Managing a Crisis Can Make or Break a Leader

By JOE COUTO
Director of Government Relations and Communications
Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police

Published December 4, 2013

Police leaders, like their counterparts in the public sector or the business world, understand that their success as leaders often depends on their ability to manage a crisis.  This is particularly true when efforts to prevent a crisis have failed, such as when police face a public backlash over incidents involving use-of-force options.

Police officers in Ontario are highly-trained professionals.  The nature of their work requires them to be prepared to employ appropriate force to ensure the safety of victims of crime, the general public, suspects, and themselves.  That’s why Ontario’s use-of-force model, developed in 2004 (http://bit.ly/1bqEnvb), has, since its inception, been constantly examined and up-dated by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, with input from the OACP and other policing partners.  However, no matter how much police services invest in training and equipping their officers in the appropriate use of force, depending on circumstances encountered, all it takes is one terrible incident to shake public confidence in their police services.

How, then, does a leader manage a crisis that they did their best to prevent?

Norman Augustine (http://bit.ly/1arK7aC), writing in the Harvard Business Review on Crisis Management, stated that, “almost every crisis contains within itself the seeds of success as well as the roots of failure”.  He also noted that for every potential success in dealing with a crisis, there is the propensity to take a bad situation and make it worse.  In a world where social media places police under surveillance 24/7, acknowledging the potential for a crisis in any given situation is the first step to being prepared to handle a crisis.  This is as true for leaders in law enforcement as it is for the business leaders whom Augustine addressed in a chapter the Harvard publication entitled Managing a Crisis You Tried to Prevent.

Augustine suggested that there six stages of crisis management:

  1. Avoid a crisis – Amazingly, according to Augustine, many leaders skip this stage altogether.  For many leaders, a crisis is often accepted  as unavoidable, but proper planning, investments in training, communications, etc., can stop a crisis from occurring altogether.
  2. Prepare to manage a crisis – When prevention hasn’t worked, a crisis management plan must be in place before a crisis occurs.  Knowing that you are prepared for a crisis builds confidence.  This is especially important for police professionals, who are trained to be prepared for any possible scenario.
  3. Recognize a crisis – A crisis is not just “technical” in nature – what happened – but also based on “perception” – how it’s perceived by the public, oversight bodies, and the media.  In most cases, perception becomes reality, so being realistic and honest about the crisis and what must be done becomes critical.
  4. Contain the crisis – Effective crisis management at this stage involves triage:  stop the hemorrhaging.  Tough decisions have to be made, and often, made fast.  For example, do you suspend an officer who was involved in a fatal shooting?  Legal counsel may be citing legal requirements while your communications people are approaching it from an organizational credibility perspective.  Conflicting advice is part of the reality of crisis management.
  5. Resolving a crisis – The goal is always to resolve a crisis quickly and effectively.  Leaders make tough decisions, but lead they must, and ensure closure.
  6. Profit from a crisis – How can anyone benefit from a crisis?  Leaders understand that for every setback, there is an opportunity for moving forward.  If your people are involved in an incident where a group feels harassed or abused, and relationships between that group and the police have become strained, a police leader can either lay low and let that situation fester or summon up the courage to deal with the issues honestly and proactively.

There will always be people who are more interested in tearing down police leaders and their organizations during a crisis (real or perceived) than helping them fix the problem.  Such people are more interested in how they look in front of a television camera or in tomorrow’s newspaper than they are in dealing with the real issues at the core of any crisis.  For today’s law enforcement leader, effectively managing a crisis can mean the difference between success and failure.