Process, Strategy and Structure: Time for New Ideas

It’s time to liberate police thinking about the process, strategy and structure of the service.  Our conventional practices do a number on first-line practitioners and do not get us the effectiveness we could be realizing.

We need a service that is organizationally more flexible and more open to and capable of adaptation.  We are mired in conventional administrative practices that fail to support properly the men and women on the street.  Our core organizational ideas about leadership, command and the nature of the service we deliver are based in ideas the service adopted in the early days of the 20th century.  Some of those ideas were bad even then.

For example, the Reformers of 100 years ago believed that the way to reduce corruption was to cut off the police from the people they served.  One technical innovation they used to do this was the invention of the “case” as the basic unit of investigative work.  They also did it by putting most officers in self-propelled boxes that sealed them off from the day-to-day, night-by-night lives of the people on the sidewalks and in the alleys.  Over time, humans sometimes convert long-lasting conventions into traditions.  Cases and cars became traditions in policing.  But in fact they are merely conventions; they represented the best thinking and highest technology available at the time.

The traditions that motivate and guide police organizations and individual members are made up not of techniques but of core values.  I mean core values such as willingness to lay down one’s life for another person; loyalty to the oath and to brothers and sisters who share the oath; the willingness to overcome fear, face unknown risk and then do the right thing; maintaining the integrity of one’s values amid daily moral challenges.

Conventions are just styles, “practices established by custom,” says  We adopt them as often by default as by conscious decision.  In any case conventions should be limited-term agreements on how best to do something, based on the knowledge and technologies available at any point in history.  We run into problems when we hold onto them through force of habit or organizational politics.  Back to cars.  The internal combustion engine technology was a major force in the subsequent idea that since we had cops in fast-moving boxes they would get faster to many crimes still in progress.  That rarely happened.  Yet police evolved a powerful notion of random patrol that we might call driving-around-policing (DAP).  The idea grew out of the machines instead of vice versa.  Even the great August Vollmer was sold on the blue-sky notion that the stealthy police car patrolling at random would routinely roll up on the unsuspecting bad guys.  Even as the cars have become more powerful and more agile police almost never catch the bad guys red-handed, as the Rand study and other research taught us.  If memory serves Rand found that a cop in a car would come upon a street robbery once every 14 years.  Maybe twice in a career by that estimate.  The convention of random, motorized patrol has petrified into an idea that driving is the core of police work.  Chiefs are finding it hard to crack.  In many municipalities assignment to other than DAP is considered some form of punishment.

Conventions Are Powerful

As George Kelling and Mark Moore (“Evolving Strategy of Policing,” 1988) pointed out for us the structure of modern police organizations in the US is based on three big ideas from the first half of the 20th century. All three were underpinnings of the Progressive Era in American society.   In that era of Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams and Louis Brandeis the country made many advances in defining and defending civil liberties and human dignity.  But a powerful strain in the ideological mix called for making society less corrupt and more efficient 
by reducing the political power of working class immigrant groups in the cities.  An element of ethnic hostility informed them. These same contradictions – genuine “good government” reforms mixed with class and ethnic animosity — were seen in the era’s effects on policing.  For example the Progressive Era brought us the first police academy – in New York City – but, in Massachusetts, it also gave us the statute that made the Boston police commissioner an appointment for the governor (Protestant Ascendancy) instead of the mayor (Irish Catholic).

The Big Three

One of the big ideas from Progressivism was borrowed from the national standing army that came out of WW I.  That’s where we found our idea for the pyramid of command, with the powerful general/chief on top, with sweeping formal powers.  The pyramid was never a reality, of course, given the breadth of discretion inherent in the job of patrolman in a democratic society.  The military model also gave us the uniform, as we know it, and cemented the rank structure — with its armed forces titles: sergeant, etc.

A second idea came from the rise of the transnational industrial corporation that emerged in the US’s second Industrial Revolution beginning in the late 19th century.  In the 1920’s the model corporation as organized into vertically integrated divisions supported and controlled by a large and powerful central administration.  This model is attributed to Alfred P. Sloan, the visionary head of General Motors from the 1920’s to the 50’s.

