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Uvalde aftermath: In this policing era, what does leadership look like?

Uvalde aftermath: In this policing era, what does leadership look like?

Savannah, Ga.; and Austin, Texas

In high school, Joel Shults’ friendship with the mayor’s son led to an offer from a local police officer: “‘Why don’t you come along for a ride?’ 

“I did a ride-along with a crusty old sergeant, and it was the most amazing, brilliant, beautiful thing that I’d ever seen,” says Mr. Shults, author of “The Badge and the Brain.” “I just got eaten up with wanting to be a police officer.”

He has since spent nearly five decades in law enforcement. Mr. Shults has served in roles from chief to chaplain. 

Why We Wrote This

The operational inertia during the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is emblematic of a larger struggle in policing to internalize not just the nature of courage, but what defines a leader.

His squad car snapshot – grizzled sarge winking at the next generation – is part of America’s cultural consciousness. It’s a transferal of not just knowledge, but possibility and responsibility, says Mr. Shults, who now lives in Colorado: You will see some stuff. It could be beautiful. It probably will be ugly. But we’ll handle it. Seriously, we got this. 

Such willingness to lead when the chips are down – to even, in rare instances, run toward gunfire – is a big part of why Gallup consistently finds that Americans put more faith in police officers’ honesty and ethics, with 53% of the country saying they have a very high or high level of trust. (Nurses were first on the list, and political lobbyists came in last.)

A recent string of mass shootings has shown the best and the worst of American policing. While officers ran to help during a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, on July Fourth, things were different in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. There, 376 officers milled around a Texas elementary school for over an hour, while children called 911 on the other side of a classroom door. 

After-action reports in Texas are painting a picture of fumbled responsibility and failed leadership that go far beyond the actions of one small-town police chief – intensified and fueled by national debates over protocols, jurisdictions, and traditional hierarchies that have guided police responses to community emergencies. The report does not blame any individual officers for the delayed action, but rather systemic failures that day that spread across multiple agencies.

City of Uvalde Police Department/Reuters

Police deploy in a hallway after Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary School and ultimately killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022, in a still image from police body camera video.

The events in Uvalde – from the desultory response to the shooting to subsequent attempts to downplay potential culpability – are fueling a fresh debate over how to inspire leadership among police officers amid profound disagreements about how to patrol a jittery nation.

“We are a divided nation, these shootings are on the rise, political violence is very present now, and … policing is in collapse,” says former New York Police Department Officer Eugene O’Donnell. “Where is the forward-thinking plan? How do you do it affirmatively? It’s just elaborately fantastical that we’re going to pay [officers] $800 a week to be like the Navy SEALs and Mother Teresa.” 

Homicides in the United States rose by 44% between 2019 and 2021, while traffic fatalities rose by 18% in the same time frame. Looking longer term, fewer murders are getting solved, with the rate of successfully closed homicides dropping from about 90% in the 1970s to about 50% today. And, as with many professions that serve the public, officers are quitting and retiring at higher than usual rates.

Meanwhile, the pandemic took a psychological and physical toll that America is still dealing with: For one, life expectancy dropped at a rate not seen since 1943, the deadliest year for Americans in World War II. And gun deaths in 2020 rose to a record high of more than 45,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rising crime and stress are coming at a time when the policing profession is at a fundamental crossroads over use-of-force protocols, proactive policing, and limited immunity laws that protect officers from consequences for mistakes made in the heat of action.

That all came to a head in the small South Texas town of Uvalde on May 24, a Texas House report concluded last week. 

“Nobody knew who was in charge”

“Systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by hundreds of police officers on scene contributed to a gunman murdering 21 people, including 19 children, in the school. Police officers “failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety,” the 77-page report concluded. Officers from at least a half-dozen law enforcement agencies – including the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration – responded during the attack.

“There were so many cops there that nobody knew who was in charge and everybody assumed somebody else was making decisions, so they ended up just kind of hanging out – that was the immediate failure,” says Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer. 

Calls for badges are reverberating in Texas. Authorities have begun probes into actions of individual officers. The police chief resigned from his newly elected position on the City Council. But two months later, no one involved in the response has been fired, nor have any officials with the school district. Shifting narratives from authorities have only undermined trust.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor

Erika Alonzo stands outside her family’s house in Uvalde, Texas, days after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24. “The only thing [the victims’ families and the community] want is answers, and even if answers have been given to them, they want accountability,” she says.

The community feels frozen, says Erika Alonzo, who is from the town and has sisters who are teachers there. But change can be difficult in small towns, she notes. The county judge has been in office for over 30 years, and there tends to be a lack of political engagement.

“In a small town you’d never be able to get away [from what happened], never be able to live it down,” says Ms. Alonzo. “So we are surprised [officers being fired] hasn’t happened.” 

A meeting scheduled last weekend to consider firing the local police chief was quickly canceled. On Monday night, the Uvalde school board unanimously voted to request that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott raise the age to legally purchase an assault-style rifle from 18 to 21. The City Council has a similar measure on the agenda tonight.

Over a month after the last funerals were held for victims of the massacre, the lack of consequences is prolonging the grieving process – and delaying conversations around reform.

“The only thing they want is answers, and even if answers have been given to them, they want accountability,” adds Ms. Alonzo, who lives in Austin. “Whether it was [police officers’] fault or not, something [terrible] happened and someone needs to be held accountable, for the families and for the community.”

America’s policing structure itself raises complications. Without a federal police force, training varies widely across jurisdictions. Smaller and rural departments are often at a marked disadvantage when it comes to training, equipment, and preparation. Struggles during the shooting ranged from who was in charge to communication failures to a lack of rifle-rated shields with which to confront a shooter wielding an assault-style rifle.

