[Editor’s Note: This article is intended for Maryland law enforcement professionals as well as the educators, colleagues, friends, and family members who support them.]
On April 10, 2021, the Maryland General Assembly passed the MD Police Accountability Act of 2021 – wide-ranging legislation intended to address transparency, training, and accountability for the Free State’s many law enforcement agencies. The act does a lot: from amending policy on body cameras and use of force, to reworking disciplinary bodies and procedures…it even establishes a law enforcement scholarship program along the way. Many of these changes were already in motion, simply due to an evolving operational environment; some were spurred by the additional oversight and advocacy following 2020’s civil unrest and racial justice movements. Whatever the individual causes, though, the result is a large amount of change set to take place over the next few years.
That amount of change, especially coming, as it does, in a tense political landscape and in the wake of a yearlong pandemic response, can cause a great deal of stress and uncertainty – particularly if you’re one of the current or future officers it’ll affect. It’s just the natural response. But though the moment is uncertain, it doesn’t need to be negative: Periods of transition are opportunities for growth and improvement as much as they are times of uncertainty. We’ve put together a few career agility measures to help you turn this moment into plenty of the former, and minimize the latter.
1. Situational Awareness
Empower yourself by researching the Police Accountability Act itself, reading the legislation, and recognizing all the moving pieces. It’s a lot easier to prepare with a solid idea of what’s coming.
No matter which entity – the MD Police and Correctional Training Commissions (MPCTC), local governments, state agencies, etc. – is responsible for each aspect of the new law, it’ll take some time to translate all the content into regulations and reality. As that translation occurs, accept that there’ll likely be some reshuffling: increased scrutiny on law enforcement to see the law’s effects, some loss of officers to other careers, perhaps some new officers encouraged to enter the field by the chance to make an impact on a novel environment, updated training and tools, new technologies, heightened stress and fatigue covering the gaps along the way.
All of that is part of the natural fallout of major legislative action. But by knowing its coming, you can prepare for it and build your resilience. And you won’t be alone – Maryland’s trainers and educators will be learning and adapting right along with you. They recognize that police officers care about their profession, those they serve, and that at the end of the day, positive community relationships and the chance to go home to a safe, just Maryland are what everyone’s after. Though we’ll all adapt to the new situation, we’ll be doing it to benefit those guiding principles, just the same as always.
Change and scrutiny are inherently stressful – upgrade your nutrition and health habits to prepare for handling it all.
Acute and chronic stresses take a toll, and major legislative changes can include a great deal of both. Everyone’ll deal with them differently – everyone’s situation and best coping mechanisms are unique. But one effect that tends to be almost universal among stress-recipients is changes in physical health and job performance. Public safety workers are especially prone to this one. All that hard-earned skill at hiding or setting aside tension or fatigue to get the mission accomplished can just as easily keep you from noticing the wear and tear all that stress is causing until some damage is already done.
So keep an extra eye on your own well-being and state of mind: how are you taking care of yourself as all this change happens? Are there ways you can adjust your habits to boost your health and strengthen your work/non-work boundaries? It can sound overly simple, but while it won’t be a cure-all, improving the basics really can make a difference in how easily and how quickly you can process whatever stressors may arrive.
And be prepared – both as an individual and organizationally, if you’re in a leadership role – for the need to implement longer term adaptation tools. Times of change can prompt all varieties of emotional reactions, and each reaction invokes physical states and sensations that can affect performance…even if the underlying stress is managed in the moment. You may need to shift from immediate “critical incident support”-type coping mechanisms to a longer “transitional support” variety: training, enhancing connections, finding opportunities for grounding, and the like. It’s okay if it’s a patchwork solution implemented gradually – the changes will occur over time; the response can be distributed as well.
3. Understanding State & Agency Leadership
Improving your grasp on the roles, considerations, and communication methods of your agency’s leaders can help smooth out the change process.
Remember that leadership across Maryland – from your agency to local jurisdictions to state officials – will also be learning and guiding the impacts alongside you, and their duty requires that they plan, care, communicate, and act thoughtfully in all this. They’ll be preparing guidance, measuring effects, and always working to improve and refine the new systems as they’re implemented. So take the time to improve your understanding of the leaders whose decisions will affect yourself, and affect others – from their roles and responsibilities to their preferred lines of communication.
Holistic change will look different in each jurisdiction, depending on geography, population, status of existing systems and policies, and a wide variety of other factors. All of them will need to be considered to determine the effects on training, internal/external messaging, community and bargaining unit relations, employee benefit programs new and old, interactions with a whole community of stakeholders…it’s a lot of processing to be done. Learning about those who’ll do that processing – translating the legislation to fit each of those locations – and where best to find information from them as they do so, will be valuable.
4. Being a Leader Yourself
You’re already an expert in being situationally aware, gathering information, and strategically responding to adapt to new circumstances. Those skills are just as useful for responding to change as they are for responding to an incident.
It’s not just the leaders with the fancy titles that get name-checked by the law itself who can guide the change and determine its effects. Good leaders are also good followers, and regardless of your rank or agency title, you can take ownership of the situation with skills you already possess.
