Time for Regional Police Learning Institutes: Addressing Two Critical Issues with One Idea

(This blog was in an unintended hiatus because I got very busy with training…)

Every shift, police personnel in America learn important information — insights, observations, epiphanies. They learn about what works and does not work in police practice. They gain new experiences in how the complexities of police work affect the humans who carry it out.

What happens with this learning? Currently, the answer resembles an observation, attributed to the late Ohio State legend Woody Hayes,  about the forward pass.

“only three things can happen when you pass (a completion, an incompletion, and an interception) and two of them are bad.”

When officers make new inferences and conclusions, they either 1) keep them to themselves and carry on as usual (incompletion); transform them into resentments that nobody cares about what they know after 5-15 years on (interception); or in some cases take individual initiative to change a practice (completion).  In football terms, I’d guesstimate that’s a completion percentage of 12%.

The most toxic outcome is, clearly, outcome 2.  For the very people who are the heart of the police service, the PO in mid-career, our lack of learning systems turns experience against them.  Just get back out there and be ready for the next call.  The larger inference they draw is that management thinks cops are stupid.  It also brings to mind a tagline from a USO public service announcement from the 1960’s: “Does anybody know I’m here?”

When you listen to mid-career PO’s you do hear this question in the cynicism and anger that are starting to dominate their personalities.  Dr. Kevin Gilmartin has been asking us to look at this for 25 years.

We lose our people, the greatest loss, and we lose valuable knowledge with every passing shift.  This learning is one of policing’s truly valuable resources, created by our people, our most precious resource. Yet we just about never treat is as such.

So what to do?  Here’s one idea.

Create regional institutes that build on this experience of the mid-career officer.  Encourage officers to spend one-year sabbaticals as fellows of their area’s institute.   To qualify, officers would have to have already in mind a problem from either clinical police practice or organizational strategy that they would want to pursue.  You would have to have a minimum five years experience to be eligible. Even if you have a Mensa IQ and a PhD from Oxford you must have at least five years on the street.

The breakthroughs would pay for themselves.  The costs of doing this might even force administrators to look at some of the inefficiencies that are so deeply embedded in police tradition that we don’t see them anymore.  Here, for one fer-instance, I think of the deployment of the primary technology of patrol in the US: the automobile.

The 21st century patrol vehicle is a  mobile, full-service police station, with on-board capability for HVAC; detention of prisoners; processing of prisoners; data retrieval and research; secure armory; two-radio communication and satellite telephony.  Yet on a modal tour of duty police mostly drive around in them.  So, for instance, why not buy a fleet of modified (with some light armor) hybrids for darting to calls in congested cities and towns and use the muscular mobile police stations as back-ups?  Or why not ask the mid-career POs in the Learning Institute to re-think the whole thing.

Start with taking some months to examine a few years worth of data on what police actually do during a modal tour of duty. Then back this up with actually asking officers what they do and observe them doing it.  The trained police professional is the most skilled and most authorized OFFICER of the state-chartered municipal corporation.  Are we really using that resource most efficiently (in economic turns, getting the optimum result in society from the use of such a scarce, valuable resource)? Let’s ask the smart, experienced cops to noodle that one.

The number of learning fellows at an institute would vary with the size of the department(s).  Say you had one research fellow for every 100 sworn members.  The largest departments already have a host of possible regenerative assignments for mid-career personnel.  But it would be an opportunity for the roughly 17,975 departments who are not 5,000-35,000 strong. Regional institutes would likely have a larger department at the metro core and several departments of varying sizes making up the bulk of the region.  For smaller departments you could create part-time slots. State police departments could attach to one or more regional groupings.

At the conclusion of their sabbaticals fellows could have their choice of next assignment, from among those assignments available to them based on rank and rating.

Today, the police service does not do crummy research as much as very little research.  Crime analysis is catching on.  But that is just one, albeit major, piece of this puzzle.  What little research we have is driven by academics in fields derived from sociology.  It is excellent and usually valuable knowledge. One thinks of a historic roll call that is hardly limited to Reis, The President’s Commission, Goldstein, Kelling, Sherman, Weisburd, Wilson, Moore, Kennedy, Braga, Wasserman, Fridell, McDevitt, Wyckoff.  Yet the Kansas City Patrol Study has not been integrated fully into police practice, P-OP is still an add-on and CeaseFire has been adapted by only a few jurisdictions.

The learning institute would start with considering lessons from existing research and clinical practice and could grow from there to do applied research and even basic research.  Once it gets up and running it could nurture research relationships with interested academics.

We are paying a big price in not turning organizational learning into new practice and in not engaging our mid-career personnel.

Let’s fix both.

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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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