Working Upstream: A Story


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Once upon a time there was a fishing village along a mighty river. The villagers there were a fine, peaceful and upright people who were noted for their compassion and concern for others.

From time to time, however, a tragedy would come their way; someone would come floating down the river past their village crying out for help. And every time, members of the village would rush to rescue the person. To the villagers’ credit, many of their rescue efforts were successful, however, many were lost to the river.

As the years went by, more and more people came drifting down the river calling for help. This began to trouble the villagers. So they came together as a community and discussed what they should do. They decided there were things they could do to save more of the “river people.” Rescue teams were organized and they built a boathouse with an observation tower next to the river, so that they could be on the alert for victims and respond more quickly.

As a result, they were able to save a greater percentage of the river people—but not everyone. What more can we do? they asked. The answer was to make further improvements in the rescue system. Faster boats were purchased, a better alarm system installed, and rescue specialists hired. They even built an emergency hospital staffed with highly-trained medical personnel.

The village grew in fame for its rescue efforts. Its citizens were known far and wide as compassionate, even heroic. They were acclaimed for their emergency rescue skills and advances in pulmonary medicine. Yet each year, the community realized that in spite of their efforts, they couldn’t save everyone who fell into the river.

One day, a young boy new to the village stood by the river watching an extraordinary rescue. Unfortunately, after the pulling the man from the water they were unable to resuscitate him and he died. The next day, the boy showed up at a meeting of the village elders. He had a question for them, “Why don’t you go upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river?[1]

Why don’t we?

This story captures for me the nature and problem of policing.

Why don’t police “go upstream” and find out why so many people are getting into trouble, “falling into the river”? If police worked upstream with other agencies in our governmental, criminal justice, medical and educational systems, what might be prevented? How might things be improved?

Why do those agencies and systems (including police) continue to respond to the same problems over and over again without asking why they happen in the first place; that is work upstream?

That is why solving problems is one of the most important tasks police should do in our society.  They are positioned to be the conveners of this essential and vital discussion. When police approach problems as worthy of solution, they begin to “go upstream,” to find out what is causing the problem, and then work with others to solve or prevent it.

The following is a short excerpt from my book about this method of policing — a way to “work upstream!”



“As problem-oriented policing has evolved over the last two decades, it has emphasized evaluation of problems and the importance of solid analysis, development of pragmatic responses to the problem, and the need to strategically engage other resources such as members of the community and other city departments  as well as local businesses and service organizations, as partners.

“While many other new policing orientations have emerged over the years (such as values-based policing, intelligence-based policing, and COMPSTAT[2]), none has the potential of improving policing more than the problem-oriented approach. So why is it not standard operating procedure for our nation’s police?

“There are many reasons new ideas in policing don’t thrive, not the least of which is the American political penchant for throwing out everything your predecessor did, effective or not. But I suggest that the failure of this method to become standard practice among our nation’s police is the fact that it directly challenges the police organization itself by empowering rank-and-file police officers—not just command officers—to develop effective and successful responses to problems in collaboration with community members. It also challenges one of those four obstacles to improving policing – anti-intellectualism.

“I say this because I don’t believe the lower ranks of officers are the basis of the problem. Whenever I have watched rank-and-file police officers being introduced to the concept of problem-oriented policing (either by reading articles on the subject or visiting the website, attending the national conference on problem-oriented policing, or being specifically trained in it, they become excited and invigorated about their work. A national problem-oriented policing conference has been held annually since 1990. During the conference, attendees who listen to success stories told by other rank-and-file officers who practice the method come to believe in its effectiveness. When police officers come to see their work as solving problems, and criminal behavior as not the problem but simply part of it, they start to work more effectively to find causes, and work to prevent the problems from happening in the first place. But it appears that when these officers return to their departments, they often don’t find open minds or understanding leaders willing to make the necessary organizational changes so that they can practice the method.”


After all, isn’t that what police should do? Solve problems?
Isn’t that what a police leader should do? Help officers be successful in solving community-identified problems?
Why isn’t this expected of today’s police leaders?
[To learn more about problem solving and the new leadership, click HERE.]

