The Experimental Police District: A Field Laboratory

Note: A dear colleague with whom I worked with for many years, Mike Masterson, sent me the following picture. After retirement, he served for a decade in Boise (ID) as their chief of police. He served as one of the commanders of Madison, Wisconsin’s legendary “Experimental Police District.” It brought back fond memories I still hold of true community-oriented policing and one of the most effective ways to improve policing in America. The following is an excerpt describing the experiment and its outside evaluation. Enjoy and envision!

[Note: The internal planning team of rank and file police officers began working to craft, develop and site the district in 1986. Two years later, In 1988, it became a reality.]


Chapter Six: The Seven Improvement Steps

Step Seven: Improve Continuously

Police must unceasingly improve the systems in which they work–everything they do.

IMPROVEMENT OF OUR nation’s police is possible, but it has got to be a constant and not sporadic occurrence. It is going totake some work from every one of us. It is possible to engage police officers in a pursuit of excellence, which is essentially what this is. In the long run, this commitment to improving the systems in which police work is good for them and all of us: police will have more support from their community, they will feel nobler about themselves and the work they do, and their workplaces will be morecomfortable, gratifying, and engaging.

It will be so for citizens, too, because police themselves will be treated with dignity and worth within their own workplaces, andhave leaders who respect and listen to them.

The method I used was that which Deming proposed – all work is a system; all systems can be improved.

They found that our new style of leadership was apparent throughout the department as well as in the experimental police district (EPD). (The mission of the EPD was to experiment with new patrol and investigative strategies including an intenseexperiment with quality leadership.)

An interesting additional finding was that even though the number of officers in the department had not increased during the four-year research period, citizens reported seeing more police all over the city; an outcome, perhaps, of getting closer to thecommunity and encouraging motor patrol officers to get out and walk their neighborhoods.

The three-year study examined the efforts undertaken by us to create a new organizational design—both structural and managerial, built to support community- and problem-oriented policing. Notably, researchers found the department’s attempt to bringprogressive, comprehensive change to our operations was successful:

  • Employee attitudes toward work and the organization improved.
  • Physical decentralization was achieved.
  • Residents believed crime had become less of a problem.
  • Residents believed police were working to resolve issues of importance to the neighborhood.

In the conclusion of their report they made a statement that I believe captures Madison’s 12-year effort to raise the fairness and effectiveness of the police function in their community; a second major effort during my 20-year tenure.

[I]t is possible to change a traditional, control- oriented police organization into one in which employees become members of work teams and participants in decision- making processes… This research suggests that associated with these internal changes are external benefits for citizens, including indications of reductions in crime and reduced levels of concern aboutcrime.

While this isn’t the only method available, it was one that found persuasive resonance with me. But one thing must be clear: whatever system is used in the organization, it must always exist to help them excel, and to do so incessantly. What is isn’t good enough, because what is can and should be done better, whether it is processing traffic tickets or responding to public protest.

An organization that is committed to, values, and engages in making things better, is a more effective and exciting place to work. Citizens will feel safer and more in control of their problems when they have a department like this in their community.


About the Experimental Police District (EPD)

The Experimental Police District (EPD) was to be the police department’s field laboratory. The recommendations of the Committee on the Future of the Department (staffed by officers who had served than 15 years) caused the chief and other department leaders to examine the structure, internal practices, and the overall direction in which the department was moving.

That 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 to this day. The origins of this idea first began with the chief’s vision when he came to Madison in later 1972 and the creation of a neighborhood patrol unit in the early 1980s, which assigned foot patrol officers to several of the city’s key residential and business areas.

This was a new idea and a new era for Madison. The department had, since its 19th century inception 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, the new station’s building design, cost, the selection of their leaders!

See more about the evaluation: “Community Policing in Madison: Quality From the Inside, Out.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.