The Light Brigade: A Historic Battle Provides a New Twist on Law Enforcement Culture

The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing had received considerable attention upon its release and was designed to be a blueprint for police reform. The primary purpose of the report was to help to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, although in recent years public discussion of the report has diminished. There is, however, an essential element of the concepts discussed within the report that law enforcement administrators should not overlook. Three terms used in the report are still essential to law enforcement: legitimacy, procedural justice and implicit bias, and they are just as important to managing our own agencies as they are to our relationship with the community.

  • Legitimacy reflects the concept that while some acts are allowed, or legal, taking those actions may not be deemed as legitimate.
  • Procedural justice requires respect, fairness and proper use of discretion.
  • Implicit bias is an unconscious attitude toward a person, thing or group. While the term is associated in many minds with race, it’s much broader. We typically learn biases from the people and environment we are exposed to.

In theory, these concepts and their central importance in criminal justice would make sense. But in practice, what does all of this mean to and for today’s law enforcement administrator?

A Lesson from History

History always has relevance to current and future events, and valuable lessons can be learned in many places. The story of the Light Brigade was made famous by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade.

First, some background. The Battle of Balaclava took place on Oct. 25, 1854. It involved the combatants of the Crimean War: the British, French and Turks vs. the Russians. The Brits had set up a base near the city of Balaclava. Russian troops and naval gun artillery occupied three sides of a valley, while British and French troops were located near the end of the valley–AKA, the “Valley of Death.”

Simply put, the leaders of the British Light and Heavy Brigades strongly disliked each other. Their dislike devolved into a professional pettiness and stupidity evident to all who served under them—patriotic soldiers eager to fulfill their mission. When word came down with a plan, the approximately 670 soldiers of the Light Brigade, starved for action, leapt to it. But the enemy movements that were clear from the vantage point of the British commander who ordered the charge were not visible to the commander of the Light Brigade. Rather than question or clarify the order that on its face made no sense, the inept commander led the charge  through the valley—a valley ringed on three sides by thousands of enemy troops and more than 50 elevated artillery pieces, with the support of the Heavy Brigade. It was plainly a fool’s errand. The Heavy Brigade never showed, and the Light Brigade, those that were left of them, had to be assisted by brave and quick-thinking French Cavalry. 

Civil service can place a person into a supervisory position, but the full responsibility for becoming a leader is on the individual.

While different accounts vary on the exact number, only about 195 members of the Light Brigade made it back to the British lines with their horses. By one account, 118 men were killed, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner. Over 400 horses were killed or injured. And all, ultimately, for nothing.

As Tennyson famously put it in his poem about the battle: “Not though the soldier knew/Someone had blundered./Theirs not to make reply,/Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to/do and die.”

For What We Do

What does this have to do with civilian law enforcement?

People become law enforcement officers because they want, in part, to be the ones running to the danger, not away from it. For new police officers, reality sets in quickly with the realization that much of an officer’s time is spent on noncriminal matters. We train and we wait, and when the time comes we want to act.

The problem comes when we act when we perhaps should not. This can be driven by the personal internal motivations that initially put us in the job, which were then reinforced by our training and organizational culture. The combination can create within us an implicit bias, leading us to unconsciously conclude that immediate action is the only option.

While this potential exists for all police officers, it is more likely to happen with highly trained tactical officers. It is even more difficult for them to maintain that high level of training and not see it used on a regular basis. So when a potential situation arises where activation may be an option, they want to use those skills and tactics; they may believe deployment is the only way to resolve the situation. Not allowing them to act can lead to poor morale and discontentment with the administration. Weak administrators, erroneously thinking that making the tough but right call will make them look weak in the eyes of their subordinates, give in to their wishes. Such orders lack legitimacy, even though the actions they allow may be legal.

Again, the Light Brigade can serve as an example of this problem. The troops were frustrated and blamed their leadership for not putting them into action. As a result, an order that could be interpreted as suicidal was followed without hesitation. Their implicit bias in all likelihood led them to the conclusion this was, without question, the right thing to do. In addition, those who led the charge likely feared backlash for questioning the order since their troops were already frustrated by their previous refusals to enter battle.

The Role of Culture

A part of the creation of a proper organizational culture of any agency must be a clear statement of organizational values: that the needs of the organization come before our own, and that we do not worry about how we may be perceived when we know we are doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The cemeteries are full of brave men and women, but rules and procedures—combined with regular training and inspiration—are designed to keep them out.

An essential component of a police organizational culture is there is no evidence in any vehicle, house or person worth the life or integrity of the officer or the integrity of the department. Emphasis of this concept can, through repetition and relevant training, help to eliminate or mitigate the implicit bias that may lead officers into bad and unsafe decisions. The goal is to get the officers to understand the intent and reasoning behind decisions, and ultimately to get the officers to make the better decision themselves.

Organizational culture is closely related to communication, which breaks down when we assume our message will be received in the same meaning and context in which it was given. Because this is often not the case, law enforcement agencies should encourage a culture of respectful clarification. Yet a common management flaw often gets in the way: micromanaging.

Micromanagers stifle individual development of subordinates, severely restrict the use of discretion, and discourage questioning the purpose and intent of orders. Such managers are also susceptible to hubris, overestimating their own competence and abilities. Until the supervisor realizes they do not know everything and that the insight of their peers and subordinates can be valuable, they are merely a supervisor, not a leader. Civil service can place a person into a supervisory position, but the full responsibility for becoming a leader is on the individual.

The events leading up to the Battle of the Balaclava serve, by many historical accounts, as a perfect storm of mismanagement—a situation in which miscommunication, personal conflicts, hubris, and a desire for action ultimately resulted in the needless loss of hundreds of lives.

Perhaps if the lessons of today could have been followed on the day of the infamous charge, many troopers would have survived. As I have said in my training classes for years, the cemeteries are full of brave men and women, but rules and procedures are designed to keep them out. Becoming aware of the biases that impact our decision-making is essential to preventing needless injuries and loss of life.

When our officers act under stress, the chance they may not make the best decisions is dramatically increased. We must train to use discretionary time when it is available. There are enough situations where officers have no choice but to act and put themselves at risk. Our goal should be to limit such scenarios.

The troopers of the Light Brigade can only live on in the immortal words of Tennyson. The best way to honor their memory is to try to foster an organizational culture that gives them the best chance of going home to their families at the end of the shift.

Michael Ranalli

MIKE RANALLI, ESQ., is a Program Manager II for Lexipol. He retired in 2016 after 10 years as chief of the Glenville (N.Y.) Police Department. He began his career in 1984 with the Colonie (N.Y.) Police Department and held the ranks of patrol officer, sergeant, detective sergeant and lieutenant. Mike is also an attorney and is a frequent presenter on various legal issues including search and seizure, use of force, legal aspects of interrogations and confessions, wrongful convictions, and civil liability. He is a consultant and instructor on police legal issues to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and has taught officers around New York State for the last 15 years in that capacity. Mike is also a past president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, a member of the IACP Professional Standards, Image & Ethics Committee, and the former Chairman of the New York State Police Law Enforcement Accreditation Council. He is a graduate of the 2009 F.B.I.-Mid-Atlantic Law Enforcement Executive Development Seminar and is a Certified Force Science Analyst.

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