Scott Johnson

Many years ago, I was a young newly promoted police sergeant. One afternoon, the chief called me into his office and told me he wanted me to create them. You see, our department had none - policies, that is. I guess that is part of building a police department from scratch. After all, every police department has them. I have created more of them than I can ever recall. Yet, not so much in recent years and the longer I am in this profession, the more I wonder “Why?” Soon we will have one more.

Police officers practice their occupation based upon what they have been taught, what has worked in the past and what others in the department expect of them. The latter is very important. This should match the expectations of the community. If not, it is time to look for a new police chief. It is the job of police administrators, as leaders, to build a culture within the organization. This culture is much more important than words on a piece of paper in determining how policing is done. When an organization as a whole fails, it isn’t because the right written policies were not in place. Most often, it is a failure of the culture, which includes values such as work ethic, compassion, honesty, integrity, professionalism and quality. These values should be all-encompassing in everything that a police department does.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently published a series of articles that paint a picture of incompetence or indifference in the investigation of sexual assaults by Minnesota law enforcement agencies. During my career as a police officer in both the Twin Cities suburbs and outstate Minnesota, this has not been my experience. It may be in the case in some police agencies. I haven’t worked in them.

Things can take a political spin very quickly. The articles were a catalyst for the legislature “to do something.” It is now considering bills that will require every law enforcement agency in Minnesota to adopt a written policy as to how sexual assault investigations are to be conducted. Anticipating this, the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST Board), the licensing authority for peace officers, developed a model policy. This was e-mailed to every Minnesota law enforcement agency last week.

Assuming these bills pass, the legislature will adjourn this spring knowing that it did what it can by mandating the adoption of a sexual assault investigation policy. They will probably also require reoccurring training in sexual assault investigations. Unfunded State mandates are controversial; however, training is a good thing.

Those departments that don’t conduct a quality investigation are doing a disservice to the victim, their community and the policing profession. Will a written policy substantially change the way police departments investigate sexual assaults in Minnesota? It won’t change things for the Grand Rapids Police Department as we are already doing the things required in the State’s model policy.

Written policies are in some regards a throwback to the mechanistic theories of management at the turn of the last century. Noted sociologist Max Weber believed that all that was needed to enable an organization to produce quality work was to place the right people in the right positions and provide them with written instructions as to the best way to perform their tasks. Since the 1930s, we have learned that there is much more to this than that.

Policies do serve a purpose. They provide standardization and a basis upon which to discipline an officer that screws up, including the police chief. Fortunately, this is rare. They also enable a city to walk into a courtroom when being sued, hold up a copy of the policy and proclaim, “Yep. We have a policy and here it is.”

Still, if we want to make meaningful change in the way police investigations are conducted, what is the most effective method? Is it a written policy that is seldom referred to by officers? Is it the insistence that police chiefs create a culture of professionalism that is pervasive throughout the organization? Whose responsibility is this? Is it that of local government or state government? This stuff gets to be messy and there isn’t always a right answer. Maybe the answer is “both.”  

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