One Way to Improve: Listen to Your Customers


Police: Survey Those Who Use Your Services

This is a very important subject. How do we know how we are doing unless we ask? And the folks we need to ask are the one who have contact with us — victims, offenders, complainants, and, yes, those whom we arrest.

The following is an excerpt from Arrested Development:

“[As] we evolved into a community- oriented organization. I came to understand that I needed a more official and systematic way to find out how we were doing. To find a way beyond just listening at community meetings, receiving comments from elected officials, or reading letters to the editor in our daily newspapers. I needed to find some way to directly ask citizens as to their level of satisfaction with our services.

“From my own experience, I knew this: citizens who have had no contact with their police tend to rate us quite high; out of sight, out of mind. Conversely, those who have had contact with us don’t rate us quite as high as those who have not. And, disturbingly, the more contact citizens have with us, the lower they tend to rate us (remember what Nicholas Peart said earlier about what he thought about repetitive stop and frisk tactics by police in his community).

“What I intended to do was create a survey of people who had contact with us – I called it a customer survey. A contact could be, for instance, making a verbal complaint, being the victim of a crime, or even being arrested. As it turned out, the results of this monthly survey became a valuable source of information. It helped me to more realistically evaluate how we were really doing.

“Think about it: without an ongoing survey, how will any police department know how it is doing? In the business world, customer feedback is essential. It should be no different in a police agency. How else will police know what their citizens think of their services? But more critical, how else will police know what services or functions need to be improved?

“I decided I needed to have this kind of feedback. I wanted to hear from those with whom we had actual contact; not those who just have an opinion about us. I wanted to know how we were doing from those with whom we actually had dealt face to face. If I was requiring department leaders to get feedback from each other and their employees, why not from those who used our services?

“After a number of things were considered, such as cost, the number of surveys we needed to send out, and to whom we’d send them, I began to mail out a survey form with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. It was sent from me to the people identified in every 50th police incident (as determined by randomly-selected case numbers). Each survey was enclosed with a personal letter explaining why I was doing this, why I thought it was necessary, and asked for their feedback. The survey asked them to rate their experience with us on a scale from one to five (one being poor and five being excellent) in seven categories:

  • Concern
  • Helpfulness
  • Knowledge
  • Quality of service
  • Solving the problem
  • Putting you at ease
  • Professional conduct

“At the end of the survey, I asked the critical question: how can we improve? And those who answered were not hesitant to tell me.

“The survey also asked respondents for personal information about where they live, their age, race, gender, and income level. I made a commitment in the letter I sent out to read every returned survey and publish the results in our newsletter, whether the commentary was good or bad.  I also made it clear to both officers and the citizens who received the surveys that they wouldn’t be used to initiate disciplinary action against any officer. There was another way to do that. If a citizen had a complaint against a particular officer, they were directed to contact our Internal Affairs Unit. I had to make it clear this survey wasn’t about discipline, but about gathering important information as to how we were doing.

“We had a very respectable return rate of 35 to 40 percent. I used the results to report to the mayor and city council how the department was doing in personal hands-on contacts. During the seven years I used the survey, we made steady progress in improving overall citizen satisfaction each and every year. I put together and published a line graph showing the rate of citizen satisfaction officers were achieving. It was a clear, visual indication that Madison officers were continuously improving. And they did it on the street with all types of people and in all kinds of situations.

‘Traditionally, police departments have learned how they are doing by paying attention to the wrong things. Police leaders gathered information by reading newspapers, watching television news, attending city council meetings, civic gatherings, reviewing formal complaints, and talking with community leaders, just as I had done for years. All of these things need to be done, but they won’t tell a police chief how his or her department is really doing. Only a broad survey that pays attention to age, gender, race, and socioeconomic level can do that. The only effective way to know whether the people who use police services feel their police department is doing a good job is to ask those who have had direct contact with its officers and employees.”


In the world today, surveying our “customers” is a lot easier and more economical by using online tools like “Survey Monkey.” The important part is to make it personal, that you want and need their input. I feel that my personal letter was an important factor in gaining a high return rate. See HERE for more online tools.

It is important for everyone in the police field to work to regain and build trust. On this blog I have proposed some steps that I believe will make a difference — they worked for me and they should work for you. When you begin to survey citizen customers you will have a better idea on how your improvement strategies are working.


  1. Practice unconditional respect.
  2. Control use of deadly force.
  3. Collaborate with community members in solving problems.
  4. Measure the effectiveness of your strategies.

Don’t give up! There’s better days ahead!



  1. I fully agree that assessing the perceptions of those police deal with is critical to assessing police performance. I disagree with the customer perspective because it leads the police to focus on customer relations rather than Justice. Police is a verb.

    I offer one cautionary note from the medical profession. As medicine became more driven by business concerns pleasing the customer (patient) became more important. Practitioners routinely prescribe antibiotics when patients present with symptoms that are almost always viral infections. This is one of the practices that has contributed significantly to evolving drug resistant bacteria that threaten public health. Much of the current problem wih heroin is judged to be fueled in part by over prescription of narcotic analgesics.

    I believe viewing citizens as customers will take the police down a path similar to that the medical profession has traveled.


    1. Interesting warning, Mark. Thanks for the input. For me, the customer survey was just one of the many metrics a police leaders needs to consider — a victimization survey by city borders would be, of course, very helpful. As a chief, I needed direct feedback — sometimes to counter the nay-sayers on city council who would report they are “concerned” about some aspect of policing and I could respond with survey data. How arrested persons were treated was extremely important and when they would report being treated “respectfully” it really helped me sleep better at night. I think a good effort would be to determine just what kinds of data are needed. (p.s. Malcolm Sparrow has a new book coming out that may answer those questions — “Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform.”


  2. I like this systemic business like approach. Has it been done? I’d like to see the survey and the results, findings of such a customer satisfaction survey


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