In 2023 Law Enforcement leaders are having to deal with a growing number of critical issues. Officer Safety and Wellness, Violent Crime Reduction, Recruitment and Retention in addition to the push to promote diversity on the force to name a few. We had the pleasure of interviewing The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) Executive Director, Kym Craven, a law enforcement professional of over 37 years and a champion for women empowerment within the community as she shared her guidance to help leaders navigate these issues.
Tell us your personal background and experience being in the Law Enforcement Community
Starting out in Law Enforcement
I started back in the profession in the eighties. I was both sworn and civilian. Civilian in a larger agency, and sworn in a small agency in rural Massachusetts. I’m in a civil service state. So back in the eighties, it was really hard to get a job in a self-service organization unless you had residency preference, language or military and I didn’t have any of those. It just wasn’t, my destiny become an officer in a large Civil Service agency. I was able to learn a lot of different aspects of the profession being in a larger agency while having a practical application in the smaller agency. As I was going through my career, I started to work in a lot of different areas, like data analysis and mapping, policy development, community programming, engagement and started writing a lot of curriculum for different trainings and working on projects for the Massachusetts Municipal Academy, then the State Police Academy, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police, and several other agencies in the regional.
I ended up getting so many requests that I started a consulting company in 1994, the Public Safety Strategies Group (PSSG) and began working with agencies of all sizes, from 6 to 2,400 on issues that they were having or programs they wanted to develop. Projects included everything from district boundaries to internal investigations, staffing, how to solve community problems and how to realign their organizations. Really anything that a research and development unit of a larger agency might do, I was doing as a consultant, another with a team of others with specialized expertise.
Path to NAWLEE
During this time I actually met one of the founders of NAWLEE, Alana Ennis. She and I became friends, and she began working with me at PSSG. -Interestingly, I applied to be the Executive Director of NAWLEE years prior to getting the job. During the first, and second times I applied I was not selected. Then in 2018, I received a call from NAWLEE asking if I was still interested in the association. Several years passed, but I still had the same passion, and so I said yes! I started as the executive director in 2018 at the annual conference in August which was held in Anaheim in partnership with Los Angeles Women Police Officers Association (LAWPOA).
Deputy Chief Val Cunningham from the Indianapolis Meto Police Department was the president when I came to NAWLEE. She was extremely supportive of the vision I had for NAWLEE and I learned much from her as she continued to serve NAWLEE as the past president of the association.
When I came into the law enforcement profession the number of women in the field was at 5%. I didn’t think much of that as I had a background of showing horses competitively. I always competed with men and I didn’t know that there would be a difference in the workplace I came to learn there certainly was. As I went through my career, I was really lucky to have some male advocates that helped me understand what training and career development I needed to do. There just wasn’t an opportunity to have women mentors at that time. There were however some other inspirational women in the field in my home state, namely Kathy O’Toole. I started my career a bit later than her, but I watched how she ascended through the ranks and took the lead at several agencies in the Commonwealth. She was chief of the Metropolitan District Commission, Lieutenant Colonel of the Massachusetts State Police, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, and the Commissioner of the Boston Police Department. In each of those roles, she was the first female to hold the position. It meant a lot to me to see a female attain those positions. Of course, after she left Massachusetts she continued to excel in the profession. What I learned most from Kathy is that there is always time to give back.
The first NAWLEE conference for me as executive director was in 2019 and I reach out to Kathy to see if she would come and without hesitation, the answer was yes. To this day, I learn from her through her writings, her keynote addresses, her meeting facilitation, and her continued contributions to the field.
Interestingly, the first NAWLEE Executive Director was also from Massachusetts. Diane Skoog. was the chief of the Carver, Massachusetts Police Department. The current President of the International Association of Women Police is Deb Friedl. Deb was the first and only woman named interim superintendent of the Lowell, Massachusetts Police Department. Clearly, there were women that have excelled in the profession in Massachusetts, and all of our careers overlapped, but there wasn’t that ability to network the way we do today. Mentoring wasn’t established as a process in law enforcement yet, so we were all finding our own way and reaching out in a more informal way.
Today NAWLEE has a formal mentoring program that provides training and matches to women interested in career development from across the country.
Representing Women in Law Enforcement
I thought towards the end of my career a good fit would be NAWLEE. NAWLEE has the ability to create a space for women in the field and advance the number of women in leadership and specialized positions. My ultimate goal is that I’m part of the last generation of firsts so that, we stop seeing the headlines that make it noteworthy that a woman attains a certain position in a law enforcement agency. It should not be of interest that a female was named chief, or that there’s a female in motor patrol, it should just be the norm.
