Three Steps Forward

RFS_bannerHow a 3-Step Formula Can Provide a Way Forward for Today’s Police

When I came to lead the Madison Police Department in 1972, I was an outsider. I had my work cut out for me as most chiefs coming into an organization from the outside can attest.

The first eight years of my 20+ year tenure was trying to upgrade the existing personnel and diversifying a department that had one black officer and no women on patrol.  After those goals were accomplished, I realized that the department was relatively split between two factions as we struggled to become a better organization – An “A Team” which consisted of those who supported me and a “B Team” — the rest of the organization.

I knew that one day I must take a bold step and try and bring together these two factions into one department and move us forward — together. I have always been a leader who looked to the best management practices in business and industry (even military) and tried to apply them to what I was doing. This led me to find, converge, and blend three important and necessary ways of thinking and doing improvement.

  • SYSTEMS-THINKING: How does this work?

Systems-thinking comes from the field of system dynamics and allows people to improve social systems in the same way people use engineering principles to improve systems which are mechanical. Systems-thinking is particularly valuable in following areas that are quite familiar to police leaders:

  • In complex systems it helps people see the “big picture” in complex systems, not just their part in it.
  • It addresses recurring problems, or those problems made worse, by past attempts to fix them.
  • It identifies problems where actions can effect the environment surrounding the problem.
  • It reveals problems whose solutions are not evident.

The Deming Method  helped me see police work as a system whose products and services were capable of being improved and the importance of data-based decision-making. More importantly, Deming changed the way I saw myself as a leader and how I was going to lead others; training and listening to those who actually DO the work as being a vital part of being a leader.

  • CITIZEN SURVEYING: How are we doing?

The next step in this three-step improvement formula is to find out how we are doing – and that means have data! To find a way beyond listening to what some people were saying at community meetings, occasional comments from elected officials, or reading various comments to news sources, I needed to have some way to directly ask citizens how they evaluated the police services they received — being on the receiving end – “As to your arrest last week, how did we treat you; how did we do? This is important to us!”

From my experience, I knew this: those who have had no contact with police tend to rate us quite high. On the other hand, those who have had personal contact with us don’t rate us quite so high. And, disturbingly, the more contact citizens have with us, the lower they tend to rate us. So much for putting a police rating form in with the water bill and asking for input from folks who have never directly had contact with a police officer!

I knew I had to have an on-going way to collect this important data about how we delivered our “services.” Without an ongoing ‘customer” survey, how will a police leader know how his or her officers are doing? In the business world, customer feedback is essential. If a business person doesn’t listen to his customers, he’s soon out of business. It should be no different with police leaders. How will police know what services or functions they provide need to be improved? How will they know how their officers are really doing?

The survey, sent to a citizen personally from me asked them to rate their experience with us. 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.

I 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 – including arrests!

  • THE NEW LEADERSHIP: How are leaders leading?

After studying and working with Deming, I begin to think more in systems. I knew that our current top-down and coercive style of leadership, a standard in most police agencies and training academies, would not be able to mend the wounds of the past and would not be able to take us forward.

Two other teachers would be major influencers in my life as a police leader: Dr. Tom Gordon in his work, Leadership Effectiveness Training. His teaching had a profound influence on me as he argued that a leadership style that was top-down and coercive was self-defeating. It was so because the more coercion a leader use on an employee, the less information is passed up to them — vital information they need to make effective decisions.

Workers react to coercive power in a variety of ways.  It can cause them to reduce their upward communication, cause them to engage in rivalry and competitiveness, to rebel and to withdraw.  The use of coercion costs a leader in time, enforcement, alienation, stress and, eventually, diminishing influence with his or her employees.  Coercion has a negative impact on ideas, creativity, innovation, motivation, and the quality of its decisions. So why do we continue to use it?

Parallel to Gordon’s thinking was that of Robert Greenleaf and “servant leadership.” According to Greenleaf, those who would seek to lead others must first be able to serve others and, ultimately, to understand that their job as a leader is to help others grow — ‘to shine light where there is darkness.”

The teaching of Deming, Gordon, and Greenleaf conflicted with what I had been taught as a leader in the Marines and how I, myself, had experienced leadership in my early days as a police officer. In many ways, it was an unlearning for me.

I knew I needed a new leadership style. When I talked to my employees about what I was trying to do and the ideas behind it, we called it “Quality Leadership.”* And I knew it had to begin with no one but me.

