Honesty Really is a Great Policy: The Mistake Buy-Back Program

I have a thought exercise for leaders, especially police and criminal justice administrators: The Mistake Buy-Back Program.

We need to examine mistakes to learn and grow.  Everyone who has ever attended a managment course knows this.  Edison and the useable incandescent bulb.  Goodyear and vulcanized rubber.  Shockley & Co. and the transistor.  Anyone who has ever been a teen-ager also knows this.  The catalysts of their spectacular breakthroughs and our growth were mistakes and failures.


To start, declare an absolute, iron-clad 30-day amnesty on mistakes. Issue a decree: no punishment of any kind now or in the future for any non-criminal mistake volunteered during the amnesty. A mistake buy-back program. What they get in return isn’t money or another material reward.  They get a better thing:  no punishment and no humiliation.  Communities use buy-back programs to get guns out of homes and to the degree possible out of the hands of those who would victimize others.  To attain a number of good outcomes listed below you want mistakes out of people’s hearts and minds and into a management analysis.  Senior leaders lead by example by volunteering some of theirs.

At the end of the first month, do an analysis of the mistakes submitted. Look for patterns in individual, unit and department-wide practices.  What do these mistakes teach us? Where do we see shortcomings that are ripe opportunities for growth and development?

Issue a report to everyone on the analysis. No names!  Task a group made up of a cross-section of the department to develop training to address the shortcomings.  Help people who need it to find help.

See what conversation develops. Wait three months. You will only get limited particpation the first time. The union leaders upon first hearing of the Program will suffer something like grand mal seizures. They will counsel their members to shun this idea.  The union and municipal lawyers’ heads may explode on contact with the idea.  Few in the department will believe your agenda.  But don’t quit.  Use skepticism and resistance as opportunities for dialogue.  You are going to have to do it more than once.

Do it again on the same terms.  Do another analysis.  Issue the analysis. Task a group made up up of a cross-section of the department to develop training to address the shortcomings.  Help people who need it to find help.

Pay close attention to what you learn and what you see and hear.  People by their actions and reactions will be teaching you lots about avenues for new initiaves on professional development and growth.  Capture and implement the learning.

Some outcomes you should see:

  • It will eminate a source of officer peril. People will make decisions free from nagging self-doubts and shrouds of secrets hindering their judgements.
  • It will make people start thinking that you and your senior leadership care more about officer safety and departmental effectiveness than about rules enforcement per se.  Your leadership influence will expand.
  • The rules and procedures may start to have more meaning, to be used more effectively as guidelines for good decision-making.
  • It will enhance the department’s legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders.
  • It will make personnel healthier and happier.  They will live longer and better. Resentments, grudges, guilt and lies corrode body and spirit  like Coca-Cola corrodes teeth.

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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