Headshot of author Marc Ott

Among the most harrowing conversations I have had in supporting fellow managers, are those that involve the death of a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty. I can recall with vivid clarity my own experiences in Texas and Michigan accompanying the police chief to the homes of spouses and parents. Horrific anguish follows the news they have long dreaded but hoped to never hear. These are scenes that as managers, we will never forget; they can never be eclipsed, even by the many celebratory events we experience.

It has struck me of late that in the pursuit of real and necessary police reform, we can lose sight of the true devotion of our law enforcement officers. Their mission and commitment to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans often comes without recognition, let alone thanks. Each day they go out into the community and commit themselves to doing one of life’s most difficult and threatening jobs, even if it means that the final measure of that commitment is the sacrifice of their own lives.

Simply doing their jobs becomes so much more challenging when what they do and how they do it comes under great scrutiny. I have seen the toll the job takes not only among my staff, but in my own family. My younger brothers, who have served for many years in law enforcement, entered this noble profession with a strong desire to make a meaningful impact in their communities. Over time I saw some of their early enthusiasm erode as they faced the tragedies they regularly encountered. Add to these challenges the recent misguided movement to “defund the police.” Yet our dedicated officers continue to walk into neighborhoods and homes where in an instant, they could be struck down with no chance to respond.

How do we reconcile the fact that the majority of Americans, including Black Americans, want consistent police presence in their communities with the need for police reform? There is something about this current climate that leads me to believe we have an opportunity to come together to find real solutions. These solutions lie not in either extreme but in a meeting of the minds that will lead us back to the original mission that law enforcement officers, indeed all responsible citizens, have to protect the constitutional rights of one another.

It seems to me that city, county, and town managers have a most significant role to play in this process.  

You have seen just how hard this job is, as well as the shortcomings of a system that has led law-abiding people of color to fear the very individuals responsible for their protection. It is the manager who often has the responsibility for public safety departments, usually the largest chunk of the overall budget. You are often responsible for hiring the police chief, who can help to transform the culture. Already many of you have begun the process of creating new ways of performing this most essential of services we provide to our communities. Those initiatives can and have informed other communities as we share these practices.

Over the past 70 years, ICMA has developed a body of knowledge, as well as other programs, products, and services for members on policing and law enforcement, including creating a Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) that helps communities with their policing needs, developing research on such public safety topics as police officer recruitment, and sharing leading practice content stemming from the ICMA Annual Conference, ICMA podcasts, PM magazine, and other sources.

Looking ahead, we have launched research led by a faculty team from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, one of the nation’s premier institutes of public safety study, to identify innovations in local management of policing and law enforcement. This research will provide the foundation for a series of ideation workshops with members and other stakeholders. I am hopeful that this discussion together with you, our members and partners, will generate the leadership and management practices these times so desperately demand.

As we work through scenarios to come to a balanced approach to police reform, it is of paramount importance that we honor the millions of officers who wear their uniforms everyday with integrity, dedication, and courage. 

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