The Twelve Principles of Quality Leadership


  1. Improve SYSTEMS and examine processes before blaming people
  2. Have a CUSTOMER orientation and focus toward employees and citizens.
  3. Believe that the best way to improve the quality of work or service is to ASK and LISTEN to employees who are doing the work.
  4. Be committed to the PROBLEM-SOLVING process; use it and let DATA, not emotions, drive decisions.


  1. Be a FACILITATOR and COACH. Develop an OPEN atmosphere that encourages providing and accepting FEEDBACK
  2. Encourage CREATIVITY through RISK-TAKING and be tolerant of honest MISTAKES.
  3. Avoid top-down, POWER-ORIENTED decision-making whenever possible.
  4. Manage on the BEHAVIOR of 95% of employees and not on the 5% who cause problems. Deal with the 5% PROMPTLY and FAIRLY.


  1. Believe in, foster and support TEAMWORK

10.With teamwork, develop with employees agreed-upon GOALS and a PLAN to achieve them.

  1. Seek employees INPUT before you make key decisions.

12.Strive to develop mutual RESPECT and TRUST among employees; DRIVE OUT FEAR.

Any new leadership style has to begin with the top leader and what the leader is trying to achieve must seen and experienced by others in the organization; that is, a leader must walk his or her talk.

Needless to say, not every leader in the department was enthusiastic about the changes we were about to make. The old ways are often too comfortable.

As most of us know, senior police leaders don’t typically gravitate toward being more open, good listeners, or committed to the growth of the those they lead. Some one must lead them there and that’s the job of the police chief.

After all, traditional police leadership has been more noted for being closed, maintains the status quo, not listening to subordinates, nor being particularly supportive of them, being coercive, “my way or the highway,” and more concerned with controlling officers than coaching them to success.

After I trained department leaders, the next step was to conduct a Four-Way Check, It required every department leader, including myself, to get feedback on their performance from four directions.

  1. Those whom they supervised,
  2. Peer leaders with whom they worked,
  3. The leader to whom they reported, and finally
  4. An in-depth self-evaluation and meeting with me.

As might be expected, my senior leaders were not especially excited about this new change. At a meeting with them I explained why I thought this new leadership and its processes were crucial for us and our success as an organization.

I wanted my team to reach a consensus before I went further. But as we went around the table that day, I didn’t have one—in fact, only a few were in favor of what I was proposing.

What was I to do? I had learned that one of the major benefits of following Deming’s teachings was that it would help build relationships with leaders in other fields who were trying to do the same things. And at an area quality training session with business, educational, corporate and governmental leaders a year or so earlier, I met a corporate executive who was in the manufacturing business. He told me that he had struggled with getting buy-in from his managers, too. I gave him a call and went to visit him.

He soon told me his experience. If top leaders in any organization waited until everyone got on board, they would never get to where they wanted to go. Instead, he suggested, if a leader could get 25 percent of his or her staff willing to move with them, they should do so. This is the story he told me and he suggested that I use it:

  • “Tell your staff that the organizational boat is about to cross a wide river and land at a new place. When the boat leaves, it won’t return. It’s a one- way trip. You want your whole team to come with you, but you won’t be able to come back later for them. You want everyone to come on board with you because you value them and their contributions, even if they are not fully committed at the present time. Tell them they will become more comfortable with what you are asking of them and will be willing to do yourself. You commit to helping, coaching, and teaching them so they will be successful in this new way; this new place. You won’t leave them hanging out. Remind them this is also a new and difficult way for you. But you need them to come with you—now.”

When I determined that I had at least a quarter of my top commanders on board, I gave the boat speech. I could tell it was very uncomfortable for some to hear, but for others it was a sign that I was really committed to the direction we were about to go. There was electricity in the air—invigoration for some — and shock for others.

As the boat left the dock, it was a stormy journey—but what my corporate friend told me that day turned out to be excellent advice. What he he advised worked.

The period of time following the boat story involved a combination, a melding, of what we had learned together regarding systems, citizen surveys, and effective leadership. It became the second major transformation I introduced in the department.

The first transformation occurred when I first took over the department. I needed to address selection and training needs, recruit more educated and talented personnel, diversify the department, bring women into patrol and supervisory positions, and alter the way in which we responded to public protest. That kept me busy for eight years.

