police are trying to legally identify all tall and skinny black males in the area.

This has created a gap, a gap of information and leadership in this particular community. This gap is mostly being filled by the NAACP and some left-leaning media outlets using a narrative of racial profiling. On the positive side, the flow of this information or accusations up to this point is not out of control, and I believe Tampa police have done well, and most media has held off on any far-reaching accusations. There was a town hall-style meeting a couple of days ago where the newly appointed Police Chief, Brian Dugan, attempted to qualm the fears of residents[5]. However, it still appeared as if some resident’s concerns were still high. To credit the Chief, he did the correct thing in this situation, the longer this “racial profiling” narrative lives in local media with no one being caught, it will continue to pick up steam and eventually go national. Then the police will be forced to make a choice. This choice will likely involve input by the Mayor and other political figures that will have more interest in their political careers than catching a killer.

But when it comes to the officers on the streets, the ones interacting with the community members directly, can they provide leadership and improve community relations during trying times? The answer to this is yes of course, and we can look at both historical and modern theories of leadership to guide officers on the best ways to apply leadership to individual events or circumstances.

The truth of the matter is a community that has social capital looks up to police when times are bad; they look to police for leadership. However, we must be honest with ourselves, and we can’t be defensive or take personally, others view and the possibility of past adverse interactions with police. Law enforcement must be open-minded and understanding; it’s part of building a strategy. To develop a well-defined and robust strategy, you must have data. Community members feelings towards police, however unrealistic you feel it is, it’s not to them and therefore should be considered useable data. We know not every cop is good, however, 99.99% are great people who would give their lives, marriages, and often, very own quality of life up to serve their communities and save lives. But that’s not one hundred percent and does leave room for wrongdoing, which most police understand.

We also know there’s at least one generation – possibly as many as two –  out there that grew up with law enforcement having a different strategy than the one police in use today and have been using for a long time. This strategy was more of an authority-driven strategy or a “bull in a china store” strategy. Why did this happen? Because violent crime was skyrocketing, people became scared, and the Government responded by writing laws, and we as a society gave the people we trusted – police – the tools necessary to handle the problem.

The suspect is being described as a serial killer.

This is the way a functioning society is supposed to work.  And it worked, the problem was handled utilizing the strategy of police going in with a hammer to enforce laws written by the government and imposing their will on some communities. This isn’t a secret; this is known information. This didn’t happen everywhere, but it happened in a lot of places around the U.S. Unfortunately, that strategy isn’t “community-focused,” and as many people know, the areas which are hit the hardest with violent crime are minority areas. So, as you can imagine the people who were most affected by this strategy weren’t white middle-class Americans, they were a majority Black and Hispanic Americans who lived in the ghettos of America. However, every race was affected by these strategies, some more than others based on the areas they lived not on the color of their skin as the police were involved. Governments and politician’s involvement as to why they lived there in the first place, that’s a different story for a different day. However, police had zero involvement with that.

You can imagine the people that grew up during this period still to this day have a deep distrust of law enforcement because of how they were, or a family member was treated, wouldn’t you? This distrust, trickles down to their children, as they tell their children these stories and teach them how not to trust law enforcement. So, when police stop someone or a child of someone from this generation, they automatically perceive it is because of what they either experienced thirty years or more ago or more than likely what they have been taught their entire life. This is one of the leading foundations of mistrust in communities along with the promotion of mistrust by media, pop culture, politicians, and prominent figures. These entities promote the perception and create a dissociation from reality when people are in a particular circumstance or environment.

Nationally, that’s not going away. Law enforcement can’t win against billion-dollar industries with huge audiences like the media and pop culture. Police can’t communicate better than activist and politicians backed by billionaires and given platforms by the media. That’s an impossible fight that police need to forget about and develop a custom strategy tailored to their local community. Leave the National pushback to pro-law enforcement activist, groups, and unions, at least unions are “supposed” to be using your money for this I always assumed.

One of the first, if not the first, theorist to write about a leadership framework that is useful to law enforcement was Marry Parker Follett [Follet]. Around the 1920’s, she wrote about “leadership should be a followship” meaning just because you were considered a leader shouldn’t suggest people should be forced to follow you. Leaders should inspire people and make others want to follow them. A great example in law enforcement of this and even in community policing is Officer Tommy Norman of the North Little Rock Police Department[6] who has revolutionized community policing in a social media society.

