Culture Connects the Dots for Equitable and Effective Public Safety

The Plymouth, Minnesota Police Department offers an example of embracing the elements

What do the report by the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the debate on “warrior” versus “guardian” mindsets, and discussions about delivering equitable and effective public safety have in common?


Culture is the common thread, according to newly retired Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein and public safety culture consultants Cathy Perme and Amber Peterson. And this was corroborated by data they collected via culture assessment tools from Human Synergistics to determine how Constructive versus Defensive cultures shape the execution of daily work in police departments.

Countering Fear of Police

Consider, for example, the following sequence of events at the Plymouth police department in 2016. After a fatal shooting by police at a routine traffic stop in nearby Falcon Heights, Minnesota – one of a string of incidents in cities across the country – a Plymouth resident wrote Police Chief Mike Goldstein asking for assurances that Plymouth police wouldn’t kill his son in a police encounter.

Goldstein tried writing back. “I explained who we are,” Goldstein said, “what we believe in and how we carry out our mission. Then I said to myself, ‘This is a weighty topic and I don’t feel a letter is enough.’ So, I offered a face-to-face meeting. I’ve been meeting with that resident and others every four to six weeks ever since to talk about race relations.”

The meetings exemplify Goldstein’s proactive approach to communicating with Plymouth residents. Some would call it “guardian” instead of “warrior” policing. Others might say it’s a “community” instead of “cops-know-best” approach. Goldstein calls it “community caretaking.”

Assessing Police Culture in the City

Regardless, it’s emblematic of the different ways – from accentuating mission and core values to improving hiring and training – Goldstein and his command staff have managed the department’s culture over more than 15 years. The culture they created enabled them to properly implement strategy and achieve exemplary results. The list of outcomes is pages long, including improving traffic safety and creating a regional plan to respond to large events (those for which resources need to be pulled from several cities). It’s what law enforcement leaders say has made the Plymouth department a model for effectively delivering law enforcement throughout Minnesota and across the country.

Yet, the culture isn’t perfect. Despite all of Goldstein’s work, there is still a gap between what officers from top to bottom in the department experience versus the ideal to which they aspire. The gap, signaled by a late 2020 culture assessment, came as a surprise. Led by Perme & Peterson Associates, the culture assessment – using the Human Synergistics Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) – pointed to a disconnect in the middle of the organization.

“I wanted to take a real-life temperature of where the department really was… I think law enforcement leaders need this information.”–Mike Goldstein, Plymouth, MN, Police Chief, retired

Goldstein commissioned the survey in the Fall as he prepared to retire after 17 years as chief and 31 years with the department. He wanted to leave city leaders and the next chief with observations and data they could use to continue bettering the culture and, hence, the department. “I wanted to take a real-life temperature of where the department really was,” Goldstein said. “I think law enforcement leaders need this information.”

Success Means Focusing on People

Since he became chief in 2004 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, Goldstein has consistently focused on creating a constructive culture. Back then, there was no handy playbook for guidance. So, Goldstein borrowed from initiatives elsewhere where he saw the kind of outcomes he sought from his officers. “When one of my officers leaves from a call,” he said, for example, “We don’t want the citizens involved to decide they won’t ever call us again.”

Goldstein found that, for the initiatives to be successful, he had to focus on people – the young officers he hired, the sergeants he promoted, and the command staff who helped him lead. He made it a point for the department to hire only those who exhibit a servant leadership mentality, are trainable, display a robust work ethic, believe in great customer service, and lead balanced lives. As they continued on the force, officers were expected to grow and develop, technically and personally. “We value education, training, and learning,” Goldstein said.

Law Enforcement and 21st Century Policing

President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its report in 2015 following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a 28-year-old police officer in Ferguson, Missouri the year before – a shooting that precipitated days of rioting.1 Goldstein embraced the report and its conclusions “whole-heartedly.” The task force recommendations were the equivalent of a national playbook, confirming what Goldstein had been doing over the years to build a constructive culture and lighting the way for further enhancements.