Now, eight years into that transformation, I made the decision that we must now develop a new work environment that was programmed to listen to and tap into the intelligence and experience of our officers and other employees who were doing the work for which we, as leaders, were responsible.

As it turned out, most tried. Others waited for retirement and left. Those I promoted who replaced them, however, not only adopted the new leadership but also were enthusiastic about it. These leaders were viewed by department employees as practicing what they preached. We now were into the second transformation.

When members of the department saw the department’s highest commanders working to improve the things for which they were responsible, and using the new methods, it made a big difference. They became more effective and respected leaders. Leading was now teaching by doing and we all were moving forward together.

  • A Way Forward: Combing Systems-Thinking, Citizen Surveying, and New Leadership

Moving out of the present crisis is possible for our nation’s police, but it has got to be a constant, and not sporadic, effort.

From what I learned in Madison, it is possible to engage police officers in a pursuit of excellence, which is essentially the result of being committed to continuous organizational and personal improvement and being part of a successful team.

  • In the long run, the commitment to improving the systems in which police work is good for them and for those whom they serve: police will have more support from their community, they will feel nobler about themselves and the work they do, and their workplaces will be more comfortable, gratifying, engaging, and safer.
  • When this begins to happen, trust in our nation’s police will improve, they will be more likely to be supported by community members, and they will be more effective in what they do if they do it collaboratively with the community.

While the method I outline isn’t the only method, it was one that I found to be effective for me in Madison.

It is a case study of one way that, perhaps, will result in other effective transformational stories being shared.

But one thing must be clear: whatever method or system police use to improve must help them do so continuously. At the same time, any improvement method must be viewed by rank and file officers as being better than the old way. What is isn’t good enough, because what is can be done better — whether it is issuing a traffic ticket or responding to public protest.

  • An organization that is committed to our societal values, and engages in working to make things better, is a more effective and exciting place to work. Citizens will feel safer and more in control of their problems (and their police) when they experience police who are committed to continuously improving.
  • Citizens will benefit by being policed by men and women who are committed to protecting their rights. There will be greater ease in minority and poor communities as many of the police officers will be more diverse and empathetic.
  • But the most significant of all these characteristics is that officers in this kind of a system will be themselves led to treat others fairly, respectfully, and be more willing to work with community members in solving their problems.

The reality, however, is that even if our nation’s police begin today, it will take years to do this. But the first place to start is in some cities, counties, towns, or villages and the time is now.

For the most part, good police departments come into being by the people working inside of them; those who hold strong values of liberty, justice, fairness, equality, and participation.

It is true that good policing, on the way to being distinguished policing, happens not so much because of the techniques, tools, technologies, or structures of a department, but because of the men and women who work there.

Now is the time to think about recommending a method or way for police departments to implement the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and PERF’s “30 Guidelines for Police Use of Force.

Change is not easy for police. So far, only a few of our 17,000+ police agencies have implemented the changes recommended in the Task Force and PERF reports.

Now is the time to actively begin — to restore the trust and support that is so necessary for police to be effective in a free, diverse, and democratic society such as ours.

imagesA Proposal

That three day seminars are presented around the country for police chiefs and no less than three members of their department (no singletons) and then implement a six-month check-up to see how those who attended the seminars are doing. Perhaps a system of mutual peer-review could be instituted. Who will do this? PERF? The COPS Office? The Police Foundation? A major university?

The idea is to present the working formula of:


This is a way to help police begin to demonstrate to their communities that they are, in fact, on the path toward toward improving things and restoring any trust and support which may have been lost in the post-Ferguson era.

These three parts, working together, have the power to do this: to restore lost trust, better control of force, and gain not only community support, but the support of rank and file officers — those who do the actual day-to-day work of delivering police services.

My theory, based on what I learned in Madison, is that this will work if we have the patience, passion, and persistence to do it.

* I found that most all of the concepts in my idea of Quality Leadership are found within the curriculum of “Leadership in Police Organizations” (LPO). Chief Mike Masterson and Beth Marie Erickson make this point in “Putting Quality Behind the Badge: Combining the Best of Art with Science – Quality Leadership and Leadership in Police Organizations” in The New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police, Couper and Lobitz,




  1. Great article. One Key component is to change the culture of leaders where if they want the promotion, they need to realize and take seriously there are responsibilities that go with the job that they can not avoid and stop only think about the power, perks, and the money that goes with it.


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