Retired Chief Profile: Soft skills’ role in solving tough public safety issues

A preview article from the Spring 2016 edition of Minnesota Police Chief. To see the full issue: 
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When Chief Bob Ringstrom (Ret.) started with the Hutchinson PD back in the late 1970’s the department’s call boxes were barely out of service. From fax machines to MDCs, he experienced a number of technological advancements in his career and is amazed by the progress since he retired a decade ago. Chief Ringstrom finished his career with Sartell in 2004, serving about 13 years as chief.

While technology has helped improved accountability and documentation, he’s concerned some new forms of communication could become a barrier in officers’ interactions with the public.  Minnesota Police Chief recently had a wide-ranging conversation with Chief Ringstrom for this retired chief’s profile.

Tell readers what you’ve been up to.

Many of the hiring, promotion and staff development skills I cultivated as a law enforcement leader have been extremely valuable in my current career.  John Wiley & Sons Publishing, a global publisher, specializing in scientific, technical and medical journals, recruited me to develop and market online psychometrics for hiring and job-fit.  

Actually, I hadn’t planned on retiring when I shifted gears about a decade ago. I completed my graduate degree, attended the FBI National Academy, and had the Sartell PD focused on youth and community-based programs. I also had some outstanding officers to carry the ball. 

However, while I was still working, I developed a few strip malls in Sartell. My wife Barbara wanted a change and bought a flower shop. I actually rented her some space.  It all started to crunch my time with the PD, so I retired thinking real estate would be a good second career gig.  But I moved into psychometrics in 2010 following the big market crash.

What were the major transitions in policing during your career that relate to what’s going on in policing today?

I hadn’t been a police chief very long when we got our first computers and internet connection.  We felt like we were now running with the big dogs!  Later we really gathered momentum.  There was CAD and laptop communications in the squad cars.  I was constantly after the IT folks at the county to transition to paperless reporting.   That seemed to be a mantra of mine for 10 years, but I never saw it developed.  One of the earliest transitions I initiated as chief was to replace our revolvers with semi-automatics and ensured that everyone had body armor. 

Looking at technology now, I’m amazed at all the evidence collection capabilities available in a pocket-sized cell phone, from video and audio to GPS.

I’m also glad in a way it didn’t happen in my time because now it seems police are under constant surveillance. While the accountability and documentation of mobile cameras are extremely valuable, I feel it tends to put officers in a position where they have to be overly formal, and that can interfere with a routine, relaxed dialogue

Another big transition when I became chief in 1991 was the advent of Community Policing, the principals of which I embraced. I also gained an appreciation for the principles of selecting new officers and coaching them into their duties.  I think our DARE program illustrated this best.  I recognize that DARE has been criticized as a failed concept by some.  But to be blunt, I would point to the qualifications of some of the officers that were selected for the program.  If they couldn’t connect with and build a lasting influence with their students; they shouldn’t have been assigned to the position. The best street cop does not necessarily make the best DARE officer; and the reverse holds true.  I would also add that I would not have been successful as a DARE officer.

How did you work through those transitions?

I don’t know if we’d ever really figured out the best way to select the right candidates for open positions. We did alright. Over the years, I realized that the best officers in each position shared the same three or four traits. I kept that in mind when hiring, assigning people to special units or promoting. In fact, I’d received compliments on the longevity of the staff that we’d developed. 

A big piece of our success I believe was training and professional development—making the transition from a raw reaction to a place where training would guide officers’ instincts during a crisis.

When I was a rookie cop, there was a degree of adrenalin-rush that made the job compelling. I took chances that I shouldn’t have.  I was lucky.  When I became chief, I didn’t want my officers to rely on luck to finish their shifts. I wanted them to be prepared for those inevitable moments of tension and fear. 

Your blog talks about police-community relations and “disarming the police” metaphorically. What are some strategies for accomplishing that effectively?

I’ve always felt that many of those who dislike cops had a similar problem in getting along with parents who expected them to behave.  The challenge to police is to sell the idea that we’re all on the same side in this world.  Any cop that can do that is just where he or she belongs.

A key benefit of that is getting community members to step up and assist us at times. That takes officers who can establish community trust and build the relationships ahead of time to build a strong support base. Doing this means more success in terrible situations.

Force tactics, emergency driving and firearms training are essential skills as well.  I could be criticized for not having the best soft skills; but I guess I’m just encouraging chiefs to make it a priority for their department culture.