As a former Patrol Officer and, later, an Instructor at the Army War College, I have the perspective of time and as one not “in the blender” of the immediate politics and passions in my hometown. What the Baltimore Police Department is in most dire need of is what its politicians are least likely to deliver: Virtuous Leadership. For those not lucky enough as the author to receive an elementary school education from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, let me first expound on what exactly are the Cardinal Virtues (Courage, Prudence or Competency, Self-Control and Justice) that form the foundation of being such a leader.
One might assume that a person who dons a police uniform has physical courage. However, what is being discussed here is an overarching moral courage. A person may be physically courageous enough to arrest an armed robber, but still be a moral coward in other important leadership capacities. Moral courage, or fortitude, is that rock-steady virtue that seeks to elevate others above self. For day-to-day life, it is the constant practice of seeking and speaking the truth in the face of adversity or peer pressure to do otherwise. It is what gives a subordinate the strength to disagree with a politically expedient, but morally wrong or unjust, course of action.
Courage may also require one to speak the truth even if doing so may be personally painful. It is one thing to be unaware of the truth; it is altogether different when people know what is true, yet ignore it out of cowardice or political expediency. By a casual reading of todays’ headlines it appears to all but the naïve or complicit that many of Baltimore’s leaders, including the Police Department’s Command Staff, have failed to stand up for what they must, in their hearts, know to be right and just.
Self-control or temperance demands control of one’s animal desire for pleasure. Self-control is that virtue which attempts to overcome the human condition that best stated as “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
In the realm of virtuous leadership, Self-control might mean that: choleric personalities restrain their tempers; impatient persons exercise listening skills; tardiness is replaced by timeliness; or, phlegmatic persons make an effort to be more outgoing. As so beautifully said by St. Mark the hermit, “Everything that grows begins small. It is by constant and progressive feeding that it gradually grows big” This notion applies to seeding and growing virtue in organizations and individual lives. Taking such seemingly small steps can gradually build a command imbued with a sense of unit humility. It can truly help transform an organization from a dour, miserable workplace to a magnanimous command where people are excited and proud to serve.
Magnanimity is an underutilized and not frequently understood word. It is the loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity. It is the essence of chivalry. A magnanimous person is the opposite of a pusillanimous or small-minded person. Every leader should strive to foster an environment where magnanimity flourishes. This begins in assessment and selection, is taught in the Academy, then initially fostered by Patrol Sergeants that practice and demand service to others: ultimately the community.
Leaders of a magnanimous police department must be more concerned with respecting the rights of others and giving them proper credit where credit is due. Author and British Infantryman George MacDonald Fraser in his classic Quartered Safe Out Here said of Field Marshal William Slim, Commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations in World War II, that he never said “I” rarely said, “We,” and always said “You.”
Sam Damon, the protagonist in Anton Myer’s brilliant novel Once an Eagle, also exemplifies such a person. Damon is a leader who puts duty, honor, and the men he commands above self-interest. He justly earns his promotions. The book’s antagonist, Courtney Massengale, is a self-absorbed bully who advances by political scheming and trampling upon subordinates and contemporaries. Once an Eagle should be mandatory reading for all persons daring to call themselves a leader. Its lessons should be obvious for anyone daring to call himself a Peace Officer. Sadly, unjust Commissioners have plagued Baltimore’s Police Department ever since Ed Norris brought his NYPD bully tactics to weekly COMSTAT meetings.
As Francis Bacon noted, one rarely finds a wise head on a young body. Hence, this virtue, like all the others, must be taught and learned. Aristotle defined prudence as σωστό λόγο σε δράση, meaning “right reason applied to practice.” In a Police Department, this is reflected in a commander who has mastered fundamental tasks so well that in the fog of war, such as the riots of last year, these are enabling rather than distracting concerns.
When a leader consistently makes wrong decisions – or makes rash decisions, right or wrong – then that individual is imprudent. Due to the complexity of human circumstances found in America’s urban areas, it is easy to err in this fashion. Accordingly, competent leaders seek the counsel of others and quickly learn to delegate responsibilities and authorities to trusted subordinates. This is not happening in Baltimore, where authority and discretion are yanked from subordinates. Baltimore does not need “Professional Law Enforcement Officers” that lock-up every offender. Rather, it needs “Peace Officers” who get out of their cars and intimately know their communities.
Such prudence or competency is not only the result of practice, but it also requires personal humility. Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with one’s own may be a sign of imprudence. Absent a moral barometer, either derived from Natural Law, Scripture and our Constitution, there is no measure of right reason. Accordingly, bad commanders will simply bully others to get their way. That is seemingly what has happened to the Baltimore Police Department since I was sworn in as a Rookie with Commissioner Donald Pomerleau’s signature on my first credentials in 1981.