Are You Bold Enough to Experiment?

“We needed to look ahead toward the future—to stop, look, and listen like the old wagon masters did, scan for dangers and challenges.”

If police are ever to truly become respected and trustful “constitutional officers;” that is, protectors and models of our values and way of life, they are going to have to overcome the “four obstacles” I outlined in Arrested Development (anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy) AND be willing to creatively experiment — to try new and (hopefully) better ways of “doing business.”

That is what I learned in Madison when we first experimented with decentralization of police services and began to be truly community-oriented and, at the same time, flatten the authority pyramid and start listening to good ideas from our officers.

We started with a future group consisting of younger members of the department (less than 15 years of service) in which I permitted them to dream; to dream about the kind of organization in which they would wish to work and how they would connect with community members in order to achieve safe and peaceful neighborhoods.

By calling our effort “experimental” gave us the liberty to try out these new ways of delivering police services and, at the same time, organizing the workplace in new ways which empowered rank and file police officers.

It worked and we had data from outside researchers to confirm that we achieved what we set out to do!

Here’s an excerpt from the book on our experimental district:

“Within a year or two after launching the Officer’s Advisory Council (OAC), I decided we needed to look ahead toward the future—to stop, look, and listen like the old wagon masters did, scan for dangers and challenges. We needed to think about the kind of department in which we wanted to work and the kind of department the community wanted. This was the direction I was going. Now I needed people to help me look to the future. It became the Committee on the Future of the Department…

“This kind of work is immensely significant for the success of sustaining any organization. For us, it set in motion the energy to think about tomorrow, how we might need to alter or change the organization, and how we might keep our effort going. In their report, the committee made three formidable recommendations with supportive material:

  • Move closer to the community.
  • Make better use of technology.
  • Improve workplace wellness.

“Those recommendations gave substance to my dream for decentralized neighborhood patrol districts [Community-Oriented Policing] that I first envisioned when I came to Madison. This now would more effectively move our officers closer to the people they served.

“Very soon construction was begun of our first decentralized police station—the Experimental Police District. The EPD was to be our field laboratory. Their recommendations also caused us to examine our structure, internal practices, and the overall direction in which the department was moving.

“Ultimately, that early effort to create a future vision for the department resulted in complete decentralization of patrol and investigative services into four stand-alone district stations that serve the City of Madison. The origins of this idea first began with my vision back in 1973 and the creation of a neighborhood patrol unit in the early 1980s, which assigned foot patrol officers to several our city’s key residential and business areas.

This was a new idea for Madison. Our department had always operated out of one centralized building in the downtown area. The EPD, however, was located on the far south side, in one of the most active policing areas of the city. The officers who volunteered to work out of it had a hand in not only deciding the location but also the new station’s building design and cost.

“But the most remarkable move made was to let officers who volunteered to work there select their leaders. This would be the place where the new leadership style and problem-oriented policing methods would be solidly exercised. Years later, the ability of the Madison department to sustain a number of changes made nearly two decades earlier was highlighted in a national publication of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).[2]

Here is a good example from a large agency, Chief Charlie Beck and Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice put together an experiment in true community-oriented policing in a troublesome and crime-infested housing area in Watts.


[1] Chuck Wexler, Mary Ann Wycoff, and Craig Fischer. Good to Great Policing: Application of Business Management Principles in the Public Sector. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services: Washington, D.C. 2007.

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