 [1] I cannot remember when I first heard this story, but I have used it often throughout my life. A search revealed that Donald Ardel first wrote this around 1975. “Upstream/Downstream: A Fable for Our Times.” Donald B. Ardel at, December 27, 2010; 1950 hrs.

[2] COMPSTAT: Computer Statistics; a method developed at the NYPD to hold officers and commanders responsible for crime increases and quality of life issues in their precincts.


  1. As William Edwards Deming pointed out you need to drive out fear out of the jobs, managers are responsible for 85% of the problems, managers do not do any kind of long range planning, and the mobility of management. Unfortunately, many police managers and chiefs in the last 10 to 12 years are acting like CEOs in that they move from one police management/chief job to another police job and don’t do anything to improve their departments or they use the same old solutions at their new jobs when the solutions did not work at their old jobs. They also don’t drive fear out of the workplace, blame the rank and file and unions, and do not have any long range planning.especially when it comes to deal with white collar, corporate crimes when it comes to dealing corrupt CEOs. They also tend to have the same political, economic, social prejudices like the rich people do so it is impossible to have a police force that is impartial and that acts a private police force for the rich people and corporations.

    Read the book Our enemies in Blue by Kristian William which talk about the evolution of police in America.and how it came to be what it is today.

    P.S. Ex-LAPD Donner talks about Black Police Managers discrminating against white cop so in a way it is refreshing to hear about racial discriminations by blacks.


  2. Failure analysis is a great tool for learning but to start, there must be an acknowledgement of failure and that takes great courage, honest allies and ethically sound priorities. Madison is afraid to call Paul Heenan’s death a failure for fear that doing so will wrap up the civil suit before it’s even begun. It’s money vs integrity, pride vs lives, power vs citizens. And I grew up thinking we were all on the same team…


      1. Thank you for asking Mr. Couper. For starters…
        1.) We would like to see Dan Frei and other leaders in the MPPOA and MPD stop feeding the dissonance and this idea that the community and MPD are separate. Many of us used to believe we were all in this together. Many of us have friends, family and chosen family on the force. Many of us miss having a neighborhood cop. Some who question the integrity of the investigation process and Officer Heimsness’ actions also know and like him as a person. That is called, operating without double standards and bias. We want them to stop vilifying the community for reasonable suspicion and wanting a fair process. The collective loss and pain are enough. We are unarmed, vulnerable and hurting. We have had no time to grieve. Small children walk down the Baldwin St. sidewalk every day and many of them know the details of what happened. A family lost their son, will never kiss his cheek, see his smile, exchange an “I love you” or hear his voice again. We have good reason to want answers. When the community, (including former PD) questions an officer’s action or a process of the police department, it does not eliminate our memories or appreciation of the successful deeds of our police officers. However, just as our previous good behavior wouldn’t get us out of a car search resulting from an officer’s reasonable suspicion, previous good deeds of officers shouldn’t and won’t stop us from following up on our reasonable suspicions. For some to suggest those who question are against officers or haven’t adequate knowledge to even question is unethical and bad for everyone, including the MPD for they are of us, the community and our failures belong to eachother. We all suffer when we screw up. But our failures only make us better when we and our allies have the courage to call them what they are. We are the MPD’s allies and we are calling this incident and process thus far, a failure, because it is and because we care about our loved ones, and our community which includes them.

        2.) Please, elected and local leaders in the city, MPD and MPPOA, most importantly the Mayor and Chief, apologize personally and publically for not offering their condolences sooner to the Heenans’ and O’Malley’s, and honestly explain why they didn’t and then take whatever comes in response. We wish for the MPPOA, who may find this to be a strange request considering the closed stance they’ve taken to please remember the non-union thousands, their allies in the community who marched for their right to exist. It’s time to offer their condolences.

        3.) We want PO Heimsness permanently off patrol.

        4.) We ask the MPD and D.A. to acknowledge that they are misrepresenting the key civilian witnesses’ statements and to please stop.

