Students and sheriffs at Stanford University’s Coffee with a Cop event

“Ask ourselves about our core purposes and reason for being, and then with great transparency communicate this in a relatable way.” – Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO


Here’s something you don’t see every day: the CEO of Starbucks talking with a room full of police chiefs about branding, leadership, and racial justice.

Last month in Seattle, Howard Schultz and Chief of Police Kathleen O’Toole discussed 21st century policing and took audience questions at the NOBLE winter symposium (see “21st Century Policing 2.0). There were hundreds of police executives present from around the country.

While law enforcement as a whole is usually localized and hierarchical, most of these chiefs were curious about what they could learn from the private sector. And with Howard Schultz at the front of the room, the executives joined in a unique Q&A with one of the world’s most famous CEOs.

During the discussion, three themes emerged—and they weren’t what I was expecting at all:

#1: If you view policing as a brand, you start thinking about what your “customers” want

A lieutenant once told me the police shouldn’t adopt a customer service mentality because “some people don’t want the service we’re providing.” In other words, if a traffic cop is handing you a ticket, you’re probably having a bad day, regardless of that officer’s job performance. While I see the logic in this, this approach means police chiefs are losing a lot of useful information and opportunities to build trust.

Schultz put it this way: “when you think about the police as a brand, you start thinking about what your customers want.” The police in fact rely on the opinion of the general public to a large degree. Since the police use procedural justice to maintain legitimacy, they’re at greater risk as individuals and as organizations if they’re perceived as illegitimate.

So, in Schultz’s words, what are people longing for? “Compassion, empathy, and trustworthy institutions.” This isn’t just a problem faced by the police: public trust in institutions just hit a record low. Public trust in the police hit a 22-year low in 2015 before recovering slightly last year(Gallup). In other words, people are craving a human touch, as demonstrated by a “relatable and respectful police force.

#2: Great leadership is defined by humility

I only learned about the term “servant leadership” in the past few months, and it’s completely changed my definition of what makes a great CEO (or police chief, for that matter). Here’s how Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term, explains it:

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” (To Serve First)

By this definition, a leader is most effective when he or she is lifting others up, not exerting control from the top down. This mentality is rooted in humility, rather than ego. Admitting your mistakes is an important part of this, both internally (e.g., to your officers) and externally (to the public).

#3: Compete for talent by investing in diversity

There’s plenty of research that diversity helps companies perform better (“Why diverse teams are smarter,” Harvard Business Review). As a Chicago-area chief said, “You can’t attract and retain great talent today unless you are deeply committed to diversity,” and that applies equally to the private sector and the public sector.

Police departments, perhaps more than any other field in the past few years, are struggling to attract talent. In some cities, applications are down more than 90% and “with the U.S. unemployment rate at only 4 percent, competition is fierce for good workers.” (ABC) And as public confidence in the police dips, especially due to concerns about bias, a diverse police force is even more important:

Trust in law enforcement generally has remained fairly stable since … 1993. But … the share of both whites and blacks who believe that African Americans are discriminated against by the police has risen markedly between 1969 and 2014. (The Economist)

Diversity isn’t just about race, of course. There’s also research on how female police officers differ from their male counterparts, with a growing pile of evidence that women are less likely to use force, and therefore less likely to cost their cities expensive excessive force lawsuits (TIME).

Last word: more coffee, please

Unlike with most marketing challenges, public perception of law enforcement can be a matter of life and death. Trust improves safety, and communication solves crime. For example, police chiefs are supporting the idea of sanctuary cities because they say immigrants help keep crime down. As the number of officers per capita declines, trust will become even more important. And in some cities, the only way to restore (or create) this trust will involve historic apologies or comprehensive reform.

It’s a big project, but every one of us can play a role in the process simply by being willing to listen to one another and show up for conversations. And to Schultz’s credit, Starbucks is walking the walk. At the end of the Q&A, Schultz and Chief O’Toole announced that Starbucks will be supporting 100 more Coffee with a Cop events this year (Seattle Times).

PS: Personally, I’m very curious about your experiences with the police—do you interact with the police regularly? Have you been to a Coffee with a Cop event? Do you avoid talking with the police whenever possible? my90 has studied the impact of Coffee with a Cop, and I’m full of questions for those of you who don’t attend the events. If you ever want to share your unique point of view, please get in touch!

About my90: we got our name from a police sergeant who said, “we miss 90% of the story when we talk to the public.” my90 helps cities and residents use this missing 90% to improve community-police relations and make neighborhoods safer. Learn more about my90 & get in touch at