NAWLEE develops ways to help celebrate and elevate the voices of women in the field and help them see that they can be it, too, so that it’s just normal for women to be leading organizations and that women are represented in the field.
The association is led by a Board of Directors that helps spread the message and show that “if you can see it you can be it”. Women’s History Month this year is an example of how much NAWLEE has grown. In March 2023, NAWLEE was part of 12 different events. Every board member, and our Women Law Enforcement Executive, Chief Vera Bumpers, Houston Metro Police Department, was out in the field representing NAWLEE and women in the field.
How should agencies proactively address Officer safety and wellness issues?
Addressing Officer Mental Wellness
This is a trauma-filled profession. Law enforcement professionals see things that most people don’t want to see. They’re going to calls where people have been killed or injured. They are faced with domestic violence, crimes against children, and elder abuse calls. Cumulatively exposure to these critical issues can build. Addressing the health and well-being of officers is more than just once a year conversation. It can’t be just something that is taught during in-service. Programs need to be put in place throughout the organization that is reflected in their policies and practices.
If someone is struggling with mental health, they have to have access to a mental health professional that understands law enforcement. They need to get to that person without red tape. A program needs to be in place where a department member can just call and get an appointment with a mental health profession. There needs to be immediate access to wellness clinics. Whether they be in person, a day program, or in an extended stay program, those that are struggling with mental health or substance use disorders need quick access so they do not become more isolated.
There also need to be programs that are in place that ensure that officers that are injured on duty have quick access to medical professionals so that they get back on the job. Many agencies are doing great work to develop well-rounded wellness programs to ensure that there are kiosks with healthy food available or lists of alternatives if they need to eat at a fast food restaurant so they know what the best choices are on the menu. Several agencies have integrated financial fitness into their programs so that finances do not become a stressor for a department member.
Changing Views on Health and Wellness
I think the generation that’s coming into the workforce is much more attuned to mental health and self-care. They are used to putting everything on social media and talking about everything they do, I think those barriers around discussion mental will start to break down much more as they join the law enforcement profession. The generation that I’m part of that is now retiring from the profession didn’t share in the same way. You weren’t encouraged to talk about things. It was your job, you do it, you help, and you move on. We didn’t have a culture that took care of the helpers. I think, opening up the spaces for conversation and well-rounded wellness will do much to influence the future of the profession.
Given the ongoing struggle of recruitment and retention felt by law enforcement agencies, what are the most effective strategies you’ve learned to address these issues?
The Evolution of the Problem
Recruitment has changed. Everyone is talking like this is a new issue that just emerged over the past few years but it’s actually been ongoing for a while. About a decade or so ago, many agencies had started DROP programs where department members that were ready for retirement could do so, collect their pension, but then come back into their old position and collect payroll. The process actually just delayed the inevitable. The DROP program in some instances has actually stalled the careers of others as they were unable to advance with the person they expected to retire and came back to hold the same position. Of course, the pandemic stalled many of the recruit classes from occurring, so there was a significant impact as a result
I started to see the change in the type of person that we were recruiting, and how we were recruiting shortly after 911. The emphasis on training became different from the focus of community policing to tactics. Of course, tactics are extremely important to the field, but the funding shift seemed to influence the type of person that was entering the policing profession. In the 1970s and 1980s, the workforce was growing, and the number of women seeking employment rose, this trend had peaked by 2000. The workforce pool is now dwindling, with the retirement of the baby boomers retiring among the factors.
Increased Creativity in the Application Process
We need to change how the profession markets to the workforce of today.
Civil service testing can be a limiting factor because of rigid timeframes and the lack of a continual application process. Flexibility with how to submit an application and participate in testing is needed. Agencies should not have the process be long and arduous, but rather a process that is efficient.
Having an interactive website, with the ability to submit applications online is essential. The more agencies can do to have software programs that facilitate the application and background process, the more attractive they will be to candidates.
Most of all agencies, need to have robust recruiting strategies that go far beyond just showing up once a year at a criminal justice-based career fair.
Speaking to the current generation
The fact that we still come across agencies that have paper-based applications, shows how behind the times we can be. Today those entering the workforce operate differently. If they are not able to do something on their phone it’s not real We are recruiting a generation that operates on their phone. Moving paper back and forth, or having to go pick up an application and then deliver it back in hand does not help an agency gain applicants.
