Learning to think outside the box
By Elizabeth Watson
When I was a captain of police in Houston, I took a written examination to be a deputy chief, and did well on it. So I knew I was going to be promoted to deputy chief. At the time in Houston, we had a program called NOP, which stood for Neighborhood-Oriented Policing. At least, it stood for that if you were in patrol. If you weren’t in patrol, NOP stood for Not Our Problem.
I was promoted out of auto theft, and Chief Lee Brown told me that my job was to go to patrol and to implement this thing globally that we called Neighborhood-Oriented Policing. I got him off to the side and I said, “Exactly what do you want me to do? What does that mean?” And he said: “Well, see, that’s why this is such a good job. You’re going to figure it out.”
So I pulled together a group of folks in patrol and we started sorting through what the implications of Neighborhood Oriented Policing really were. This community policing, what did it mean? We came up with all kinds of ideas. We talked about community meetings, about problem-solving, and about tactical teams. We went through the history; we visited other cities and we tried to learn from their mistakes.
One of the lessons that we learned or thought we learned was that we had to rely on middle management, particularly the lieutenants and the captains, because they would make us or break us. So we talked to the lieutenants and captains first, and we told them that we were going to give a whole new set of responsibilities to the patrolmen, and their job was simply to support that new effort. We thought that was enough. That sounds so stupid now, in hindsight, although it seemed like a good plan at the time.
(Elizabeth Watson recently resigned as Police Chief of Austin, Texas, to become a visiting fellow with the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. This article is adapted from a talk she gave before the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in October 1996.)