In the context of community policing, where do the ‘good ideas’ come from? Community policing seeks to engage members of the community as partners with the police in an effort to prevent crime and disorder, and address the specific needs and problems of a given community.
Though community policing is not a ‘one size fits all’ strategy and may look different in various communities, and even among different locations within the same community, a problem solving orientation is paramount to a claim of the existence of community policing within a given police organization. The police are expected to widen their function beyond the traditional reactive response to crime and become problem solvers, customizing police service to meet the needs of a specific community.
So, where do the solutions come from? The short answer is everywhere and anywhere. As the police consider new alternatives in response to community problems and concerns, great ideas can be cultivated from both inside and outside the police organization. It is no longer acceptable to push all decision making to the top of the organization’s hierarchy. This creates delay and inaction.
Officers on the front line working the streets must become problem solvers. Officers must be empowered and given an increased use of discretion and responsibility to successfully implement an organization’s community policing strategy. This empowerment can lead to more creativity, commitment, learning opportunities, and better decisions.
The idea of problem solving implies creativity. A problem must be analyzed, data gathered, alternatives created and considered, and a decision on the best approach made. This may entail trying new approaches, thinking ‘outside the box,’ and using non-law enforcement resources and partnerships. The police leader at the top of the organizational hierarchy is often far removed from all the details required for an accurate assessment of a given problem. This doesn’t take away from the leader’s responsibility to create strategy, provide direction, and make decisions regarding critical events and those of an exceptional nature.
However, when it comes to community problems, officers working in those communities are in a better position to understand the various dynamics of the problem and may actually have a more accurate picture of the problem than those higher up on the organizational chart. When considering alternatives to a given problem, the input of those closest to the problem with knowledge of the problem should be involved. It is likely that officers working the street have already responded to and have experience with a given problem under analysis. They may be familiar with the location of a given problem or the people involved. They may also know where to turn to find information that will help them best analyze and create alternatives to addressing the problem.
Not only does empowering front line officers lead to more creativity, but also greater commitment. Officer commitment is an essential component for effectively responding to the communities they serve. Good plans have failed when poorly implemented by an officer who lacks any commitment. The police are typically individuals who come to the job with personal characteristics consistent with those required to carry out the police functions in society.
They are strong willed, passionate, and action and control oriented. They want to be involved in decisions that affect them and have some say so into their work. Take their passion for control and action away by refusing to acknowledge or appreciate their ideas and contributions and their sense of value and worth are eliminated, leading to the unfortunate frustration and cynicism too frequently found in the police culture. Good police officers want to contribute and make a difference in the communities they police.
In a speech given by General Norman Schwarzkopf after returning from the Gulf War, he said, “I have seen competent leaders who stood in front of a platoon and all they saw was a platoon. But great leaders stand in front of a platoon and see 44 individuals, each of whom has aspirations, each of whom wants to live, each of whom wants to do good.”
It is the responsibility of those in leadership/supervisory positions to grow, develop, and motivate those beneath them in the organizational hierarchy. It is their duty to set the right climate to motivate employees. Unfortunately, the traditional autocratic leadership style that is frequently found within police organizations can have the opposite effect and is contrary to what is required to carry out the community policing strategy. The autocratic leader who closely directs, controls, and doesn’t allow decision making by officers can lead to an environment where motivation and hence responsiveness to the community is lacking.
Giving officers responsibility and allowing them to make decisions that affect them and their performance will benefit them in many ways. It allows for the self-initiated activity and the motivation desired within the community policing strategy. It allows for an increase in the officer’s feeling of self-worth and commitment to the organization. And, it encourages and leads to growth in knowledge. A person learns by doing.
Given the opportunity to make decisions will build confidence and learning opportunities. Where will our future leaders come from if denied these opportunities? Yes, mistakes will be made. But, honest mistakes made with the intention of being responsive to the problems and concerns of the community become testing ground for new ideas and solutions. Certainly some mistakes come with greater consequences and officers should be accountable for the decisions made, but are they allowed to make mistakes in good faith?
The officers who are closest to the citizens are responsible for the quality of service delivery and should be given the authority to effectively carry out that mandate. Theodore Roosevelt once said; “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Instead of waiting idly for a breakthrough idea from the chief executive’s office, officers in the streets working daily with members of the community should be looking for and testing new and innovative ways to solve problems that arise. This testing ground builds a mental database among officers and the police organization of what alternatives work, what doesn’t work, and under what circumstances an alternative works. This information can be used to more quickly address similar problems in the future or the same problem at a different location.
An employee who fears the consequences of a good-faith problem solving effort may hesitate, if not abandon their self-initiated problem solving efforts. Yes, mistakes are going to be made, but if we aren’t making any mistakes, are we learning anything? History, in most facets of life, has demonstrated that growth and success often comes after struggle and failure. Are we reinforcing and celebrating those employees willing to take some risks in the search for new ideas and innovation?
As the police organization looks to be responsive to the communities they serve, the best decisions may come from a willingness to examine the viewpoints of all stakeholders. People tend to see the world, not necessarily as it is, but as they are. A person’s perception is often based upon their present position in life, as well as their learned values and experiences. An individual perspective may be limited by these factors.
By creating a climate where different opinions and dissenting views are respected and encouraged, more alternatives and ideas may be generated. When numerous minds, experience, and perceptions come together to share the responsibility for community policing, the potential for enhancing an organization’s problem solving capabilities is present. Community policing and problem solving require creativity, innovation, and non-traditional means to find the best solution to the crime and quality of life problems of a given community.
The police leader must understand that ideas and solutions can be found when the input from those officers on the front line, in the streets, who come face to face with the problems of the community, are encouraged and cultivated. The police leader must build an organizational climate where those ideas are heard. If they build it, the good ideas will come.
Daniel D. Terry is a Commander with the Elmhurst, Ill. Police Department, where he has been employed for the last 22 years, holding various positions in the Patrol and Investigations Division. He holds a Master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration from Western Illinois University. He may be reached at email@example.com.