What Will Be the Road Forward For Police?

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We know what we have to do, but how do we do it?

My sense is that this is the question among top police leaders today. A lot is expected from them and within criminal justice and mental health care systems; two systems that often are not helpful in solving the problems that police face.

One day we will be able to see what happened to our nation’s police with clearer vision. It still is murky. The excitement of the community-oriented policing days of the 1980s was soon replaced by an increased emphasis on SWAT teams, the “war” on drugs, and the fear of terrorists. It was a slow, but steady slip downwards towards militarization in terms of weaponry, dress, technology, and even attitude.

The day after Ferguson our nation’s eyes suddenly focused on their police. Just as this was happening, the nation was overwhelmed by a flood of citizen videos from citizen smart phones and police dashcams that graphically illustrated what appeared to be questionable, if not excessive, uses of deadly force; especially against people of color. Soon “Black Lives Matter” was a national movement.

And what this resulted in was a quick, and sometimes violent, erosion of the public’s trust of their police; a necessary ingredient for police effectiveness as well as their personal safety.

Since the days of Ferguson, we have had a major Presidential Task Force report from leading police leaders and citizens on the elements, or pillars, of modern day policing. This report was enhanced by the revolutionary report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on use of force guidelines. This report came from our nation’s leading police chiefs and strongly stated that current standards in police use of force must be raised, de-escalation become a common practice, and “sanctity of life” be at the center of everything a police agency does.

Still the question remains, “We now know what to do, but how do we do it?” It is a question asked by leaders who have been more comfortable holding the line, defending against their critics, and maintaining the status quo at all costs.

What is needed today is a new generation of police chiefs who will be capable and confident change-agents; able to effectively lead the way forward toward 21st century policing; men and women who will be able to envision a great and dedicated future for police in our democracy and have the commitment, persistence, and passion to carry it forward.

It would also be helpful if we were to mine the experience of police leaders who have been able in the past to effectively led change in a police organization. There are not many examples of this, but the few that we have could be of great benefit. Even efforts which have failed could be subjects of learning as case studies.

So, what would this look like? Here’s what we learned a number of years in Madison in leading change some years ago:


Unknown-1Improvement Plan: Madison, Wisconsin

Step 1: Educate and inform employees about our vision, our goal, and the quality improvement method.

  • Begin discussion with top management team and train them.
  • Discuss and ask employees; get feed back from them.
  • Share feedback with the chief and his management team.
  • Get buy-in from top department managers.
  • Survey external customers—our citizens.
  • Ask, inform, and keep [an] Officer’s Advisory Council up to date on all this.
  • Tell, sell, and persuade through the department newsletter and during employee meetings.

Step 2: Prepare for the transformation.

  • Appoint an internal Quality Coordinator to help with the transformation.
  • Form an internal Quality Leadership Council to work through problems and barriers encountered during implementation of the new leadership.
  • Require all who seek to be promoted to leadership positions to have both the knowledge and ability to practice the new leadership.
  • Actively and strongly tie our quality improvement efforts in with the city’s efforts in this area.

Step 3: Teach quality improvement and the new leadership skills.

  • Train all supervisors and managers in the new leadership and methods of quality improvement.
  • Train all employees in the new leadership and methods of quality improvement.

Step 4: Start practicing the new leadership.

  • Require department leaders to begin to implement the new leadership, principle by principle.
  • Begin a system of employee feedback to all department leaders.
  • Top leaders are required to identify three to five things that need improving, work on them, and take responsibility for them.
  • Top leaders are to develop a plan to demonstrate their advocacy for quality improvement methods and start practicing the new leadership.
  • Top leaders start identifying and sharing with each other and their employees each week the improvements they are working on and those they have accomplished together with their employees.

Step 5: Check progress and make corrections.

  • During monthly meetings for sergeants and lieutenants, the chief asks them how they are doing and they report in.
  • Make changes, if necessary, to make the department more responsive to the new leadership; use quality improvement methods to do so.
  • Add an elected police officer to the chief’s management team.

Step 6: Make continual organizational improvements.

  • This step is to be an ongoing process—it is continuous improvement within the organization. It is understood that if an organization stays as it is, it is, in reality, falling behind the rest of the world.

[From “Appendix B,” Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police, 2012.]