What Policing Can Learn from Bell Labs

To:  The Chief

From: Corridor Conversations (stephenomeara.wordpress.com)

Re:  Re-engineering the station house

A recent book on how Bell Labs became an innovation powerhouse for the ages made me think that you might be able to increase the effective use of all the brains in your organization: re-engineer the workspace in your physical plant.  The book is The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner.  The quotes are from a review of the book by Walter Isaacson in the NY Times, April 6, 2012.

The first thing I humbly recommend you consider is a plan in which you eliminate the physical separation between patrol and detectives.  I suggest you reconfigure space in such a way that, as in Bell Labs, people of related but different disciplines have to bump into each other in the routine exercises of a shift, from writing reports to analyzing data to drinking coffee.  I would get rid of the “upstairs-downstairs” caste system and put patrol officers, detectives, special ops people and civilian analysts  in pods.  For example, you might create spaces in which detective partners share the same pod with a patrol sergeant, a patrol partnership and an analyst.  Put detective sergeants and patrol sergeants in the same pod.  They probably will start to share space in their mobile offices as well.  After all, the mission is not clearances or zero-car availability, it’s reducing crime, victimization and harm and ensuring justice. Get every brain in this important game.

Now we have special meetings, if we have them, to bring people together across the patrol-CID and sworn-civilian divides.  Turn it 180-degrees. Make the integrated activity the norm.

This re-engineering of space will lead to a re-engineering of how personnel understand their roles in the mission.  Instead of sharply delineated “CID” and “Patrol” boundaries you create an open flow of information, ideas, and knowledge.  I believe that when  you scrape away 100 years of rust, dust and calcified build-up not much of that wall will remain.  You will find that in the 21st century, especially with the electronic systems at your disposal, what is left of the wall between patrol and detectives is obsolete and in the way.

“The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.”

Bell Labs originally arranged its brains in bureau-like towers: physicist here, engineer over there, etc.

“But in the middle of the war (WWII), Bell Labs began moving to a new campus in Murray Hill, N.J., and Kelly began to create interdisciplinary teams that threw theorists and engineers together into the same work spaces. ‘By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way,’ Gertner writes.”

In this environment, William Shockley drove the invention and practical application of the transistor.

“Gertner describes how innovations came not just from new theories but from linking them to advances made by the lab’s experimental chemists and metallurgists who were creating a revolution in materials. ‘Indeed, without new materials,’ Gertner writes, ‘Shockley would have spent his career trapped in a prison of elegant theory.’ “

Arrangements like these gave us Ceasefire and Nite Lite.

This might be where policing’s re-inventions come from.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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