Applied Systems Thinking

Systems-thinking comes from the field of system dynamics and allows people to understand social systems in the same way people use engineering principles to improve mechanical systems. Systems-thinking is particularly valuable in following areas:

  • 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.[1]

The growing concern about police use of deadly force, particularly in communities of color, can and should be addressed through a process called systems improvement. This is how it can work:


  1. DESCRIBE the system.
    1. Police in our society are authorized by law to use deadly force to stop a fleeing, dangerous felon and to stop deadly attacks on themselves and those whom they serve.
  1. IDENTIFY problems in the system.
    1. Due to societal problems which includes poverty and racism, police have been put in the position of policing areas in which poor people reside causing them to have more contact with the poor and those of color.
    2. Police are predominately male and white. They often carry within themselves an unconscious bias against people of color.
  1. DECIDE which problems to solve.
    1. A first problem to solve would be the use of deadly force against persons who are not armed with a firearm.
    2. These incidents often involve people experiencing a mental health or other emotional crisis.
    3. The weapons these persons carry are usually knives, other sharp instruments and blunt weapons like a baseball bat.
    4. Solving this problem by reducing the number of persons killed would lower the number of persons annually killed by police by approximately one-third.
  1. CREATE a measurement and action plan.
    1. Share with the community what you are proposing to do.
    2. Data involving use of force by police for your jurisdiction needs to be collected and evaluated.
    3. An action plan would most likely involve consultation with mental health and training experts in order to develop comprehensive policy development involving the community, a training plan, and an effective tactical approach to using less-than-deadly force in these encounters.
    4. It will be important to enlist rank-and-file police and their unions in this endeavor and ask their participation.
    5. Part of the action plan would be a strong effort to analyze each and every force encounter in order to learn from them.
  1. IMPLEMENT the new system.
    1. When the new and improved system is implemented it is important that the agency be open and transparent in its implementation efforts.
    2. Successes, that is saving a life, need to be openly celebrated.
    3. The success of the new system is dependent upon leadership and peer intervention.
  1. DISPLAY the data – before and after.
    1. As this is a highly emotional issue in every jurisdiction, it is important to have the data to support your system improvements.
    2. Every life counts in the effort to make “sanctity of life” the core of a police agency.
    1. The systems in which police use force are extremely sensitive in American society; therefore, they need to be monitored by agency leaders with the goal of continuously improving them.
    2. Police do this because, as Robert Peel found out over 150 years ago, “The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionally to the necessity of the use of force.”
    3. Public cooperation leads to police who are more supported, effective, and protected.


  1. What are you doing about your use of force?
  2. Do you know why you are doing it?
  3. Are you aware of policies and training that guide you in using force?
  4. What have you done to understand why we are trying to improve our uses of force?
  5. Do you see how you and community with both benefit from this improvement?
  6. Who are you involving in improving our ways/system of using force?
  7. What have you learned so far being involved in this effort?

[Source: Joiner Associates, Madison, WI and The Quality Leadership Workbook (2017)

[1] “Overview of Systems Thinking,” Daniel Aronson at



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