Leaders tackle the issues E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

The basic idea behind American Police Beat is that everyone wins if law enforcement professionals have access to relevant information and are able to communicate with each other on issues impacting their lives and work.

The concept that the police need and deserve the opportunity to study the complicated issues they deal with daily and then talk to each other about their own unique experiences is what this magazine is all about. And nowhere is that mission more accurately reflected than in the annual Police Union Leadership Seminar, hosted byAmerican Police Beat and Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and held at Harvard Law School.

This past April was the 11th consecutive year that the leaders of the police associations of the 50 largest cities in America came to the Harvard Law School for  lectures, panel discussions, and round table conversations about the most pressing issues of 2010. A testament to the success of the program and its influence in the industry is the impressive list of public policy experts, political leaders and business people who come to Harvard every year to talk to the group.


John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School and veteran of four presidential campaigns and dozens of other high-profile political races in the U.S. and abroad, talked about his studies of people under the age of 30 known as “The Millennials.” Della Volpe spoke about the challenges police union leaders face communicating and motivating this demographic group which make up the majority of the membership of most police unions. He  pointed out that Millennials communicate differently than people over 30, and that it takes an effort to understand where they are coming from. In addition, they have trust issues, especially with traditional media, older and more established institutions, and one-way communicators. It was the second year that Della Volpe presented at the seminar. Many big city police union presidents say his talks have prompted them to steer more resources into using social media and digital technologies to communicate more effectively with their members and build a more cohesive organization.


A panel discussion facilitated by Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, addressed the controversy surrounding the videotaping of police activities and whether this technology has positive or negative ramifications for law enforcement. The panelists included Bobby Lopez from the San Jose Police Officers Association, Sean Smoot from the Chicago Sergeants’ Union and Mark Tyndale of the Sacramento Police Officers Association. The panel discussed how department-mandated audio-visual recording systems, such as dash-mounted cameras or body-mounted cameras, are impacting the members. Also discussed was how recording officers’ activities can impact the union’s legal defense fund, finances, public relations agenda and efforts at the bargaining table.


Woody Benson, a venture capitalist and one of the country’s leading experts on social media, talked to the group about the power of these new mediums to create opportunity for organizations who are willing to devote the resources necessary to learn about and understand these new technologies which are having a dramatic impact on the way people communicate and get information.


Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, and the former minister of National Planning and Economic Policy and second vice president of Costa Rica, talked about the political minefield most high profile law enforcement labor leaders work in. He also discussed the potential repercussions of becoming the targets of political opportunists as well as diehard association members who will fight change no matter what. Casas-Zamora said that police union leaders have to learn to walk a virtual tightrope spanning the gap between the interests of the political powers that be, the members, and an increasingly hostile media and citizenry, and that they must learn how to balance those interests with their own agenda for progress and change.

Above, left to right: Attorney Rocky Lucia, who represented the officers in the Bay Area Rapid Transit System shootings; Jacky Parks, president of Fresno Police Officers Association, who spoke about the Fresno School shooting incident; Michael Palladino, the president of the Detectives Endowment Association of New York City, and Attorney Philip Karasyk, who spoke about the Sean Bell case. Palladino said of the commitment he made to invest all the resources of the union to defend his members, “I told Phil to do whatever it takes to get these guys justice.” All the officers were acquitted.

High-profile shootings

Casas-Zamora’s presentation was followed by a discussion of three high profile officer-involved shootings and the challenges faced by the respective unions to not only defend their members in the courtroom, but get them help for the emotional toll that is frequently a given. Panelists included Attorney Rocky Lucia, who represented the officers in the Bay Area Rapid Transit System shootings; Jacky Parks, president of the Fresno Police Officers Association, who spoke about the Fresno School shooting incident; and Michael Palladino, the president of the Detectives Endowment Association of New York City along with DEA Attorney Philip Karasyk, who spoke about the Sean Bell case.

Critical incidents

Elizabeth Koller, the executive director of Perspectives on Growth, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing education about the science of brain chemistry and behaviors in youth and adults, is an expert on brain chemistry and its link to drugs, violence, and addictions. She spoke about the ways a traumatic incident impacts the brain. Her research indicates that officers involved with a shooting or other traumatic experience on the job, should not be questioned for at least 48 hours and perhaps even longer after the event. That delay gives the brain the ability to return to normal after the time of extreme fragmentation and disassociation that occurs following a trauma. Koller told the group that police officers regularly face tremendous stress which can be traced directly to the uniqueness of the functions and responsibilities which line officers contend with every day. “Prolonged stressful situations can put officers at increased risk for experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is often referred to as the invisible wound,” she said.  “The classic symptoms of PTSD are not commonly understood to be psychological problems. Traumatizing events can physically change the brain including communication pathway links between regions of the brain. “These communication pathway changes are what drive the unique and painful behaviors which are associated with PTSD.”

Labor relations

At the invitation of Gary DeLagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the new chief of the SFPD, George Gascón, spoke about the changing role of police chief in the 21st century and how those changes are impacting labor relations. Gascón talked about how the dynamic between the chief and employee organizations have gone from paternalism, cooperative submission, and at times open hostility, to a more collaborative model. But Gascon is worried that a clear divide continues to exist between management and labor. “Chiefs, officers and union directors must be willing to cooperate, collaborate and compromise in order to accomplish their goals,” he told the group.

“The destructive power which both sides of the equation wield in many agencies is similar in concept to MAD, the Cold War Era theory of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ which prevented either side from attacking the other. This does not presume that labor and management are always at odds, but an unprovoked attack by one side can release an extremely destructive response from the other.” During his talk, Chief Gascón drew on his unique and varied experiences as a law enforcement leader in three of America’s largest cities – Mesa, Los Angeles (28-year veteran) and now San Francisco, to make his argument that a collaborative leadership style on the part of the chief can and will attain better results than the autocratic model still prevalent today in many agencies across the country.

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