If there was one thing that I can confirm is true without a doubt in law enforcement, it is our obsession with cool toys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the newest and brightest flashlight or the gadgets on a gun and even the “tacti-cool” videos but when it comes to leading an organization, we must understand the importance of spending our limited resources wisely with the combined thought of effective change management while staying focused on the mission of crime control.
I’ve experienced the negative effect of our infinity with shiny objects many times but the first time it happened has remained top of mind for many years.
I spent the first decade of my career wrapped up about as tight as you can be with emergency vehicle operations. I wrote, spoke, and trained throughout the country while running the unit at my agency. I eventually co-founded Below 100 and still provide a seminar on the issue but I found out the hard way what can happen if we permit “cool” to get in the way of furthering the mission.
While I often banged the drum at my agency that we needed to do more on the issue of law enforcement driving, I never got far until one day my chief told me that he wanted four driving simulators.
I thought it was strange that he went from limiting training on the issue (at the time) to $500,000 in technology but in further discussion, I was told that he was at a police conference and sat in a simulator and thought they were “cool as shit.”
I didn’t know a lot about simulators at the time. They were new to the profession, and I didn’t think being cool was a sufficient reason to spend a half million dollars. In fact, I had an entire list of resources including annual training for personnel that I thought could reduce officer injury and liability immediately. I suggested that maybe we could buy two simulators and not four while assessing whether that smaller investment could further the mission of officer safety.
Needless to say, a few years later our agency became one of the first in the country with a dedicated simulator room with four fully functional driving simulators.
Honestly, they were pretty cool.
The simulator room became a featured stop for potential recruits and I opened the room more times than I can remember for cop’s kids as they wanted to drive a police car very fast in an arcade game environment.
Shiny Did Not Equal Success
Despite the cool technology and our chest sticking out that we had something most didn’t, the program was a failure. If the hardware was relatively new to the profession, the software designed for learning was a disaster and our trainers struggled to get the results that were needed. We not only battled convincing officers that it wasn’t simply a game, but it didn’t take too many motion-sickness incidents to spread around the department to eventually put an end to what was once a “cool as shit” idea.
Don’t get me wrong. Simulation technology has improved and there is a place for it in training. While the ultimate failure resided with me, there is a lot to be learned from chasing the latest trend.
Unfortunately, I still see a similar approach from leaders today and there are more shiny objects to choose from than ever before.
We can pinpoint shots being fired from a real time crime center; Officers can pull car tags and car models that are driving around the city; We not only have cameras on our body and in the car but we can even use AI to routinely make sure an officer isn’t being rude, and the list of shiny things could go on for pages.
This will never change. A few decades ago, COMPStat was the rage; before that, we all needed a DARE program or a GREAT Program or whatever else we saw the department across the country talking about at a conference.
My point isn’t for law enforcement to run away from progress.
The point is, we need to be careful what we call progress for the overall mission of crime control and what we call “keeping up with the Joneses.”
A Harsh Truth
If you ask a cop that has seen the transition from one flavor of the year to the next and they have done the job for 20-30 years, almost all of them will tell you that we did our job better with a notepad, intuition, and good old police work.
The “shiny object” leaders will quickly call them old-fashioned and scared of technology but that is not it. They are referring to actual police work…the activity of catching bad guys, putting them in jail and making the community safer.
Think about it…Has crime been reduced in the last decade of “shiny object’“ infatuation?
If all our “cool shit” was furthering our core mission, why do we not have the lowest crime in a generation of crime fighting?
I love much of the technology and thus progress that policing has made in recent years and I think body cameras have likely saved the profession from even further destruction by the crazy people but there is a right and wrong way to do this.
Leaders must stop with their constant quest to get the next cool thing they saw being touted in an article and make sure their foundation is secure. They need to assess what the agency has now, what they are doing and how is that going?
If last year’s idea failed, they need to determine why.
If training isn’t where it needs to be, get that right first.
If radios need to be upgraded or cars are crap, that should take precedence.
Cops can do their job without a real time crime center or the brand new tasers but they can’t do their job if their training and core equipment is lacking.
Shiny objects that come from an executive in the agency will almost always be temporary or a complete failure. Leaders need to empower those actually doing the job to tell them what they need to do their job better.
I didn’t need a half-million dollars in simulators to give great driver training to cops. I simply needed to polish what was already being done. Sure, that’s an old way of thinking but I would have rather cleaned off what I knew was working then tried a brand new idea that was unproven at the time. It would have been cheaper, it would have lasted and the trainees would have loved it.
You Need A Champion
Once you empower others to bring progress, you need them to champion the idea. In another life, I had hair and I was in charge of the Public Information Office (PIO). I had a couple good looking guys giving requested interviews to the media every day and in the early days of YouTube, I had an idea that no doubt would work. Rather than sit around the phone and wait for a reporter to call, we would come in early in the morning and film them talking about the events that occurred over night.
Not only was it “cool” to be one of the first agencies to do this but those officers and the media would surely love it. It was the same idea when I decided that we were going to launch a podcast long before they became mainstream, not cool and mainstream again.
The problem was that “I” was championing those ideas and not the officers carrying them out. They each played a role in furthering the mission of PIO but they weren’t in on it…They didn’t believe in it and ultimately it didn’t work.
Once you empower and have others champion the idea, a constant assessment needs to take place. There will be bumps, obstacles and readjustments, but ultimately if it’s not working, it can’t continue.
Leaders need to understand that not everything they try will work and they need the humility to simply walk away.
I have a lot of respect for former Tulsa Police Chief Dave Been. He not only rarely got enamored by the flavor of the year but routinely listened to those in the room and often heeded the advice of those that may not have had his authority but had the expertise to make wise decisions.
One of those decisions was the purchase of a very expensive scheduling software that ended up being not so wise. While I didn’t develop the project, I was tasked to move it from an idea to implementation. As I sat in a room 2000 miles from my home for a week learning about the product, I immediately knew the purchase of the software was a mistake. It may have looked good in a brochure, but our organization practices combined with union rules was going to make this $250,000 item a complete nightmare to use.
When I got back to work, I lined out the issue with Chief Been and he had a choice to make. He could continue the project, even replacing me if he needed to and spend even more money on subscription fees each year or he could cut and run.
Frankly, I expected him to continue. He had a boss and he spent a lot of money on it but he saw the flaw and he saw that a bigger mistake was to take the $250,000 purchase and turn it into a million dollar failure a few years later.
Chief Been had the humility to simply walk away when it was needed.
Law enforcement is facing a critical time and there are a ton of talking heads telling us what we need to do to turn the ship right but I believe it begins and ends with effective change management. Change is constant in any profession so we shouldn’t try to stop it but control it in a way that can help us to what we do now even better.
Rather than the constant quest for the next idea or grabbing the latest cool gadget, we would do well to sit back, listen, ask questions, and encourage our employees to be the change.
The resume building chief or the wanna be chief will be a temporary fixture in the department but those that matter, the hard working cops, are the only ones that can effectively develop and implement real solutions for success.
We should swallow our pride and move forward with a humble attitude and you would be amazed at what could occur.
Lead On & Stay Courageous.
Dr. Travis Yates retired as a commander with a large municipal police department after 30 years of service. He is the author of “The Courageous Police Leader: A Survival Guide for Combating Cowards, Chaos & Lies.” His risk management and leadership seminars have been taught to thousands of professionals across the world. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy with a Doctorate Degree in Strategic Leadership and the CEO of the Courageous Police Leadership Alliance.