The Report’s authors pulled together a long list of best practices that would “promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” Among them: “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.” To do so, the report said, law enforcement should adopt “procedural justice” methods; that is, cops ought to consider the spirit versus the letter of the law with everyone, both inside and outside their departments, regardless of race, religion, gender, or any other difference. Does every minor infraction require a citation? No. The reaction should be apropos to the circumstance.

The report also singled out community policing as another important strategy. It asked police to “engage in multidisciplinary, community team approaches for planning, implementing and responding to crisis situations” with complex causes.

Taken together, the recommendations in the 21st Century Policing report amounted to a manifesto for change. Many departments are already far along implementing various recommendations; others lag well behind. Continued high-profile incidents like the George Floyd death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last summer highlight the urgency for the latter departments to change.

Why No Change?

Why no change? It all comes down to culture, say Perme and Peterson. The 21st Century Policing report warned: “There is an old saying, ‘Organizational culture eats policy for lunch.’ Any law enforcement organization can make great rules and policies that emphasize the guardian role, but if policies conflict with the existing culture, they will not be institutionalized and behavior will not change.”

Unfortunately, the Report did not talk about how to change culture. That’s where Perme and Peterson come in. Both agree with the report’s finding on the importance of culture. So does Chief Goldstein, who explains: “If you want to have success in accomplishing anything in your department, you have to have the culture to support it. By not assessing what you have and where you need to go with culture, you won’t have success. And you’ll have lots of problems.”  

Warriors AND Guardians

It’s here where deeply held views on warrior versus guardian come into play. It’s here where decades of federal gifting of surplus military hardware to local police together with wins by police unions seeking to protect their members have made it difficult for law enforcement leaders to root out unwarranted use of force. Debates continue about these and other factors making it more difficult to forge a different type of police department culture.2

“If the next school shooting comes, responders have to be warriors. It’s not either/or. It’s a spectrum. It’s not if you choose one or the other given the situation, it’s when that switch happens and to what degree.”–Amber Peterson, public safety culture consultant

The back and forth is nuanced. “Sometimes we need warriors,” said Chief Goldstein. Adds consultant Amber Peterson, a former police officer, “If the next school shooting comes, responders have to be warriors. It’s not either/or. It’s a spectrum. It’s not if you choose one or the other given the situation, it’s when that switch happens and to what degree.” Think procedural justice here. Also, think community policing. Officers decide many times a day how to react.

Going guardian or warrior – switching from one to the other – can be done poorly, or it can be done well.

Different Cultures Get Different Results

Building on a growing body of evidence from their culture assessment work using Human Synergistics surveys and qualitative approaches, Perme and Peterson have identified measures for what constitutes “poor” and “well.” In addition, they’ve been able to point to levers for changing culture.

Here’s how Human Synergistics defines cultures as predominately Constructive or Defensive based on over 47 years of research: A Constructive culture encourages members of the organization to interact with people and approach tasks in ways that enable them to meet their higher-order needs. A Defensive culture requires members to interact with others in self-protective ways (Passive) and/or in self-promoting ways (Aggressive) to maintain their position and personal security.

And here’s how Perme and Peterson have found these cultures to shape both guardian and warrior practices in police departments:


  In a Defensive Culture

  In a Constructive Culture

  Guardian Role

  • The department culture may drive officers to be intensely focused on gaining approval from their peers, superiors, or community. In doing so, officers could sacrifice what’s right and realistic within their capabilities.


  • Officers may avoid taking calls where they may be required to use force or could fail to use force when it is warranted (which, in turn, could cost them their jobs).


  • Officers could take on too many responsibilities – consider themselves always on duty, for example – which isn’t sustainable. This could be for fear of being passed over for promotion, which endangers their health and their ability to serve others.


  • The culture drives officers to stay in touch with their core motivation for becoming a police officer.Usually, that’s service and servant leadership.


  • It pushes officers to plan ahead and to talk through scenarios with their sergeants, fellow officers, and community members. This enables them to quickly switch into either warrior or guardian mode at a moment’s notice.


  • It prizes and reinforces officers’ ability to deescalate difficult situations.

  Warrior Role

  • Officers may trap themselves in a status quo mentality and might follow orders from senior officers, without questioning them, even if they know they’re wrong.


