A Note From a Cop in the Future

     I wrote the following piece in 1990. It was published that year in the American Journal of Policing.

I now place it here to illustrate that though many of us have had dreams about the future of police, we are not there yet. Instead of being a couple of decades ahead of my time, I now sense it will be decades into the future before this dream (and, perhaps, your dream, too) becomes a reality. A few years before I retired from active policing, this was my dream. And it remains so today.

In my new book, I talk about having a dream — a grand vision that casts a strong and breath-taking vision for the direction of policing. Casting this vision is the first step of the “seven necessary steps” to improve our nation’s police.

You will see  that there are some dominant themes in my dream that I hoped would happen in American policing. It is still my dream for our nation’s police and what keeps me writing today:

Demilitarization, decentralization, listening, being responsive, close to the community, taking personal responsibility, being honest, creating  in a trusting and supportive work atmosphere, respecting and being respectful, acting as community workers and organizers, peacekeepers and protectors of the Bill of Rights, continuously improving, “keeping the peace with a maximum amount of problem-solving and a minimum amount of force,” collaboration with neighborhood residents, and working to maintain a high-quality of life in the community.

 A Note From a Cop in the 21st Century

      “In the late 1980s the American police took some bold steps to assess what their role and relationships with the people they serve would be in the [future].  From that effort came the decision to restructure their mission and role within their communities in order to anticipate the future and effectively respond to it.

“One of their major decisions was to ‘demilitarize’ the police and decentralize them into small team-oriented work units in their city’s neighborhoods.  They identified the citizens as ‘customers’ and developed methods to listen to them and be responsive to their needs.  Over the previous 100 years, the police had become increasingly centralized, authoritarian and hierarchical.  This led to continuing problems with their communities and a major decrease in the quality of their personnel…”

“The first experimental police reorganization was not without its problems.  Many police employees, as well as citizens, perceived this new orientation as not really ‘police work.’  There came to be a struggle among the traditionalists who saw police work as it had always been.  They saw police work as a linear extension of the last century.

“On the other hand, the new police saw the need to radically change their past orientation and get closer to, and work more closely with, the communities they served… These new police were out in front of that massive change [the shift from an industrial to an information age] and were not caught unaware and unprepared to deal with the issues and conflicts that change brought.  We owe our success today to those forward-thinking police leaders…

“I schedule my own work time in the neighborhood.  I am highly visible in my area but also have ‘office hours’ posted when I will be available in my office to discuss community matters.  I have central as well as personal communications with my personal data unit…

“I work in a very trusting and supportive atmosphere, not only because of my colleagues, but also because of the community I serve… ‘management’ in my department does not seem anything   like what I have read about in the 20th century.  My organization seems more ‘flat’ than the hierarchical pyramid of yesterday’s police departments.  We have more trust in one another.  We respect each other as individuals: competent, professional persons who are part of an important function… We do our jobs well, and fairly, and the public respects us for that…

“Our organization seems much more comfortable and effective than those I have read about in the last century.  The paramilitary ‘trappings’ of the past century have fallen by the wayside.  We have, of course, a uniform and identifiable mode of dress, but not the military style uniform.  I usually wear a blazer with department emblem… There are no rank symbols and we address each other on a first name basis, from the newest employee up to the police director…

“I read that one of the things that troubled last century’s police was the on-going tension between police with a ‘social worker’ orientation and those with a ‘crime fighter’ bent.  For the most part, that has vanished today.  We see ourselves as community workers and organizers with a variety of tools and strategies (including arrest) at our disposal.  We actively serve as mediators, negotiating settlements of all kinds and sorts of community problems.  These conflicts range from problems between people regarding lifestyles, pollution, marital property disputes and other family discord…

“Our job today is to maintain community order within a human rights framework.  I guess you could realistically call us peacekeepers and protectors of the Bill of Rights…

“What I like most about my job is the teamwork, honesty, and trust that goes on among all of the police specialists in the district and within the department (and this includes our leaders, too!).  We brainstorm solutions and select the best known method to do business.  We are committed to constant, continuous improvement — forever.  I feel that I am doing an extremely important job and my neighborhood appreciates it.  I guess you could call it keeping the peace in [my city] with a maximum amount of problem solving and a minimum amount force…

“Not only do I fully participate in the direction of my police district and department, but I am an integral part of the neighborhood community in which I work.  My people know I can, and that I have the authority and ability to, help them solve their problems, keep their neighborhood safe and peaceful, and maintain a high-level quality of life here…”

(Signed) “Police Specialist D. Futura, May 24, 2005.”

[“Comparing Two Positions on the Future of American Policing,” American Journal of Police, Vol. ix, no. 3, 1990, p. 165-69.]

This was and is my dream.

The question I have today is whether or not that dream is shared by the majority of police in America? And if it is not, why not?

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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

6 Responses to “A Note From a Cop in the Future”

  1. The dream is not shared by most policemen across the world because they still think of themselves (and the media,the politicians and the citizens think of them) primarily as crime fighters and not as peacekeepers.

  2. “We actively serve as mediators, negotiating settlements of all kinds and sorts of community problems. These conflicts range from problems between people regarding lifestyles, pollution, marital property disputes and other family discord.”

    When cops were on foot during the 19th centuary and early 20th centuary, they did all that stuff you mention; however, due to technology such as cars and radios, they no longer perform those kinds of things.

    When the RCMP came into existence in 1872, they did much of the same thing but also did things like postal service, data gathering on wildlife, helping to fight pairie fires, basic medical services, etc., because there was no other government agency to perform those kinds of work plus doing regular police work. The only difference between the RCMP and American police departments was that they did a much better job of tackling organized crime during the 20s and 30s.

    Nowadays you can get a cop to come out to cite someone for playing their music too loud when you are trying to sleep at night because that is a very low priority call

    • I meant to say you CAN’T get a cop to come out and cite someone for playing their music too loud at night due to it be a low priority call.

      • …Yes, police are to enforce the law, and so, on the other hand, then go overboard by blasting dozens of rounds into unarmed suspects, or more recently find the urge to beat and kick peaceful unarmed protesters, then use chemical weapons to round out their street justice vigilantism… Police presence creates more unrest today when crowds attempt peaceful and rightful protest. Rational and respectful behavior is from the people “doing their job” rather than the police doing their job in protecting these protesters…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Blue Courage” — Coming to a Police Station Near You? « improving police - September 18, 2012

    [...] cathedral and why I believe the Blue Courage effort among our nation’s police will also turn my dream for police into [...]

  2. Policing in the 21st Century « improving police - November 9, 2012

    [...] I mined up an old piece I wrote back in the ’90s about the future of policing called, “A Note From A Cop the 21st Century.” Primarily it was about the workplace, the new leadership, the autonomy given to [...]

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