Don’t Eliminate — Re-Imagine!

Now is the time to re-imagine our police

I am not in favor of eliminating or de-funding police. I want communities to visualize an entirely new kind of police; the kind of police that can effectively assure safety and order in a city or neighborhood and with whom they can have trust, reliability and accountability.

In Madison, we attempted to re-think and re-imagine police in the late 1980s with the creation of the Experimental Police District (EPD). Of course, experimentation in policing is almost unheard of. Yet, a follow-up study of the EPD showed positive results of the experiment on the part of both the community service and police who worked there (see description in the abstract below). The success of the Experimental Police District led to the decentralization of police services in the city and the creation of five policing districts.

If we believe we are a free society, dedicated to the principles and values contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, then we should have police who share and enforce those values. Police officers who promote justice act in protecting and modeling our values.

In short, what do we want our police to do? I believe now is the time. Reform has not worked. No longer can we think about police reform, I suggest we imagine a new kind of police.

This is the question with which we must struggle: How would we create a police that is best able to work in our free and diverse society? The trouble today is that very few of us are thinking about how that would work, let alone how we would implement it.

When I set about re-imaging police in my city, I asked for volunteers, officers who would be willing to work in such a new organizational creation? And then we created a structure to carry out these ideas — a police experiment.

Here’s what I wrote years ago and was published in the American Journal of Policing in 1990. I was my dream to re-imagine policing. What do you think?


A Note From a Cop in the 21st Century

“In the late 1980s the American police took some bold steps to assess what their role and relationships with the people they serve would be in the [future].  From that effort came the decision to restructure their mission and role within their communities in order to anticipate the future and effectively respond to it.

“One of their major decisions was to ‘demilitarize’ the police and decentralize them into small team-oriented work units in their city’s neighborhoods.  They identified the citizens as ‘customers’ and developed methods to listen to them and be responsive to their needs.  Over the previous 100 years, the police had become increasingly centralized, authoritarian and hierarchical.  This led to continuing problems with their communities and a major decrease in the quality of their personnel.

“The first experimental police reorganization was not without its problems.  Many police employees, as well as citizens, perceived this new orientation as not really ‘police work.’  There came to be a struggle among the traditionalists who saw police work as it had always been.  They saw police work as a linear extension of the last century.

“On the other hand, the new police saw the need to radically change their past orientation and get closer to, and work more closely with, the communities they served… These new police were out in front of that massive change [the shift from an industrial to an information age] and were not caught unaware and unprepared to deal with the issues and conflicts that change brought.  We owe our success today to those forward-thinking police leaders…

“I schedule my own work time in the neighborhood.  I am highly visible in my area but also have ‘office hours’ posted when I will be available in my office to discuss community matters.  I have central as well as personal communications with my personal data unit…

“I work in a very trusting and supportive atmosphere, not only because of my colleagues, but also because of the community I serve… ‘management’ in my department does not seem anything   like what I have read about in the 20th century.  My organization seems more ‘flat’ than the hierarchical pyramid of yesterday’s police departments.  We have more trust in one another.  We respect each other as individuals: competent, professional persons who are part of an important function… We do our jobs well, and fairly, and the public respects us for that…

“Our organization seems much more comfortable and effective than those I have read about in the last century.  The paramilitary ‘trappings’ of the past century have fallen by the wayside.  We have, of course, a uniform and identifiable mode of dress, but not the military style uniform.  I usually wear a blazer with department emblem… There are no rank symbols and we address each other on a first name basis, from the newest employee up to the police director…

“I read that one of the things that troubled last century’s police was the on-going tension between police with a ‘social worker’ orientation and those with a ‘crime fighter’ bent.  For the most part, that has vanished today.  We see ourselves as community workers and organizers with a variety of tools and strategies (including arrest) at our disposal.  We actively serve as mediators, negotiating settlements of all kinds and sorts of community problems.  These conflicts range from problems between people regarding lifestyles, pollution, marital property disputes and other family discord…

“Our job today is to maintain community order within a human rights framework.  I guess you could realistically call us peacekeepers and protectors of the Bill of Rights.

“What I like most about my job is the teamwork, honesty, and trust that goes on among all of the police specialists in the district and within the department (and this includes our leaders, too!).  We brainstorm solutions and select the best known method to do business.  We are committed to constant, continuous improvement — forever.  I feel that I am doing an extremely important job and my neighborhood appreciates it.  I guess you could call it keeping the peace in [my city] with a maximum amount of problem solving and a minimum amount force…

“Not only do I fully participate in the direction of my police district and department, but I am an integral part of the neighborhood community in which I work.  My people know I can, and that I have the authority and ability to, help them solve their problems, keep their neighborhood safe and peaceful, and maintain a high-level quality of life here…”

D. Futura, Police Services Officer, 1990


Community Policing in Madison: Quality From the Inside Out

[ABSTRACT: The Quality Leadership Model focuses on the leadership and management methods required for a police agency to move from the rhetoric to the reality of community policing. The experiences of the Madison Police Department (MPD) over 9 years shows how the model can be successful. the MPD has moved from a conservative, rigidly defined police force to one characterized by its futuristic outlook, community-based policing strategies, quality leadership practices, and openness to diversity in the workplace and the community. The Quality Leadership Model implemented in the MPD has focused on the development of leadership, decisionmaking, and participation in management by the rank-and-file police officers. Specific changes discussed include the neighborhood patrol bureau, which involves departmental decentralization, and the experimental police district, which involves the development of a field laboratory to test new policing ideas. The basic trends produced by changes in the MPD are employee growth, empowerment, and increased feelings of self-worth; better work decisions; an improvement in the workplace; and more community support.”]


  1. Rev. Couper:

    I am longtime follower of your blog and career, going back to my days asa student of the late George Kelllng. I served in the Boston Police Department as director of strategic planning in 90’s and early 2000’s.

    I put together some thoughts on the current crisis. I just want to share them with you.

    Stay safe and well,

    Jim Jordan Public Safety Leadership 617-799-0372 Home of The Sergeants’ Leadership Program



  2. Fascinating. That was 1990 and your piece above seems to reference a 9-year period following. What’s the status of this experiment today in Madison? Any articles in the media?


    1. The department did not continue the pace toward continuous improvement. A new leader replaced me from outside and did not share my vision. Such is life. However, some values stuck. The department continued to pursue diversity and hire smart cops.


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