“What we’re talking about is a low-probability, high-risk situation – it’s not your everyday normal crime,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “It’s a very rare phenomenon with huge policy implications if not executed properly.” 

Yet more broadly, policing experts say, the Uvalde failures are consequences of a tumultuous decade of policing scandals, murder indictments and convictions of officers, massive social justice protests, and recruiting and retention problems.

Warrior or guardian?

Some longtime officers also point to rethinking about what it means to serve and protect, saying that prioritizing guardians over warriors and an emphasis on community policing efforts over catching bad guys can lead to breakdowns like Uvalde.

“You can label this as political commentary, but [President Barack] Obama didn’t want warrior police officers; he wanted guardians,” says Mr. Shults, the former Colorado police chief. “Well, at Uvalde you had 400 guardians and a couple of warriors. The question is really for the American public: Do you want warriors, or do you want cops playing basketball in the ’hood?”

Other veterans argue that binary represents a false choice.

“It is a false dichotomy to say that it is warrior or guardian. There’s clearly an ampersand. We are guardians always and warriors when necessary,” says Sylvia Moir, a former police chief of Tempe, Arizona, who has spent three decades in law enforcement, including a decade as chief. “The warrior work and term ‘warrior’ has been so altered that it is seen as a militaristic perspective that goes in and lacks any kind of discernment, when really the warrior lifestyle is about developing your character, living a life of honor and integrity, and preparing oneself so that we are ready – spiritually, mentally, and physically – to fulfill our duty and protect people. … Loss of life and loss of trust are equally high stakes in the environment which we operate in law enforcement across this nation.”

“Being asked to make this decision, are we guardians or warriors, that’s a trap,” continues Ms. Moir, who says she is looking forward to studying the Justice Department’s critical incident review of the Uvalde shooting. “It limits our thinking and the way we engage with people. After these significant events, we have to ask questions, and one of the primary questions that I have asked as a chief is, are the outcomes consistent with our values?”

To a large extent, the bulk of U.S. officers – some 700,000 spread over nearly 18,000 departments, half of which have 10 or fewer officers – are often too busy and sometimes undertrained to confront those questions by themselves.

Their work includes drug interdiction, homicides, traffic stops, domestic disturbances, sex crimes, and trespassing. Despite the often thankless work, it’s a job with a unique appeal – the ability to think quickly, make difficult decisions under pressure, and accept responsibility, to a point, for mistakes. 

Indeed, the willingness to risk their lives for others – the ultimate form of leadership – is perhaps the profession’s most defining dynamic.

“When I joined the NYPD, there’s a shooting and I had to totally improvise,” explains Mr. O’Donnell, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “There’s no brass there. There are no politicians there. Nobody but me and my colleagues. Ninety-five percent of the time all is well that ends well. …

“The thing that made policing valuable were the individuals who did it were willing to assume the risk; they were willing to work in the dark and the danger. That’s gone. Today, paralysis is the way. Do not get engaged.” 

Also, hundreds of officers opening fire without a clear plan could easily have resulted in chaos and perhaps even more loss of life. One officer that day had aimed at a running man wearing black: It later turned out he was a school coach.

That sense of “paralysis” may have become magnified in the hallways of Robb Elementary School.

Derek Gee/The Buffalo News/AP

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia hugs Leah Holton-Pope, senior adviser to New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, at a memorial outside a Topps grocery store prior to a ceremony honoring the shooting victims killed at the store two months earlier by a gunman in Buffalo, New York, July 14, 2022.

The evolution of leadership

The fact is, officers have no legal duty to intervene or interfere in an attack.

“You’re trained to breach in order to go in, but at the same time you’re not trained to commit suicide,” says Mr. Kenney, who is also a criminologist at John Jay in New York. “You can say that the officers who lacked courage to go in should quit. But what about the politicians … who are fully prepared to have an environment where you’ve got military-grade weapons in circulation and you’re asking officers with 9 mm handguns to take care of it? All these things can be true at the same time. There does need to be a lot of soul-searching, but not just by the police.”

The question of safety – both for a department’s officers and for residents of the community they protect – is one that is never far from thought, says Ms. Moir.

“I also have this preeminent thought and concern of this dichotomy of caring for the welfare of the men and women in the police department that I lead, while simultaneously putting them at risk to accomplish the mission. That’s profoundly felt by arguably every law enforcement leader across this nation,” she says.

“One of my assistant chiefs once pulled me aside after somebody said, ‘Our goal is to go home every night,’ and I pushed back: Is it?” she recounts. “If our primary responsibility is to go home safely to our family every night, then we would not show up, we would not put on the uniform, we would not train, and we would not do the things that we [do] to respond, to safeguard people. There’s way too much risk.”

Police officers – from chiefs to beat cops – may have an important role to play in guiding the evolution of leadership.

“The defining issue is use of force – and that is what makes what the police do inevitably different from anyone else in society,” says Mr. Wexler. “On the one hand, we expect police … to slow things down, to use time and distance to try to de-escalate situations. On the other hand are situations like Uvalde or Buffalo where time is of the essence, where acting immediately really is the difference between life and death.” 

In fact, the recent tragedies have shown more courageous acts of leadership than failures, says Mr. Wexler.

In Buffalo, Mr. Wexler notes, Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia spoke plainly about the racist motives of the man who killed 10 people in a supermarket: “This is someone who has hate in their heart, soul, and mind.” 

That statement, says Mr. Wexler, showed an understanding of the community, a willingness to confront blatant racism, and the courage to lead. 

“Policing is one of the professions where you expect those from the responding officers at the initial level to the police chief at the command level to both exercise enormous leadership and courage,” says Mr. Wexler. That expectation becomes even more attenuated “in anxious times like these.”

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