Is Your Departmental Culture Changing?

By Officer Art Carlos  |   Oct 18, 2019

Tap into your “Patrol Cipher.”

Agency mission statements are typically straight forward and stay the same over time. It doesn’t take an interpreter to help someone understand what they’re saying. Agency cultures, on the other hand, aren’t that stable. They’re fluid, harder to define and always subject to change. As eager younger officers enter the picture, bringing with them their own beliefs about what being an officer means and how law enforcement works, the internal tone of an agency generally changes. Their new ideas and energies change the way things are approached and, in most cases, that’s not a bad thing. But it can cause confusion, spark feelings of discord and disconnect and even cause some discomfort for those who are taken off guard by the cultural tide shift.

This is where a wise “Patrol Cipher” can be helpful. This is someone who, through personal experience and institutional knowledge of the historic culture of the agency, can help others better understand the direction and depth of current cultural changes and share educated predictions for what the likely result will be. In essence, this is a real-time, patrol-level “interpreter” who can explain, in historical context, what’s going on.

The sheer fact that people get promoted, move to other agencies or retire can make long-term institutional knowledge hard to come by. Those officers who move up or out no longer have consistent contact with the line-level troops and when they leave, their institutional knowledge leaves, too.

But within every organization, there is veteran patrol personnel who can, under the correct circumstances, act as these ciphers. They have been indoctrinated in the prior culture and experienced all its iterations. They’re submerged in and actively monitoring the changing cultural tide and can provide valuable insight into what exactly is changing, where things seem to be headed and how quickly the evolution is occurring. They can provide unique, real-time information that can prove comforting and provide helpful direction to those caught up in the change.

It’s not uncommon, particularly in times of change, for “communication poles” to develop. At one pole, there are those at the top who function within their own sphere of knowledge and experience, but that can be based on an understanding of how things really are on the street and inside the stationhouse that may be somewhat–if not dramatically–outdated. At the other pole, new hires are entering the force with their own understandings and experiences and by mere volume, have an impact on the cultural theme.  When trying to communicate, it can seem that those at both ends of the spectrum are speaking different languages because, in essence, they are.

This is where, in my opinion, the Patrol Cipher — the street cop or deputy with at least 20 years on — has the ability to help unite the poles. They can provide unique insights into how things used to be and how things currently are. They can “future cast” and intelligently predict where things seem to be headed based on their understanding of cultural history and the present course trajectory. Every agency has their Patrol Ciphers. They’re often labeled as being disgruntled or malcontents, yet they persist in being solid employees year after year. These employees can be quiet performers, keepers of the flame.

The Patrol Cipher in your department may not be easily spotted as they often shun the spotlight. Some Ciphers may seem unapproachable, usually preferring to hit the street quickly after briefing or clearing a call, but their value is immeasurable because of what they can offer for the insightful administrator willing to crack the surface layer. As a boss, going a little out of your way and opening a truly candid conversation with them has the genuine possibility of uncovering a message you wouldn’t likely translate on your own. I am not suggesting that administrators lack intelligence or the ability to problem-solve. I’m suggesting that a seasoned Cipher has developed a unique perspective and experiential skill set and can serve as an extremely valuable resource that is often overlooked in much the same way some classic books might be in a library.

Taking the time to tap into your departmental Cipher can help reveal a valuable perspective of your agency’s cultural heartbeat and help determine whether this truly aligns with your mission statement.