The third big and influential idea, one that George Kelling finds especially influential, was Frederick W. Taylor’s application of scientific management to mass production. Taylor’s ideas served as the foundation for how GM organized the work on the shop floor, on the assembly line.  Adapted by policing Taylorism fostered the fallacy that police service could be organized into routine tasks that required no discretion and therefore little thought about selecting and preparing individuals to staff the line.  Years ago as a research assistant for George Kelling, Harvard University Police administrator Steve Catalano did a search to find how many times the word “discretion” appeared in a headline in Police Chief magazine, from the 1920’s to the mid-90’s.  If memory serves he found none (or pretty close to it).  We know that police departments exercise discretion and that the widest and least examined discretion of any criminal justice actor is that exercised by the patrol officer. So thoroughly had we come to believe Taylorism’s fallacy that we didn’t even think about it.  The futurist Joel Barker calls it “paradigm paralysis” when our ideas about things prevent us from seeing the things as they are.

Some of the conventions from the 1910’s have evolved into practices with enduring usefulness.

For example, rapid response, the child of DAP, should be available 24/7/365.  Since the adoption and adaptation of 9-1-1 in the 1970’s police have gotten very good at being, as Egon Bittner noticed a long time ago, the default first and/or only responders to every urgency and emergency imaginable.  As this blog has no doubt repeated ad tedium, in its opinion 9-1-1 is the greatest service government ever created.  Push three buttons on a pad and the best-trained, most authorized officers in the history of municipal incorporation will come to wherever I am and save me from myself and/or others.

We have learned a tremendous amount about what works in police strategy and what works to keep officers alive.  The challenge is to integrate this learning into practice.  In our day what were cutting-edge ideas in an earlier day are getting the way of applying what we have learned.  And we are not alone in being stymied by paradigm boundaries.  Atul Gawande writes in Better about how medical science has known since at least 1847 that staff hands and tools carry infections that can kill people. What have hospitals spent a lot of time and money on in the 21st century?  Getting staff to wash their hands!

We know that emergencies – life in danger, crime in progress – make up only about 15% of the demand for service.  It’s the 85% of the demand that would be better served by new structures, processes and strategies.  The ideas have hatched; we just need to buy them

On the street, for example, David Kennedy and his colleagues in policing and in academe have long since demonstrated an effective strategy for preventing firearm violence.  The Cease Fire/Don’t Shoot strategy simply works.

Kevin Gilmartin has given us a marvelous diagnosis and treatment for the stress inherent in police work.  As Dr. Gilmartin writes, marbled into every minute of a police officer’s shift are the physiological, emotional and psychological demands of hypervigilance.  Officers must keep themselves in the physical and mental state of hypervigilance in order to stay alive in an environment of unknown risk.   Gilmartin is quite eloquent on the fact that if you work in high steel you face a greater chance of dying while at work than if you are a cop.  But if you stay sober and respect gravity, no worries.  Firefighting is a dangerous profession demanding courageous, dedicated and skilled professionals to do it well.  If you understand applied physics and chemistry you might be OK.  But cops face the most unpredictable of all natural forces: human behavior.

One begins the conversation about what to build anew in structure, process and strategy from the well-established premise that everything a successful organization does will serve the organization’s purpose in the world, its mission.  For police this is in my view a pretty good mission statement:

  1. Creating the best possible products in the most efficient manner, with the police products defined as order, safety and justice for the community; and
  2. Protecting and fostering the dignity and integrity of the humans who do the work.

Since the experience of doing police work causes negative physical, emotional and psychological changes for the personnel who practice it, let’s change how we organize the practice. The military model has several gaping flaws. One is the tendency to think that military personnel experience hypervigilance the same way police do.  Military personnel usually serve in combat roles for tours of one to two years; we expose police personnel to hypervigilance for 20-40 years.  We need to re-engineer the police structure and career arc.  We need new duty rotations that take into account the need to reduce exposure to hypervigilance.  At the same time we can use this as an opportunity to support re-engineering of organizational structure, making the structure serve the function rather than vice versa.

