After I left police work in 2006, my old commander from homicide, Jim Loftus, became the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD). It’s not surprising to see him in charge of this agency, a sprawling county sheriff’s office with some 3200 sworn officers. He is a natural born leader with a commanding presence (being six feet, six inches tall doesn’t hurt, either). With a gentle (yet deliberate and compelling) voice, Loftus has left no doubt with the public and his own officers what he stands for: He loves his department and his officers and he strives for professionalism, excellence, and compassion. He is not afraid to bear his own emotions, as he did when we lost two veteran detectives to a street thug’s bullets early in 2011. He is likewise unafraid to hold his troops accountable for the unwavering ethical standards he insists upon. Recently, the MDPD suffered an embarrassing blow: A police officer was found in his patrol car, passed out and drunk. The marked unit’s engine was running and it was parked in an intersection.
Loftus was called when the officer was dis- covered and he gave the caller very specific instructions to make sure the officer was treated just like anyone else; that meant physically arrested for DUI and booked into Dade County Jail. In- stead, someone saw fit to have the officer sign a “promise to appear” and had him driven home. I pity that person.
I haven’t seen any press releases on TV as yet, but, knowing Jim Loftus, he will go on television and tell the public how embarrassed he is and that, once all the facts are confirmed, there will be no special consideration given to this offender. He will be treated as any civilian would be. He will restore the public’s faith in their police department and, within his own ranks, reaffirm that there is wisdom and stability at the top.
I tell this story because I feel strongly about leadership. I also fear that, with each generation, we are putting less and less emphasis on what should be a core value in our society. We need leaders and good leaders – ones who want to lead and have the courage to lead – are getting harder and harder to find.
I was very lucky when I first got into police work. My rookie year was with a small town po- lice department in the City of Opa-Locka, Florida. In 1979, Opa-Locka was basically a large ghetto with the highest violent crime rate in the United States. The city had been fraught with corruption and the 33 man police department was no stranger to it, either. They hired a new chief, an unusual man with some strong beliefs about police work and community. His name was Ruben Greenberg. Greenberg was black – and Jewish – and had leadership qualities which would earn him national attention when Opa-Locka, unwilling to shed its ad- diction to small town politics and corruption, let him go. Greenberg had clear-cut ideas and standards for his officers. As he told me in my interview, “There is no room for lawbreakers in police work. If someone asks you to do something you know is wrong, you tell him, ‘F— you and the horse you rode in on.’ And, then you report it.”
Greenberg would put on his uniform and ride the streets and, occasionally, show up at calls. I remember arresting a woman for shoplifting one day after a grocery store manager called the police. Even after being handcuffed, the hostile woman struggled with me as I was putting her in the cruiser and, as I pushed her into the backseat, she yelled and cursed for anyone who would hear. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Greenberg roll up and I thought, “Oh, no…the Chief!” She saw him, too, and cried out, “Hey, this goddamn cop is treating me like I’m a common criminal!”
He walked up and said, “Well, that’s exactly what you are. Now, shut up and get in the car and do as this officer says.”
Greenberg, everyone soon learned, would back you 1000% when you were right, and would slam you like a blitzing linebacker if you were wrong. You always knew where he was coming from and there was a certainty among the troops that things were under control. That’s what it really is, isn’t it? It’s a feeling of confidence, not just that the person steering the ship knows precisely where he is going, but that everyone onboard knows where they are going as well and that everyone onboard is…onboard.
The thing I have learned in my life about effective leaders is that they don’t just tell you to blindly follow them; they challenge you to do as they do. There’s action involved in being onboard. Greenberg brought everyone up to his standards – and the ones who didn’t elevate themselves ended up gone – either by their own hand or his.
Unfortunately, some of the powers that be in city government weren’t willing to accept the challenge and they fired him. His newly renovated detective bureau had transformed themselves from a bunch of slackers to a very effective team of investigators who had uncovered a heroin ring in the city. The investigation had lapped at the doorsteps of a city commissioner and Greenberg would not back down or turn a blind eye. A criminal was a criminal. And, before you knew it, Greenberg was gone.
His next stop was Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston had been sort of a much larger version of Opa-Locka. The difference was, when Ruben Greenberg started implementing his strategies there, it took hold from top to bottom. Officers, he taught them as he taught us, don’t curse at civilians. You treat them with respect, but you never give a criminal a break. They will be held accountable and so will we. We will enforce the law vigorously, but we’ll do so with professionalism.
Charleston did a 180. The crime rate dropped; the officers regained the respect of the citizens; and Greenberg’s work earned him national recognition.
Those of you who have been in police work for a while have seen a disturbing trend: officers break- ing rules, disregarding ethical standards, looking like slobs on duty, and having an uncaring attitude towards the “old” standards we were always taught to uphold. There seem to be more stories of terrible judgment, indecisiveness, and apathy. Recently, I was told by a friend who is still on the job that many officers don’t bother to show up for court, so much so it could be called an epidemic. How does that happen? It happens when supervisors don’t bother to hold their subordinates accountable. It’s laziness, it’s apathy, and it’s a lack of leadership.
I try to encourage my students to develop leadership skills. A precious few don’t have to be taught – you see them take the reins all by themselves and you can envision where they will be in a few years. Earlier in the year, rummaging through my school’s supply room, I found a documentary called, simply, Police. The back cover said it covered the history of policing and how policing had evolved into a profession. It looked good, I thought, and I showed it to my sophomores. Halfway through it, there on the screen was my old boss, Ruben Greenberg. Nearly half the video covered his tremendous turnaround of the Charleston Po- lice Department. I smiled, and then paused the video to tell the students my association with Greenberg and how proud I was to have been one of his troops. He even ended up on their next exam.
People never forget their favorite teachers be- cause their favorite teachers didn’t just fill them with knowledge; they filled them with hope and confidence because they were good leaders.
You don’t forget your favorite police chiefs, either. I’m sure the people of Charleston will never forget Ruben Greenberg, who is now retired some- where in the mountains, from what I hear. I hope the people of South Florida know what they have in Jim Loftus, too.
We are all capable of leadership. Don Shula, in a book he coauthored with Kenneth Blanchard, called Everyone’s a Coach, says that you just have to have the courage to stick to your principles, and the commitment to teach those principles to your people and the resilience to make sure they commit to them.
Yes, it’s easier said than done, but worth striving for at any age.
About the Author: Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006. He spent 27 years in police work in South Florida, 22 of those years in homicide as an investigator. He has taught homicide investigations and interview/interrogations at the local police academy. He now teaches criminal justice classes at a Legal Affairs Academy program in a magnet high school in Miami. His students frequently read the copies of Police and Security News he brings to the classroom.
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