Start by assessing the situation and remembering the “big picture” goal – why are you committed to this profession, and what is the profession here for? What fuels your willingness to train, learn, and serve in this career, every day? For a lot of first responders, some part of balancing the stress of urgent, lifesaving work involves the value they feel when they know they’re able to make a difference – is that part of your own “why” equation? Take some time in your daily routine to reflect on the times you know you’ve made a positive impact on your community: What motivated you to put in that effort? Why do those moments hit harder and stay memorable for you?
Staying grounded in this “big picture,” strategic view can help make any of the new law’s changes easier to process, simply by keeping it in context. After all, if your strategic goal is to serve your community and make a difference they value, then any change that filters down from the new law is just swapping in a new tool along the way – your mission, your answer to “why?” remains as rock-solid as ever.
But it’s not just a high-level concept: Staying in control by keeping your perspective grounded applies to the details of policy, too. Your actions are already anchored in federal and state laws, regulations, your agency’s SOPs, and the like, and they’ll stay that way regardless of the transition. Know these areas well, and remember that they don’t change until the appropriate entity (government, your agency, etc.) formally changes them. Until that point, anything else is a hypothetical.
You may even find that when those formal changes come, they’re not that unfamiliar after all. The scope of the new law can make the scale of changes seem imposing, but in reality, many of its aspects already exist in the state (or even in your agency) in some form. And no matter the scale of the changes, remember that you can still play a role in leading and guiding them. Get familiar with your agency’s change management process, and inquire about opportunities to get involved! Perhaps you can view and comment on new or revised SOPs, or join a group to provide feedback on a new initiative. Take advantage of whatever avenues your agency has – just as the changes will look different everywhere, so too will the chances to engage with them.
5. Care & Communication
Understanding and caring for yourself and your emotions is key not just to your management of change, but also to your ability to communicate clearly and effectively about it as it occurs.
Many of the factors involved in enacting the new legislation are rooted in conflict, and combined with the law’s scope, that can inherently cause apprehension and concern. But change is also an opportunity for growth – in yourself, in others, and in your organizations and agencies. Identifying and recognizing that potential amidst the concerns is key to navigating the situation effectively for everyone.
Practice the pause: During emotional times, pause, identify the emotional responses playing out, recognize their effects on your thoughts and actions, and then anchor those thoughts and actions intentionally where you want them, as you’ve been trained. This kind of self-control goes hand in hand with self-care during trying times. Sleep, nutrition, hydration, and exercise all help you stay resilient, but they should be supplemented by a calm mind and positive connections with others.
And keep in mind that you’re not the only one attempting to navigate these tensions. Others are too, both within your agency and without, and the situation may cause them to communicate ineffectively. Sometimes that might just be an emotion-fueled comment; in those cases, give space and understanding if you can, this is challenging for everyone. Other times, it may take the form of disinformation – incomplete, inaccurate, rushed, or otherwise. Change can be complicated, and the need to stay ahead of it sometimes makes us less willing to take the extra moment to confirm all our data.
Doing your part to help keep this in check will help everyone involved. Commit to being alert for agency communications, maintaining comprehension of what’s going on with a new change, accurately applying regulations, and taking the time to share accurate information with others. When you’re on the receiving end of information, always consider the source, your understanding of the situation and change process status, and validate what you receive before forming opinions or taking action. It can take some effort – being actively engaged in sharing good info, continuously reinforcing your knowledge, keeping communication lines open with supervisors, colleagues, community members – but by doing so, you’ll be helping make the whole change process easier.
6. Don’t Stop Learning
This isn’t the first change to law enforcement, and it won’t be the last. Keeping up with best practices and leaders in your field helps you stay one step ahead.
Commit to learning throughout your career, in all the ways you can find. Maintaining your professional knowledge and skills is one, but so is adding new content: finding reputable websites, journals, affiliations to expand your horizons; taking full advantage of training opportunities inside and outside of your agency. Read constantly, and when you’re not reading, learn by acting – studying for a new degree, shadowing experts, volunteering for special assignments, teaching, mentoring, guest speaking. All of the above will help you not just stay aware of what’s going on and how you might be able to take advantage of it; they’ll help you stay agile enough to respond when the opportunities show up.
And lastly: Be and stay patient. Major change takes time, and it’s often frustrating as it does so. But everyone involved is still working towards the same goal – ensuring safety and justice in the state and communities we call home and care so deeply about – and over time, the process will get easier. Regulations will be developed and become familiar, new policies will mix with old ones and everyone will achieve a greater understanding of how much (or how little) really has changed day-to-day, relationships of all kinds will improve as everyone spends time working together under the new situation.
So give it time, and keep your faith in people, even when the change is discouraging (and it will be, at times; all change is). Navigating the transition is hard work. But it’s also important work, and your partners – in the academic world, state agencies, businesses, in your communities – value and appreciate the effort you’re devoting to doing it. We’re all of us glad to support you in getting it done, and seeing the safe and thriving Maryland it helps to build.
[Photos courtesy Julian Wan on Unsplash (featured), Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash (header 1), Kevin McCutcheon on Unsplash (header 2), Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay (header 3), Michael Descharles on Unsplash (header 4), Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash (header 5), Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash (header 6)]