In my view the best expressions of these conversation are papers coming out in the past two years from the CJ Program at the Kennedy School —  “Moving the Work of Criminal Investigators Towards Crime Control” (Anthony Braga, Ed Flynn George Kelling and Christine Cole) and “Toward a New Professionalism in Policing” (Chris Stone and Jeremy Travis).  — as regards the overall re-engineering of the service on the one hand focus on the detective functions on the other.

This occurs to me: we have classified and categorized the behavior of offenders without thinking enough about whether our descriptions and definitions actually describe and define what offenders think and do night-in and day-out.  In the same vein we imposed a crime control plan informed by these classifications.  Our crime control plan has been characterized by increasing specialization.  We decided that we could best attend to their behavior by sending first responders quickly to a scene and then following that with a retrospective investigation by a detective.  (It’s interesting to note that until the 1950’s the investigator job carried the tile policeman-detective. The specialization machine from the 1960’s onward sheared off the police title.)  The Boston Gang Unit in the 1990’s, with whom Kennedy partnered to produce Cease Fire, is one of the few police units to actively inquire whether their classifications and organizational approaches corresponded to how offenders offend.

Offenders operate in horizontal networks with other offenders. They make decisions using the same sorts of criteria as do other humans.  They ask whether a given option helps them or hurts them.  We need to adopt crime and order control strategies that bring our resources – the law, our core values, the regulatory authority of police and other government actors – to bear to change their choices.  My experience with the Gang Unit and David Kennedy in Boston showed me how the structural reform of pushing authority and ownership out and down in an organization can liberate police innovation and candlepower.

We also owe our personnel a radical shift in how we conceive of support systems.  We have to make it routine for officers to participate in programs that treat the effects of exposure to hypervigilance.   Make the pursuit of emotional survival routine by attending to it at the same times and in the same situations in which we attend to street survival: roll calls, officer-supervisor check-ins, in-service training, etc.

That leads to the next imperative:  Recruiting and Hiring.

PERF published a report on “Good to Great Policing” six years ago applying Jim Collins’s principles to the police setting.  Task #1 is getting “the right people on the bus.”  Recruit and hire people who can thrive in the full complexity of the police function.  A great majority of our personnel fit this bill today.  Provide them the proper supervision, leadership and support.  Then you won’t have the endemic cheating and looting of yesteryear or the loafing and paycheck patriotism on the part of a rump few in the field today.  Chiefs strive to do hiring right.  They need to get together to get the momentum to remove the obstacles.  It’s as simple as that.

Some will say that opening up the structure to recognize and account for these realities will lead to an upsurge in corrupt behavior and gaming the system.  In Massachusetts one might fear that eliminating the civil service process will drive us back to old days of hiring the biggest Irishman (or his contemporary counterpart) who is loyal to the current administration in Town or City Hall. These days in MA, civil service has been de-funded to the point that it’s a couple of people with computers.  It was a great reform in 1884.  Civil service is almost all impediments these days, adding little value to the process for hiring authorities.  How absurd is it for police supervision to go wanting while one awaits “a list from civil service?”  Will politics always be part of the mix in some hiring decisions?  Of course.  This is a democracy.  It gets sloppy at the margins. In 2013 I trust my police commissioner and mayor (I live in Boston) to get it right 90+% of the time without hindrance by tests and standards that bear little relationship to the profession they purport to select for.  (In Boston I also would repeal the obsolete residency requirement but that’s another story.  It was good policy in 1975.)

And to repeat: if we lead, manage and support that 90+% effectively we greatly reduce the consequences of having to include the 10%.

We need to re-engineer the police career.  The only current path open to a new role is through promotion to one pf the ranks borrowed from General Pershing’s Army.  Atul Gawande has written about the paradox that being a great PO (though he actually discusses surgeons) prepares you not all to be a great sergeant.  Being a great PO, like being a great surgeon or a great engineer prepares one to be a great PO, surgeon or engineer.  Such brilliant solo practitioners are often lost when they become responsible not for their own courage, skill and determination but for that of people they lead.  As suggested below we need to change the arc of a police officer’s career to include more choices, choices that satisfy the twin goals of making police more effective and upholding the dignity of the work.

