Sgt. David Kinaan from the early 1990s, outside the Central Los Angeles CHP Area Office.
Photo courtesy Sgt. David Kinaan
The term courageous conversations has been used to describe the courage an individual displays when they provide constructive criticism or feedback to another officer, especially in matters that relate to officer safety. The feedback generally deals with the observance of act or an omission that could have placed the other in danger. The more common the occurrence, the more courage is needed to address the incident.
The courageous conversation isn't normally an operational debriefing. It's generally informal, sometimes very informal, and normally takes place between the two or three individuals involved.
In recent years, I've had to opportunity to share the importance of courageous conversations in motorcycle training and motorcycle safety. Courageous conversations occur when someone feels the need to provide some constructive criticism, or feedback to another, when the latter has started down a path of taking shortcuts, or taking chances unnecessarily. Normally, when the topic is discussed, one usually thinks of the person who initiates the conversation as needing the courage to provide constructive criticism to a peer, or maybe even a superior. Although I’m sure this is true, I want to take a look at it from the other side also, from the perspective of the officer being critiqued.
A friend of mine is now a chief, but many years ago when he was a young beat cop in the county area of Los Angeles, he had watched other officers, usually senior officers, make left side approaches on vehicle stops. He'd also observed the same behavior with officers from the surrounding allied agencies. Usually, these stops were conducted on surface streets or other locations where there wasn't as great of a danger from passing traffic.
Being a young officer, he sought to emulate what he saw, in an effort to quickly be accepted into the ranks of the officers who were competent and cool. However, his extensive training had taught my friend that a right-side approach provided a greater degree of officer safety from a violent subject, as well as from passing traffic. Well, the day came when he made an enforcement stop off the street, and away from traffic, so he elected to make a left-side approach. He concluded the enforcement contact without incident and went on his way. He was pleased with his performance and felt he was that much closer to fitting in with the senior crew.
When he returned to the office at the end of his shift, he found a note in his pigeon hole, presumable from another officer, telling him that left-side approaches were dangerous and he should stick to right-side approaches. He assumed the note was from another officer since it wasn't signed. His first reaction was to become irritated with the author of the note; in his mind, the author didn't understand what he had done. My friend felt he was being safe; he was out of the way of passing traffic. In his haste, my friend overlooked the potential of a confrontation with the driver or other occupants of the car. At the time, my friend didn't appreciate this critique of his performance. But he will tell you today, he never made another left-side approach.
Most courageous conversations start out from an observation of an act, or the omission of an act, that may result in additional danger to the officer. It could even be a young officer who gets in a car with his or her training officer and the training officer isn't wearing a seat belt. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for the trainee to initiate a conversation with the training officer about the danger of not wearing a seat belt. Likewise, it takes a confident and courageous training officer to accept that critique from a trainee and respond in a positive manner.
With riding motorcycles, an officer is always compelled to self-analyze their performance, and make adjustments, to ensure they're always thinking of their safety first. Most motorcycle officers do a good job of this, so it can be difficult for one officer to bring themselves to critique another officer’s performance. Yet there are times when this courageous conversation needs to occur. As cops, we don't particularly care for constructive feedback from the public, nor do we want the brass restricting our ability to do our job. So where else can that constructive feedback come from, if not from another cop?
If You Don’t Say Anything, Who Will?
I would encourage all cops, especially motorcycle cops who have been at their jobs for several years and have gotten very good at what they do, to take a critical look at themselves and see if there are shortcuts they have been taking. Think back to your initial training and ask yourself, are there things you can do better, or do safer?
Then comes the really difficult task. Take a look at your beat partners, your friends, those you work with, and when you see one start to move outside the circle of what's normally considered safe, have the courage to meet them for a cup of coffee and see if they realized what you observed. And if you're the one being approached, have the courage to listen, and realize this person must have a lot of respect and admiration for you if they're making the effort and taking the chance of upsetting you, to bring this to your attention. There's no room for rank, seniority and especially egos, when a fellow officer is concerned enough for your safety that they're willing to risk the barrage of ridicule and insults, or risk the stigma of not being one of the cool officers, to bring a transgression to your attention.
If you ever find yourself in a position to bring an observation to the attention of a fellow officer, and you find yourself avoiding the situation, think about this: what would you say to their family if something bad was to happen? Could you live the guilt of, “I wish I would have said something when I first saw them” …? Or, to avoid the chance of being labeled or ridiculed, would you ignore the situation and hope nothing bad happens. After all, they have been doing that same action for a long time, and you may have even done it yourself once or twice, without incident. What are the chances something will go wrong? I'm here to tell you, in the words of Mr. Gordon Graham, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” If you don’t say anything, then who will? If this isn't a good time for a courageous conversation, then when is?
Law enforcement is always on the lookout for the next thing to make the job more productive and safer for both officers and the public. The time for this constructive analysis and conversation is now. It's well within our ability to self-critique and make suggestions to enhance officer safety and maintain our public image. And the best part of all, there's absolutely no cost to the agency, or the public, to have this conversation. The cost of not having the courageous conversation can be a life.
Sergeant David Kinaan retired in 2012 as the supervisor of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Academy Motorcycle Training Unit. Sgt. Kinaan was an active member of the CHP for nearly 29 years and started riding enforcement motorcycles for the CHP in 1989. Sgt. Kinaan served in the Central Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Westminster and North Sacramento Areas before coming to the Academy’s Motorcycle Training Unit in 2008. The opinions expressed by Sgt. Kinaan are based on his experience and knowledge as a patrol officer, academy instructor and supervisor and don't necessarily reflect the official policies or procedures of the CHP.