        5.) We want the Cheif and Mayor’s support for the reopening of Paul Heenan’s case, and an external investigation done by objectively impartial agency. We want an external review done by panel of retired law enforcement professionals: two police officers and three members from a group of retired Judges, retired district attorneys, civil rights attorneys and active or emeritus criminal justice professors. We believe PO Heimsness shot a man who was showing his hands, not fleeing, not coming at him again but moving into a submissive position.

        6.) We want immediate mandatory drug and psych screening of PO Heimsness. There is no good reason why officers being investigated for police related-shootings and in custody deaths don’t submit blood samples at the scene. Better late than never.

        7.) We want our civic leaders to recognize Michael Bell as a legitimate part of the legislative process to reform statutes that govern law enforcement, to assist him in the creation of a civilian consult board that will participate in the process and finally, to support his 5 changes as a foundation for new legislation:
        a. That officers involved in a fatal shooting or an in-custody death be submitted to a blood test to determine if alcohol or pharmaceuticals contributed to the incident.
        b. That a law official (DA’s office or outside law agency) not assigned to the department involved in a fatality, be an onsite monitor for the collection of evidence at the scene.
        c. That an elected official (the Attorney General) appoint a panel of five members to review the death.
        d. This panel must be comprised of law enforcement professionals: two police officers and three members from a group of retired Judges, retired district attorneys, civil rights attorneys and active or emeritus criminal justice professors.
        e. That a special prosecutor be assigned to the Attorney General’s office who has the authority to criminally charge law enforcement in all counties of the state if criminal negligence is found.

        Additions from community to the suggested statute changes are:
        f. Mandatory ongoing drug and psych screening and psych support.
        g. Availability of police stats including non-sustained complaints of exc. use of force.
        h. Recognition of a non-government sanctioned civilian Restorative Justice group. City funds and facilitates meetings between PD and Community.
        i. A civilian-friendly process for PFC complaints that requires no attorney or provides funding for an attorney of civilian’s choice.
        j. Mandatory on-going crisis de-escalation training. Double it. More practice of non-excessive force de-escalation skills.


  3. Good mornig David. I remember you telling this story to me at MPD almost 25 years ago. Still relevant today. Last month, I convened a meeting of our local media leaders to talk about suicide, attempts and people in crises. I asked them to visualize the issue as an Idaho River. Using that analogy, Boise Police respond to an average of 20 cases a day of our citizens in crises. We stop the majority of those people from reaching the Class 5 rapids, but we don’t get all of them.

    We rescue on average 1.4 persons a day who are then hospitalized under Chapter 66; they survive to live another day. Regrettably the rapids (suicide) take the life of one person a week on average in my city on this short stretch of the Boise River. Multiply that scenario at least 100x for our County Sheriffs and City Police Chiefs and the numbers are staggering.

    The story I just told isn’t about a river, of course, it’s an accurate description of Boise’s mental health crises in 2012. We are not alone and these troubling “statistics” are similar to what my police chief colleagues are facing on their rivers throughout the state.

    Now for the upstream/downstream analogy. We can’t continue to focus exclusively on emergency rescue efforts, like building special prisons for the mentally ill, dedicating more money to emergency detentions or imposing more training on our police. We need to focus on upstream and what you as our elected leader can start doing now to reduce the number of our citizens from reaching the rapids (crisis).

    First, let’s ensure that throughout the State – proactive, preventative mental health services are available to reduce reliance on those working in the rapids and downstream like emergency responders, hospitals, police, jails and our prisons.

    Second, as Idaho’s mental health experts adequately fund Idaho Health and Welfare to ensure we provide early, adequate treatment programs and services that promote and support mental health services and restore services that are available and accessible to our citizens throughout Idaho. We do not have accurate numbers on the costs to “society”, but I can only guess that for every $1 more we spend upstream, we save $100 or more downstream.

    I described this situation in numbers this morning, but behind every statistic there’s a face and special story.
    Let’s care for and protect our people in crises just like we protect our rivers and natural resources of this great state.


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