Working Upstream: A Story


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Once upon a time there was a fishing village along a mighty river. The villagers there were a fine, peaceful and upright people who were noted for their compassion and concern for others.

From time to time, however, a tragedy would come their way; someone would come floating down the river past their village crying out for help. And every time, members of the village would rush to rescue the person. To the villagers’ credit, many of their rescue efforts were successful, however, many were lost to the river.

As the years went by, more and more people came drifting down the river calling for help. This began to trouble the villagers. So they came together as a community and discussed what they should do. They decided there were things they could do to save more of the “river people.” Rescue teams were organized and they built a boathouse with an observation tower next to the river, so that they could be on the alert for victims and respond more quickly.

As a result, they were able to save a greater percentage of the river people—but not everyone. What more can we do? they asked. The answer was to make further improvements in the rescue system. Faster boats were purchased, a better alarm system installed, and rescue specialists hired. They even built an emergency hospital staffed with highly-trained medical personnel.

The village grew in fame for its rescue efforts. Its citizens were known far and wide as compassionate, even heroic. They were acclaimed for their emergency rescue skills and advances in pulmonary medicine. Yet each year, the community realized that in spite of their efforts, they couldn’t save everyone who fell into the river.

One day, a young boy new to the village stood by the river watching an extraordinary rescue. Unfortunately, after the pulling the man from the water they were unable to resuscitate him and he died. The next day, the boy showed up at a meeting of the village elders. He had a question for them, “Why don’t you go upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river?[1]

Why don’t we?

This story captures for me the nature and problem of policing.

Why don’t police “go upstream” and find out why so many people are getting into trouble, “falling into the river”? If police worked upstream with other agencies in our governmental, criminal justice, medical and educational systems, what might be prevented? How might things be improved?

Why do those agencies and systems (including police) continue to respond to the same problems over and over again without asking why they happen in the first place; that is work upstream?

That is why solving problems is one of the most important tasks police should do in our society.  They are positioned to be the conveners of this essential and vital discussion. When police approach problems as worthy of solution, they begin to “go upstream,” to find out what is causing the problem, and then work with others to solve or prevent it.

The following is a short excerpt from my book about this method of policing — a way to “work upstream!”



“As problem-oriented policing has evolved over the last two decades, it has emphasized evaluation of problems and the importance of solid analysis, development of pragmatic responses to the problem, and the need to strategically engage other resources such as members of the community and other city departments  as well as local businesses and service organizations, as partners.

“While many other new policing orientations have emerged over the years (such as values-based policing, intelligence-based policing, and COMPSTAT[2]), none has the potential of improving policing more than the problem-oriented approach. So why is it not standard operating procedure for our nation’s police?

“There are many reasons new ideas in policing don’t thrive, not the least of which is the American political penchant for throwing out everything your predecessor did, effective or not. But I suggest that the failure of this method to become standard practice among our nation’s police is the fact that it directly challenges the police organization itself by empowering rank-and-file police officers—not just command officers—to develop effective and successful responses to problems in collaboration with community members. It also challenges one of those four obstacles to improving policing – anti-intellectualism.

“I say this because I don’t believe the lower ranks of officers are the basis of the problem. Whenever I have watched rank-and-file police officers being introduced to the concept of problem-oriented policing (either by reading articles on the subject or visiting the website, attending the national conference on problem-oriented policing, or being specifically trained in it, they become excited and invigorated about their work. A national problem-oriented policing conference has been held annually since 1990. During the conference, attendees who listen to success stories told by other rank-and-file officers who practice the method come to believe in its effectiveness. When police officers come to see their work as solving problems, and criminal behavior as not the problem but simply part of it, they start to work more effectively to find causes, and work to prevent the problems from happening in the first place. But it appears that when these officers return to their departments, they often don’t find open minds or understanding leaders willing to make the necessary organizational changes so that they can practice the method.”


After all, isn’t that what police should do? Solve problems?
Isn’t that what a police leader should do? Help officers be successful in solving community-identified problems?
Why isn’t this expected of today’s police leaders?
[To learn more about problem solving and the new leadership, click HERE.]

 [1] I cannot remember when I first heard this story, but I have used it often throughout my life. A search revealed that Donald Ardel first wrote this around 1975. “Upstream/Downstream: A Fable for Our Times.” Donald B. Ardel at, December 27, 2010; 1950 hrs.

[2] COMPSTAT: Computer Statistics; a method developed at the NYPD to hold officers and commanders responsible for crime increases and quality of life issues in their precincts.