The paper will examine the role of a leader when it comes to a police department’s handling of civil unrest. Civil unrest is accompanied by violence, property damage, and other negative aspects, unlike peaceful protests. Thus, police officers are to be instructed on how to distinguish between the two while remaining unbiased. The challenges correlating with leadership are maintaining high resilience, ensuring the well-being of the active-duty officers, and minimizing risks through press coverage and involvement in the unrests. This is especially critical due to the vulnerability to hostility from the public experienced by police officers (Turchan, 2020). Thus, leaders are to use social media to avoid biased press coverage and make sure the public is aware of all the steps taken to ensure public safety. Crisis leadership may be effective if the transformational model is applied and ethical, legal, and decision-making processes remain fair.
The field of public administration is strongly related to leadership in relation to serving communities and seeking a positive societal change or effect based on the actions taken by the leader and the team. As police departments are forces that are to ensure safety and order, leadership is particularly critical, especially during crises. One scenario that imposes difficulties and challenges for police officers is civil unrest. Thus, police departments are to minimize the risks, prevent escalations, and address the existing challenges in a lawful, ethical, and mindful manner. Another problem may be the public’s hostile approach to police officers, as exemplified by the recent events in which communities were protesting the racial profiling of law enforcement. Such societal movements are difficult to address, which is why effective leadership is especially crucial in terms of motivating team members, communicating with the media, and changing the opinion of communities.
Law Enforcement’s Role in Civil Unrests
The distinction between civil unrests and peaceful protests in which members of the society express their will to change something about systematic problems is critical. Sources highlight that unrests illustrate situations in which major groups of people are seeking societal shifts and systemic changes in specific fields and, depending on the circumstances, impose several public safety risks (Newburn, 2021). As a result, the outcomes may be injuries, property damage, and even deaths, which is why law enforcement is crucial when it comes to addressing such adverse outcomes. Police departments are to make sure civilians are safe, which is why involvement in civil unrest and monitoring of the situation is essential. However, as mentioned prior, the public participating in the riots is often hostile towards police officers, primarily if the cause of the issue is closely related to policing problems. This has been exemplified after the death of George Floyd, which has caused a change in the public opinion of law enforcement, leading to the voluntary resignation of officers in multiple departments (Mourtgos et al., 2021). The outcomes were generated by the inability of the team members to cope with the negative overview of the public, which has caused mental distress and resulted in resignations. Thus, the role of the agencies (including local non-profit organizations, healthcare providers, special jurisdiction police working in schools, etc.) is to ensure citizens are safe, mitigate violent escalations, and maintain order.
The main goal of a leader during challenging situations that may affect the performance of police departments is resilience, maintaining a positive organizational environment, and considering the well-being of team members. One of the challenges is the organizational side of maintaining public safety during civil unrests since a large number of officers are to handle the situation and remain professional despite the disturbances. This implies that the leader is to manage larger teams, have well-defined objectives that differ from the regular duties of the officers, and create solid and cooperative teams in a short time. Another challenge is related to the psychological aspect of dealing with a public that is hostile towards the officers on duty. Coping with the negative opinion of the participants of the civil unrest may be a major challenge that can lead to burnout, lack of motivation, and even resignation. This is why police departments leaders are to ensure the team members’ mental health is addressed and help and support are provided. Furthermore, media relations are also the responsibilities of the leaders, which is why they are to ensure safety and not escalate the events through thoughtful speeches and reasonable commentaries on the subjects. As a result, the leader’s main objective is to adhere to ethical, moral, professional, and legal arguments when managing the team and interacting with communities to mitigate possible problems.
There are several leadership concepts that have been observed to be favorable under the condition of crisis. Thus, certain strategies and models that are to be implemented by leaders have to change based on the difficulty of the situation and the change of circumstances. Hassan et al. (2017) have conducted research in which findings illustrate that transformational leadership is particularly effective based on the conclusions resulting from this approach in a law enforcement environment. Based on this concept, the leader inspires team members, in this case, police officers, into maintaining the same ideals and values that the agency promotes. Moreover, a study has exemplified health-oriented leadership in police departments as favorable during civil unrests (Santa Maria et al., 2018). This illustrates that leaders are more than managers who are to ensure high performance but are to take the role of supporters and facilitators of mental and psychical health. This is effective in terms of reducing voluntary resignations on the basis of hostility experienced during riots and violent protests.
Ethical, Legal, and Decision-Making Challenges
There are several ethical, legal, and decision-making challenges that leaders are to address in terms of law enforcement performance during civil unrest. In terms of the ethical perspective, police officers are not to fight the cause of the riot but with the radical decisions of the protestors that imply property damage or even health threats. However, involvement is inevitable since certain participants or civil unrests are often radicalized (Deb et al., 2019). Thus, a clear distinction between civil unrest and peaceful protests is to be made, and an ethical approach implies the detention and prevention of crimes and not the protests themselves. The challenging ethical perspective of identifying the real threat from an expression of a point of view is to be confronted by the leaders during training and meetings with the officers. The same issue may occur from a legal perspective since peaceful protests and civil unrest are different phenomena, and one is to be addressed due to the potentially dangerous consequences. Thus, leaders may find it challenging to instruct police officers on how to remain unbiased towards peaceful protestors while monitoring civil unrest and members who exemplify unlawful behavior. Protests are legal ways for citizens to express their concerns and disagreements with current systems and the leaders have to make sure to create a clear distinction between the two different concepts. Decision-making challenges are also issues correlating with police department leadership due to the potential high scale of the issue, the uncertainty of how the masses will behave, and the major resources needed to combat threats.
Leaders who manage police departments are to address media relations, which may be challenging when news outlets and platforms have a particular agenda or are interested in promoting the idea that law enforcement does not effectively address civil unrest. A solution is using social media to inform the public about the events from the perspective of the officers, which is also to be facilitated through leadership. This addresses the monopolization of the subject and creates a multi-dimensional view that goes beyond the perspective of possibly biased journalists (Grygiel & Lysak, 2020). Leaders are also to inform the public on the objectives of the involvement of police, challenges, and recommendations on how to help the crises. As a result, the public is informed, and the officers managed by the leader are portrayed objectively.
During civil unrest, the leader of a police department is to guarantee that the adopted leadership style facilitates the aspects that are to be addressed during a crisis. Thus, transformational and medical-based leadership is implemented, illustrating the importance of having a role model and moral support for the police officers. Ensuring the team is united, motivated, and does not experience burnout while maintaining order and an ethical approach to societal challenges is critical. Moreover, media, especially social media, is to be used as platforms that exemplify the department’s efforts and honesty when handling the situation.
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Newburn, T. (2021). The causes and consequences of urban riot and unrest. Annual Review of Criminology, 4(1), 53–73.
Santa Maria, A., Wolter, C., Gusy, B., Kleiber, D., & Renneberg, B. (2018). The impact of health-oriented leadership on police officers’ physical health, burnout, depression and well-being. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 13(2), 186–200.
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