Follett’s writings were vastly different than the management and leadership theories before her as they were more productivity-driven, or authority-driven. The theories of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were kind of like the 80’s and 90’s policing strategies. These productivity-driven strategies led to poor work conditions and some say led to the workers’ rights movements, do you think the 80’s and 90’s policing strategies led to any social movements? In the 1920’s, women weren’t exactly taken seriously, especially in the business world. However, Follett’s work lives on in Conflict Management and other areas. Throughout business evolution, other theories developed, some good, some not so much. Some can be applied to law enforcement others can’t. Peter Drucker was a business consultant and author who developed a theory where he believed leaders needed to lead with a purpose. If you lose the sense of that purpose, everything sort of crumbles.

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy. WHY you do it”, Simon Sinek is a modern-day author and speaker, and I would call him a “leadership theorist.” This is a quote from his Ted Talks special on leadership[7]; He explains your brain biologically is set up to understand communication a certain way, and some of the most significant, most successful people have all spoken this way[8]. Sinek calls it the Golden Circle, where there are three circles inside each other, like layers or rings. The outer layer is labeled. ‘What,’ the middle layer is labeled ‘How,’ and the inside ring is labeled ‘Why.’[9]

Most people and companies communicate a strategy or how they are going to complete a mission/goal by talking from the “outside-in” approach or What->How. An example in law enforcement would be, ”We will reduce the number of burglaries by adding ten more patrol units.” In this example, you can see the What [we will reduce the number of burglaries] and the How [by adding ten more patrol units]. However, there is no why, there’s no passion or purpose only assumed wanted or expected results. People, when they listen, are only “buying” what you are saying when they know what’s your cause, beliefs, purpose, what makes you get out of bed in the morning, what drives you, motivates you, angers you[10]Why are you a cop? Can you think of how to rephrase this strategy to show the path, Why -> How -> What = Goal/Result?

The human brain hears the message in the opposite direction from where most people articulate a strategy according to Sinek[11]. He says, you ever wonder why Apple can sell so many tablets and others can’t? Why was MLK so great? He wasn’t the only Civil Rights leader, but why was he more successful than others? It’s because their message was “We love design, we love innovation and making people happy, we happen to make tablets would you like to buy one?” or it was the “I have a DREAM” speech not I have a plan or idea speech[12]

Hopefully, you were able to see the differences between the two statements of the police and Apple/MLK. How one merely had no passion, told the listener nothing about the person talking and the other communicated why. Stated their purpose for why they are in this business and selling tablets or fighting for Civil Rights (dream, plus what was in the speech). A Well-developed strategy must be communicated by articulating not just what or how you plan to reach a goal, but it must give the listener the reason why the speaker/company does what it does.

Every officer, deputy sheriff, agent, etc. should have a planned strategy when it comes to “community policing.” If an officer needs help, the community policing department or administration should assist them in helping develop a strategy. Patrol officers are the first line of communication to the community and need the tools and resources to combat the narratives out there pushing against law enforcement trust. It’s difficult; an officer may be coming from a call where parents just tried to kill their child or even a child who drowned. Are you expected to be pleasant after this? But no one said leadership was easy, it’s challenging, not fair, heartbreaking, and sometimes you end up on the wrong side of the stick, you will ultimately be the bad person. However, as I mentioned before, a functioning community looks and expects police to protect them, to maintain order within a community and to be leaders of that community. When the people inside this community don’t trust or have minimal trust in law enforcement, chaos can and will occur, the order can and will be lost, and the feeling of protection/security is gone. These elements aren’t brand new; they go back in time to the beginning of humans, this cycle of “community” and safety when we were protecting caves and had just made fire.

You can, however, combat mistrust with leadership, you can provide leadership through a well-defined and communicated strategy. Business has been utilizing this for decades if not longer, it’s time law enforcement becomes proactive in strategic leadership and communication at the line level. It’s time you figure out why you want/are a cop, and communicate that to the community.

I recommend every police officer to take two-three hours and search YouTube for Simon Sinek. Watch his videos on leaders, and see if you can apply why he says to your everyday interactions with community members. I guarantee you will see a difference.


[1] http://www.wtsp.com/news/crime/timeline-3-murders-in-tampa-neighborhood-killer-at-large/485320519

[2] https://www.facebook.com/10NewsWTSP/videos/1795759137124497/

[3]NAACP Townhall:  http://www.wtsp.com/news/local/seminole-heights/naacp-tampa-police-meet-over-seminole-heights-concerns/492510919

[4] Mayor Statements: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/10/26/bring-his-head-to-me-tampa-mayor-tells-police-to-hunt-down-killer-after-string-of-murders/?utm_term=.d6c935a53ed1

[5] NAACP Townhall Chief:  http://www.wtsp.com/news/local/police-chief-to-attend-naacp-meeting-in-seminole-heights/492172059

[6] Officer Tommy Norman: https://www.facebook.com/OfficerTommyNorman/

[7] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

[8] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

[9] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

[10] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

[11] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

[12] Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&t=7s

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