Opinion—Accountability is A Key to Changing Police Culture

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, cities and municipalities across the nation are desperately trying to find solutions to eliminate police brutality, especially toward Black and other minority populations. Clearly, a foundational element of change must be eliminating racism—both overt and implicit. But there is a second key to creating real change. Incidents like these don’t happen in a vacuum. They are rarely about a single bad actor behaving violently. More often, they reflect a permissive culture where those with moral reservations about improprieties they watch happen say nothing. Derek Chauvin kneeling on top of George Floyd’s neck is part of the story. Three officers watching haplessly is another. If real change is to occur in the police force, a key must be changing a culture of silence.

The Other Side Academy has some lessons to teach about how to overcome this culture of silence. The Other Side Academy is a residential, two-and-a-half-year program for persistent offenders, addicts, and the homeless. Students have been arrested an average of 25 times.

Now, it might seem ironic to draw lessons for reforming police behaviour from a community run by felons. But the principles and practices that enable hundreds with violent, addicted and antisocial pasts to create a culture of rigorous integrity are relevant to all leaders. Remarkably, within weeks, students are running world-class businesses, generating millions in income, and earning a reputation for impeccable integrity from neighbours, customers and community leaders. How? The key to The Other Side Academy’s success is also the key to maintaining impeccable ethical standards in any organisation. We call it 200% accountability.

200% accountability means I am not only 100% accountable for my own behaviour but I am also 100% accountable for everyone else’s behaviour. If you see it, you say it. Period. Not only is there no retribution for pointing out others’ faults, it is seen as a sign of love and selflessness to do so. In fact, the surefire way of getting into trouble in our community is to not speak up when you see someone do something wrong.

Leaders must decide which of two values they prize most in establishing their culture: truth or power. In most organisations, the default is power. When power is the highest value, people often avoid speaking truth to power. As George Floyd gasped for air, a new officer expressed half-hearted concern. He passively expressed dissent by suggesting they turn Floyd on his side. He did so because he worried about giving offense to someone senior to him. Power ruled. Truth suffered. George Floyd died. If 200% accountability were the norm in the Minneapolis Police Force, not one, but three officers would have immediately demanded Chauvin stand down.

The key to creating a culture of 200% accountability is not in the life-and-death moments. The culture and ethical health of an organisation is set during low-stakes moments that evince the same value-conflicts as high stakes ones. Moral decline doesn’t come from individuals selling out to overwhelming temptation. It comes from the thousands of moments when people witness small compromises but say nothing. For example, the crucial moment is not when someone is about to embezzle. It’s years earlier when someone watches the prospective embezzler padding his expenses and says nothing. Past research shows those who speak up about small lapses are six times more likely to confront big ones when they occur. Headline-grabbing incidents of horrific abuse are the inevitable conclusion of years of practiced silence.

One day, at The Other Side Academy, a student overheard a senior leader tell a lie. She was trying to get an errand handled on the phone for the managing director. The student surmised the customer service agent had asked who she was. She said, “I’m his wife.” She wasn’t. Nervous, and yet bolstered by deeply ingrained practices of the Academy, the student called this behavior out for what it was: a bald-faced lie. The student is not just responsible for his own honesty. He is responsible for the integrity of the entire organisation. The staff member acknowledged her dishonesty. And the culture was preserved. Truth was once again reenthroned over power.

The strength of the norms of any organisation is a function of the likelihood of someone being confronted when they violate the norm. Few would argue with this point. But most quickly add, “Sure, but savvy people know it’s political suicide to speak up and hold others accountable. Especially when confronting those with more power than you!”

The pervasiveness of this fear is evidence of corrupt leadership. It is leaders who, through either passivity or propensity, allow subordinates to conclude power trumps truth. It is leaders who must relentlessly demonstrate that their ego is not their mission. For those who are serious about reversing the perverse condition, The Other Side Academy has some practical suggestions.

Our students arrive as experts in collusion. The code of the street is that no one tells on anyone. If you do, you’re labeled a snitch and your days are numbered. Most of our students have spent years incarcerated. Prisons are not exactly a finishing school for moral accountability. And yet within days, they are calling out others’ infractions unflinchingly. If inveterate felons can develop a culture of exacting accountability, perhaps the police can as well.

When students first arrive, they are informed of three cardinal expectations that create this remarkable pivot:

  1. Pull people up. You are accountable for holding everyone you see accountable to every rule of the house. If you see someone do something wrong, you are to immediately “pull them up.” A Pull Up is an unadorned verbal corrective. For example, “Don’t swear in front of customers”. We call it a Pull Up to remind students this is a way of helping others improve. Students hate doing this. It is uncomfortable. It feels emotionally risky. It is contrary to everything they have done up to this moment in their life. But they quickly learn to do it because if they don’t pull others up, they are pulled up for failing to do so.
  1. Pass information. Once you pull someone up, you pass that information immediately to a leader. And furthermore, the person who has been pulled up is required to do the same. They say that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ Moral compromises can’t stand the light of day. So, at The Other Side Academy, they are unflinchingly exposed. Recently, a student made a racist comment. He was immediately pulled up. His face turned beet red. And it turned a lovely purple when he had to repeat the same comment to a leader. But that was just the beginning of his moral education. The Game was coming next.
  1. Play the Game. Two nights a week, students sit in groups of 20 to “Play the Game.” This is an opportunity to expand on the feedback they wanted to give when they pulled someone up. A student might be gamed for 15-20 minutes as their peers let them know how they feel about what they did and point out other examples of their defects. It is not for the faint of heart. But direct and honest feedback are the immune system of any community. Mischief begins when feedback ends. And let’s face it, if you can wear a badge, holster a side arm, and risk your life on a daily basis, you’re capable of surviving a few minutes of straight talk from your peers a couple of times a week as well. Rituals like these are essential correctives to break down collusion, invite individual growth and expose organisational weaknesses. The health of any relationship, team or organisation is a function of the lag time between when people see problems and when they discuss them. Rituals like Games help bring that lag time as close to zero as possible. There is a reason that in spite of the gang histories of our students, we haven’t had a single incidence of violence in five years. There is a reason that in spite of decades of overwhelming addiction, no student has ever failed a drug test.

There is a reason that in spite of lifetimes of exploitive sexual histories, The Other Side Academy’s co-ed campus is as chaste as a convent. That reason is peer accountability.

Cops know who the bad cops are. They know who is violent. They know who is prejudiced. Yet far too many in law enforcement say nothing, protecting the “blue wall of silence” where police won’t report on a peer’s misconduct, racist views, crimes, or even police brutality. Efforts to disband police agencies, ratchet up punishments for dirty cops, or empower external investigative bodies will fall short because the only enduring solution is leadership. Leaders from within must decide to make truth more important than power. They must create practices that drive a culture of 200% accountability. If a group of hardened criminals can do it, so can they.

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