The profession needs to start talking to young people when they’re still in school, high school, or even earlier, about policing careers, and get in front of them and show potential applicants what the field is all about. Show realistic photos, and have them meet people that are in the field that are out doing really good work and showing them that this is not a profession that is about guns and the big takedowns because that’s not happening every day. That’s the exception, not the norm.
Agencies really need to be marketing what policing is. It’s helping your community. It’s helping people. It’s keeping people safe. Arrests are going to be made, people will commit crimes against children, elder fraud will occur, individuals will traffic drugs, people will drive impaired, and violent crimes will happen, but we need to remember that generally communities are filled with good people who just want to live in safe spaces. We need to show officers as helpers using a problem-solving approach. It is important that agencies are intentionally thinking about diversity. Everything from what is handed out at career fairs, or what is on social media, to what is shown on websites has to be much more reflective and inclusive to all.
The topics of Violent Crime Reduction and Deescalation training are on the rise. How important are these training sessions to agencies given the current climate?
Violent Crime Reduction
The county has seen an uptick in crime coming out of the pandemic. There needs to be thoughtful conversations within communities about why this is happening. Is it changes in police practices? Is it factors that are pushing down into communities? Is it related to jobs, poverty and homelessness? What is happening specifically in each community needs to be evaluated.
After a review then there needs to be conversations about how to reduce violent crime while still maintaining people’s civil rights, and by having policing practices accepted in the community. We can’t “depolice”, but we need to incorporate other solutions if we are to have a significant and long-term effect on crime. If we want to keep people safe, we need to still focus on the high-impact players. It’s such a small number of people that are responsible for most of the crime, so focusing on them and looking at services that can be provided to community members to keep them out of the criminal justice system is vitally important. Police are called when societal issues need to be addressed, but an arrest isn’t the only answer. Comprehensive community-based programs need to be part of the solution.
I would hope that we are recruiting and training people that have a basic understanding of what good policing is and what interactions need to be like between police and the community. The reality is though, that it is important to have not only de-escalation training but training on trauma-informed responses.
Officers need to understand how their demeanor and how they approach people can be triggers. We have got to understand that police are not called because someone’s having a good day. Police are called because things are not going well. As officers approach a situation they should know that at that moment folks are likely not thinking clearly.
Officers need to work harder to talk with them, understand them, and get their frame of reference, and their viewpoint because it’s going to be really different than the officer. When someone is in a stressful situation it’s not always possible for them to express themselves in the right way or react the way a police officer wants them to at that moment. Having a high level of empathy and good communication skills are essential
Giving officers an array of tools in their toolkit about how they can modulate their own responses, keeps themselves safe, and respond in a way that helps the other person come down off of their heightened response is important.
There is also the duty to intervene. There are several different training programs available to agencies and it is important for training to occur so that officers will intervene if someone in their agency is approaching a situation in a manner that doesn’t match policy.
What is your opinion on the statement “Body Cameras are shedding light on issues compared to before”
Body Cameras provide the whole picture
I had the opportunity to be a consultant to review internal investigations. The body camera footage often showed that the perception of the person with the complaint was not congruent with what had actually happened. On many occasions, the footage showed that officers did a really good job.
There were instances where the body camera footage showed that an officer deviated and their actions were out of policy. . When this occurs, agencies need to take action to hold the officer accountable and also should look internally at their policies, training, and practices.
Striking the Balance with Body Cameras
I think there’s also a bit of a downside to body cameras. When graphic footage is released it can cause trauma, to families and to community members to see what’s happening. While the actions by the officers should never have happened, I think we need to really consider what we are gaining by showing some of that video footage that gets released.
It’s a hard question because I believe in transparency and accountability, while on the other hand, I try and put myself in the shoes of being a relative or friend of someone in the footage. I don’t claim to have the answers to these challenges but agencies need to have those discussions with their community members to understand both the need for releasing footage and the impacts.
Police Body Cameras provide Accountability
But the day-to-day footage, I do think, helps create that additional level of accountability. An officer should be performing to their highest degree of proficiency with or without the camera, however. Body cameras can provide proof how individual interactions unfolded. There’s good police work going on out there, and unfortunately, times when corrections are needed. Consistently reviewing body camera footage is an extra tool for supervisors to have eyes on the field.
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