Dreaming in Blue…

imageAn old friend, Neil Heinen, got me thinking again about Madison, Wisc. — a city we both love dearly and with whom we both have had a 40+ year relationship. Neil edits Madison Magazine, and wrote this in last month’s issue,

“I don’t want to return to the Madison I moved to. I don’t even want to stay in the same Madison in which I find myself at this moment. The Madison I have chosen to stay in is the Madison we are becoming. And I believe those of us who have chosen to stay in Madison for whatever reason have a responsibility to aid in that becoming… helping create the Madison in which they felt welcomed, respected, appreciated and cared for.” [To read the full article CLICK HERE.]

Perhaps this rings a bell for you and your city as it did for me. I, too, don’t want see my city go back, I want it to go forward. Neil got me thinking about the city Madison is becoming. And, for me, what is the role of the police in that becoming?

Years ago, we in the police department had and shared a  dream. The dream was about creating a new kind of police, a police that respected and cared for people, a police in which diversity was a strength, and a department where creativity and innovation were encouraged and rewarded. This department was to be staffed by men and women who experimented with new ideas and better ways to do their job. It was a place that pursued learning and then taught others outside their own department what they had learned. It was a department closely linked to a university in both teaching and research.

In such a department, those who served there would be smart, well-educated and trained, committed to be restrained in their use of force, honest in all their dealings, close to the community, courteous, and committed to improving themselves and all that they do. Their leaders would be great listeners, collaborators, and coaches. They would be passionate role models and mentors to their officers. These leaders would know that their number one job would be to grow those whom they were privileged to lead. Coercive, fear-generating, disrespectful leaders (if you can call them that) would be long gone and nowhere to be found.

We were excited about this dream. We called it “quality policing” and our mission was to improve everything we did from the inside out. And that mission excited bright, diverse, dedicated, and educated men and women to join us in the pursuit of this dream.

The challenge today is to remember that organizational dreaming is necessary and important. Proust recommends that we “dream all the time.” Members of forward organizations are dreamers. They think ahead, not behind. And the challenge for police today is whether or not they will dream bold dreams. And then pursue them It will not be easy. The pursuit of great dreams can weary an organization, but to do anything less today is to short-change both citizens and police.

I have watched police for more than a decade after my retirement. It has led me to conclude that America’s police have ceased to dream ahead and have, therefore, been arrested in their development; that’s why I wrote the book.  At the time, I did not think what I was saying applied to Madison. Since then, I have some second thoughts.

Let me present one example, Madison has had three recent deadly shootings involving police officers. Each case involved suspects who where either drunk or mentally ill. The scenarios involved one or more of the following characteristics: persons with edged weapons, unresponsive to police commands, or believed to be life-threatening to police. In each case, the encounter did not end well. Not only was the person killed, and family and friends of the deceased severely traumatized, but the event also deeply affected the officers present. The lesson is that no one comes away unscathed when a life is taken — and that’s why we, as a society, must be careful when we do.

What can be done instead? I expect a progressive police department will be open in its investigation, dialogue with the community, pledge to review what happened, and commit to improve in the future. If police believe they have used the best and most current practice they still must ask themselves whether or not there is a better way to do this. Is there a better approach we could develop and use? That’s what the idea of “continuous improvement” is all about. And I remain convinced it can  apply to police just as well as to other sectors in our society.

Madison can do something about this. They can be a leader. And the key player in the city of Madison to make this happen is the statutory Board of Police and Fire Commissioners. They are presently in the process of selecting a new chief of police. At their first public hearing, I provided, in part, the following things to take into consideration:

— A POLICE CHIEF must be able to select the “best and brightest” to serve as police officers…

— A POLICE CHIEF must be able to deeply listen (inside and outside the police department)…

— A POLICE CHIEF must oversee a quality training program and model the style of leadership that is necessary to lead the organization forward…

— A POLICE CHIEF must create an internal system of improvement that constantly and continuously improves all that the department does…

— A POLICE CHIEF must be data-driven, and not by the old crime statistics, but by real and meaningful data…

— A POLICE CHIEF must be able to sustain improvements that he or she has made… To alter the course of a large and complex organization like a police department takes time – and effort.

Or, as I said ages ago:

“The police chief should be a visible, accessible and courageous leader who thoughtfully strives to improve the effectiveness of police services.  Improvement can be made only if the person at the top is willing to challenge the status quo, take risks, be innovative and build a consensus of support for change. Improvements are not automatic with a committed police chief, but they are impossible without one” [emphasis added].[i]


Top leadership matters. Without an outstanding leader, a good police department can struggle along for a period of time, maybe even years, but such a department will never dream and never be great. We must realize that nothing is more important in our cities today than leadership in all areas of urban life — including the police. Our nation’s urban centers, including Madison, struggle with racism, a lagging economy, lack of meaningful employment, an educational system which has not performed well for minority youth, and disparate jail and prison populations. Solutions need to be found.

In the meantime, one of the most important things we can do as citizens is to encourage the development of a world-class police in our cities that can partner with the community in problem-solving. When this happens, when we all work together, our cities will be “becoming” cities; cities in which everyone feels “welcomed, respected, appreciated and cared for.” This should be our collective dream for America and her police.

One day it will happen — one day this dream will become reality.

[And if you are wondering if all this dreaming stuff is crazy, let Simon Sinek from the RAND Corporation tell you about the link between leadership and dreaming in an 18 minute video from TED, CLICK HERE.]


[i] David C Couper, How to Rate Your Local Police, Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1983.


  1. I thought a lot about this. The same pertains to fire chiefs, with one exception: they’re not data-driven by old crime statistics. Thanks.


  2. David, thank you for this nicely written and thoughtful piece. I am in the process of co-authoring a paper on police innovation in Canada and the timing of your blog piece was great. From another dreamer and former police executive – Cal Corley, Ottawa, Ontario


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