The Suggestions

  1. 1.   Recruit Like We Mean It

We need to describe the police career to potential candidates in terms that convey the rich and complex service profession that it is.  Some recruiting materials look like ads from vehicle dealerships.  They are all about how police look and how they get around.  We need images and words that convey concepts like

  • Protector
  • Expert problem-solver
  • Legal expert
  • Leader
  • Takes charge and restores calm to chaotic situations
  • Manages own fears in order to manage danger

We need market research to identify the population groups most likely to be interested in such a police career.  I suspect we would find fascinating candidates among those who are drawn to or preparing for professions such as social work, nursing, teaching, religious, and others.

Also, every well-suited candidate hired anywhere is a boon to policing everywhere.  We could use a lot more collaboration on recruiting for the service as a profession.

  1. 2.  Fight for Hiring Reform as if It Really Mattered: The Office of Admissions

Hiring is the most important act a police executive makes.  That person is a highly authorized officer of the municipal corporation for decades.  His or her performance will affect the legacy of the department and the quality of life in the community for decades.

We need a predictable hiring procedure that we can make clear and sane-sounding to the people we recruit.  In 2013 there is no need for police hiring to be so full of twists and contortions.  Anyone should be able to walk into any station and start a rational process of applying for the police profession.  Perhaps we should think about it as Admission and not Hiring.  Departments can create Admissions Offices and every station, cruiser and web page can carry simple info on the Admissions process.

Chiefs have the moral authority to change the system.  It will take time and perseverance.  But it can happen.

  1. 3.  Reality Show: Teach Recruits Emotional Survival AND Street Survival

Tell recruits what they are in for and give them strategies at the outset for lifelong well-being.  Young people, especially young men won’t get it at first.  But we keep making information and support systems available at all times in as many places as possible.

  4. Career-long Learning

Everyone is a police Officer, cross-trained in general investigations and patrol service.

Let’s build in time each week for personnel to reflect on and learn from their experiences and those of others.  It will take a little time to develop this habit, perhaps a few months.  The dividends in morale and effectiveness will be worth it.

Build professional education and training strategies that are just that: strategic.  Develop long-term strategies for what a member of the Department should know and know how to proficiently at each stage of development in the career.

3.  Build Functions not Silos

Big divisions no longer work for GM or for policing. It’s time for the radical re-think referenced above.  Function must dictate form.  The ongoing rapid evolution and integration of information systems already has personnel seeking work-arounds.  Our best and brightest are going under, over and around the walls that separate bureaus/divisions and that separate one jurisdiction’s information from another.  Let’s follow their lead.  It’s time for these artificial (meaning manmade) walls of the divisions and bureaus to go.  To paraphrase President Reagan: “Mr. Police Chief, tear down these walls.”

This also means redefining and renaming roles.  When we integrate all personnel into a mission of safety, order and justice we will need new names for the functions.

   4. 5-5-5 to Stay Alive

We need a new system for circulating personnel through various functions over the course of a career.  We can’t just accept that at the critical mid-career point of 7-10 years everybody has to go through a crisis.  Part of the solution is getting away from career-long roles.  In keeping with the idea of function over form we should invent a system in which most personnel move back and forth periodically among patrol, investigative, incident management and administrative functions.  Every five years their emphasis should shift: Five in primarily patrol-problem-solving to five in investigator-problem-solving to five primarily patrol.  We need expertise recognition within the general rank of police officer as well as command ranks.

As a thought we can create the expertise recognition in two tracks:

  • Senior Police Officer
  • Master Police Officer.
  • Senior Police Officer Investigator (POI)
  • Master POI

One achieves Senior status by some number of years of good service and Master by an assessment and review process.

We can imagine a 17-year veteran Master Patrol Officer eschewing promotion but being very good at participating with supervisory and management on devising programs for crime and order control and personnel well-being.

We would have fewer POI’s than PO’s at the Senior and Master levels.  Senior and Master POI’s would most likely have applied successfully for admission to specialist investigative work such as Homicide or Sexual Assault.

Finally increases in pay must accompany increases in status. Perhaps we can give paid details a run, literally, for the money.

This is a blog think-piece and not a prescription.  But consistent with the purpose of this blog I hope it contributes to a conversation.  Police have the brainpower and values to do this.


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 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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