OnPolicing Blog

Leading Culture Change

November 3, 2016

Debora Black

Chief Debora Black

Prescott Police Department, AZ

Debora Black

Chief Debora Black

Prescott Police Department, AZ

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” -Edgar Schein

As leaders of law enforcement agencies, we might well debate the accuracy of Mr. Schein’s statement as we daily face threats to the safety of people in our communities, challenges which threaten the credibility of our organization, and real dangers that risk the very lives of our officers. There is no debate, however, about the importance culture plays in creating effective police departments with strong connections with their community.

Given the events of the past 18 months and the widespread criticism of our profession, officers could easily choose to isolate themselves from the very people they are sworn to protect. If that happens in a department, the principles of community policing are weakened, ultimately leading to even greater distrust of officers, which undermines the overall effectiveness of the department’s ability to protect the community from harm.

I believe a strong, values-based culture insulates an organization from negative external influences.  A police organization’s culture is built from within over time and, at its best, guides each individual officer’s mindset and ultimately his or her behavior. The evidence of a strong culture is an environment where police officers have the freedom to be creative and try different approaches to problem-solving; they generate new ideas and feel engaged and invested in their jobs while making the community they serve to be a better, safer place.

Ultimately, you can only do that by instilling in your officers that we are here for each other, and that’s a message that starts at the top. When I became police chief in Glendale, Arizona, in 2012, I was well aware we had an ill-defined culture based on individual self-interest and unhealthy competitiveness – in order for one to succeed, the other must fail. There was poor communication between leadership and staff, labor relations were strained, and there was a disconnect with the community.

So we began focusing on culture and communication of our core values while making sure our officers knew we needed to become more engaged with the people who lived and worked in our city. We made a concerted effort to hire people who were of high character, service minded, and had a good capacity to learn. Years later this would be reinforced by the infusion of Blue Courage in our regional training academy.

While I was encouraged by our progress, one event served as a pivotal example of progress strengthening our culture. An officer with several years of experience assigned to patrol had the desire to adopt a stronger community focus and take a deeper dive into problem solving in her beat. Intellectually she knew the process, but she didn’t see success until she connected her mindset with her heart-set to look at situations from a different perspective.

One day, while on a patrol call in an area that was not known to be police-friendly, small children gathered around, asking her for badge stickers. Once she finished the call, she returned to the children with the stickers – and they were absolutely thrilled. The moment was shattered when older kids arrived, scaring the younger children away, telling them they should never talk to the cops. They tore up the stickers, leaving them in a pile on the ground. The officer would have been justified by policy and law if she cited the older kids for littering, or at least spoke with their parents about the errant behavior. Instead, she worked with her sergeant and squad to organize a pop-up snow cone event for the neighborhood a couple of days later. The event made a powerful statement to the younger and older children, as well as adults who witnessed the kindness and generosity of police officers interested in connecting with them as people. Sadly, for many, this was the first time in their lives they saw police officers from a different perspective – as people willing to serve.

As this small event began the change in how some members of the community view police officers, the shift that occurred inside the department was even more dramatic. The transformation of an officer, previously seen as discouraged and disengaged, to one who embodies innovation and community policing is remarkable. The encouragement and support this officer received from her peers was all she needed as motivation to sustain her new community-minded approach to her work. In short, she and others around her felt empowered to approach their work differently.

Several years ago, the formal recognition process adopted annual awards for each of our department’s core values: Courage, Excellence, Integrity, Respect, Dedication, and Compassion.  This proved to be a critical element to significant organizational change toward an ongoing recognition of the actions that exemplify our values in the efforts performed by members of the department each and every day.

Last year, I received a letter from a defense attorney whose client was arrested for shoplifting baby formula. The man, a military veteran, literally stole to feed his child. The store allowed no alternative, so the officer made the arrest. Then he purchased formula, diapers and other essentials for the man and his daughter to meet immediate needs. More importantly, the officer followed up with community services and Veterans’ Affairs so the man and his daughter would have the ongoing support they needed. The very seasoned defense attorney was astounded, stating he had never seen an officer do so much for a “defendant” before.

I am blessed to hear similar stories of actions performed by officers almost daily, from significant life-changing interventions to small, simple acts of kindness. Not surprisingly, most refuse any notice or recognition, almost adopting a theological humility regarding their good works. These are the stories that must be shared to change the negative narrative about our profession. And fortunately, in my experience here, it has. One individual, one neighborhood, one community at a time.


Chief Debora (Debby) Black is currently the Chief of Police for the City of Prescott, Arizona. Prior to her appointment in July 2016, Chief Black was the Chief of Police for the City of Glendale, Arizona. She joined the Glendale Police Department in December of 2006 in the role of Assistant Chief. In that role, she led the Patrol and Support Bureaus, which included overseeing Neighborhood Patrol Services, Training, Personnel Management, Professional Standards, Public Information, Technical Services, and Criminal Investigations. She was promoted to Executive Assistant Police Chief in 2009, served as Interim Police Chief beginning in March of 2012 and was named Police Chief in May of 2013. Under Chief Black’s leadership, the Glendale Police Department was committed to serving victims, recognized by the IACP’s Excellence in Victim Services Award in 2014.

Chief Black earned a Master of Public Administration and Bachelor of Science from Arizona State University. She attended the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government and has earned a Certificate in Legal Studies at Phoenix College. Chief Black is married and has a daughter.

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Disclaimer: The points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Policing Institute.

Written by

Debora Black

Chief Debora Black

Prescott Police Department, AZ

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