  • They may remain constantly at odds with department goals and policies, including those they view as unrealistic, based on their own personal experience on their shift.


  • When difficult incidents occur, lateral communication may break down – leading to officers refusing to work together, freezing, or going rogue.


  • When police unions prevail in defending rogue officers, toxic warrior mentalities become tougher to change.3


  • Even in tense situations, officers keep the welfare of all stakeholders top of mind.


  • In the moment, they cooperate well with others, even with peers with whom they don’t “see eye-to-eye.”


  • They are trusted to make sound “decide-to-shoot” decisions.


  • They treat those they arrest with respect.


  • After an especially difficult incident, debriefings occur where officers learn what went well and what didn’t.


Connecting Culture and 21st Century Policing

To help his officers better work across the warrior versus guardian spectrum and to better understand other aspects of his organization’s culture, Chief Goldstein pointed to his department’s just-completed culture assessment for answers. The OCI and OEI used by Perme and Peterson can map culture and its causes to the 21st Century Policing task force recommendations – not only for Plymouth but for police departments across the country.

For the Plymouth police, the assessment showed that Goldstein and top brass have articulated well the department’s mission, done a good job providing service to citizens, empowered front-line officers, and displayed good communication up and down the chain of command. Officers reported they intended to stay with the department and felt their jobs were secure. Overall, the organization scored well in external adaptability and service quality. As a result, the department enjoys an excellent reputation in the community.

Levers for Change

Nevertheless, Goldstein noted that the assessment “teased out things we need to do.” He said he looks to his sergeants – the day-to-day keepers of his organization’s culture – to be consistent in supervising front-line officers and to reinforce what’s learned in training. Yet some focused more on task than on people. Some coached and developed officers; others didn’t. Sergeants, the equivalent of mid-level managers in other organizations, were not always on the same page with each other or members of the command staff, Goldstein said.

The OCI/OEI identified levers for change—that is, improvements that could be made to further strengthen constructive norms and increase effectiveness. These levers, validated via focus groups and interviews, include: Goal emphasis, regular performance feedback, mentoring, and collaboration to better build internal coordination. Such changes are especially important given the new generation of police officers coming on board.

Reflections: A Case for Culture

At the end of the day, the newly-retired Chief can reflect back and connect his emphasis on developing a constructive culture to the 21st Century Policing report, the debate over guardian versus warrior policing, and the feedback provided by the quantitative tool to measure culture. Goldstein is “thrilled” with what he and his department have accomplished. At the same time, he readily says he would not have learned what he did about his department’s culture, and he would not have been able to articulate next steps for his successor, had it not been for the Perme and Peterson assessment. He is confident his successor will pick up where he left off. “In the pursuit of perfection,” he said, “you might catch excellence.”

90-Day Culture & Performance Quick-Start Program

For Public Safety groups looking to build public trust, community engagement, officer wellness, and more, consider Perme & Peterson Associates’ customized 90-Day Culture Quick-Start Program.

For change agents in Enterprise, SMB, Education, or Government, Human Synergistics will help you engage your organization and its members in designing and implementing a customized 90-day blueprint for accelerated results and success.

Contact us to get started.

Contributor: As a former police officer and now a public safety culture consultant, Amber Peterson focuses on helping public safety groups build a culture inside that creates public trust outside. She contributed to this blog post.


1 Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Washington DC: United States Department of Justice. 2015.

2 Seth Stoughton commentary, Harvard Law Review, April 10, 2015, “Law Enforcement’s “Warrior” Problem,”

3 Kim Barker, Michael H. Keller and Steve Eder, New York Times, Dec. 22, 2020 (updated Jan. 6, 2021), “How Cities Lost Control of Police Discipline,”

About the Author

Avatar photo
Bill Bancroft

Bill Bancroft is Managing Principal of Conbrio, a Dallas-based consulting firm. He’s an accredited practitioner in the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®), Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI), Leadership/Impact® (L/I), and the Management/Impact® (M/I) instruments. Bill uses these and other diagnostics in his work guiding leaders and their teams in culture and leadership development. With deep expertise in strategy and innovation, his clientele spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.