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Leadership in law enforcement: A cautionary tale

July 25, 2011 | Virginia News

News Image When one Chief's career was undone with one utterly uncharacteristic action, he began working toward teaching his otherwise winning combination of vision and execution

At very young ages, children often fantasize about what they want to do when they “grow up.” Often those dreams are far afield from what they wind up doing in life. However, for retired Alexandria Virginia Police Chief David P. Baker, who wanted to be a police officer since he was a kid, his dream became reality when he joined the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D. C. as a patrol officer in September 1970. He progressed through the ranks at a steady pace and left the department after 21 years to become the Executive Deputy Chief of the Alexandria Virginia Police Department.

Baker was second in command from February 1991 to September 2006. When Chief Charles Samarra retired, Baker was chosen as the department’s top cop to lead a department then comprised of 320 sworn officers and 125 civilian employees. At the time, the agency had a budget of 55 million dollars and was the largest department and budget within the city of Alexandria, Virginia.

Soon after being selected as Chief of the department, Baker said, “My focus will be to improve and enhance our analytical and strategic capabilities so that our policing strategies, problem-solving capabilities, and deployment decisions are fact-based, consistent and capable of responding aggressively and effectively to new or existing crime and quality of life issues.”

Visible Leader
Baker, whose earned reputation was one of a highly-respected law enforcement professional, was known to be a proactive and involved leader in the law enforcement arena.

Baker always believed that the ways to garner respect from officers on the street is for them to recognize that the leader understands them, respects what they do, and runs a department that extends beyond lip service. The Chief, in his view, needs to lead a department that does what is good for officers on the street; the same philosophy holds for commanders even though there may be more latitude with command staff. He supported middle managers and commanders but, at the same time, he let cops on the street know he cared.

Baker was a visible leader. He was on the street and in the trenches, and he always stayed actively engaged with his troops. He talked to his officers, and his conversations were not solely about police business. “At a lot of levels, I cared about them,” Baker said.

A down-to-earth individual and easily approachable, he was known for his personal touch. If one of his officers or employees had a birth or death in the family or received a promotion, the Chief would write a hand-written note to the individual. “The manner in which you do your business, you have to convey real feeling and real emotions--much like family and friends,” Baker said.

He also recognized that it is important to develop and administer a disciplinary process that the rank and file deem fair. “He didn’t just impose things. He knew how to take input from people. It showed mutual respect, and he really cared what the guys/gals think. He really did care,” said Sgt. Michael Kochis, the former President of the Alexandria Virginia chapter of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA). Sgt. Kochis indicated Baker wanted input to know if discipline was considered fair, not too harsh, and he wanted to be made aware of other concerns surrounding it.

Baker recognized that an integral component of being an effective leader and running a progressive police department depended on building relationships. He understood the importance of creating a mechanism to hear what the rank and file needed and to attempt to get it for them and, on the other hand, a mechanism in which to let them know that it was unattainable. Successful chiefs master the decision-making process so that, in the end, when a decision is made, there is inclusion and it has been made collectively. As Chief of Police, Baker did that.

At one point, when Baker had the foresight to realize the Alexandria City Council was likely going to diminish the number of take-home cars available to his officers, he proactively worked with his staff to review the number of vehicles and to devise a solution acceptable to his troops and yet workable with the City Council. In a forthright manner, Baker was able to explain to his department the need to reduce the number of take-home cars yet indicated he would fight to keep as many as possible to meet departmental needs.

Before the Council approached him with the issue that he saw coming, Baker came forward and suggested to the Council a reduction of a reasonable number of take-home cars based on his departmental analysis. The Council found it acceptable, and the troops appreciated Baker’s honest communication and approach. Both sides were content and Baker had averted a potential conflict that could have evolved.

“I’ve had others tell me that when he became chief, they liked how issues were resolved quickly. They did not disappear into an abyss or languish unnecessarily. I recall that, too, when I was there. People always knew where they stood with him, and he always made time for subordinates when they had suggestions or issues to discuss,” Dennis Butler, Chief of the Ottawa Kansas Police Department and Retired Captain of the Alexandria Virginia Police Department, said.

As a leader, Baker understood that the relationship with his cops was paramount. Though he also knew the relationships with political leadership and the community was also vital, he grasped the significance of relationships with the troops. “You want your cops to follow you into battle under any crises,” Baker said.

Baker has always been a “cop’s cop” and he has never forgotten where he came from. He also had the skill and enthusiasm to successfully run a police department. “At a lot of levels, I cared about them. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to convey that in a way that they know,” Baker said. He was a firm believer in demonstrating he would stand up for his troops. “You make them proud of you and you of them,” he said. 

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