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3 critical skills cops need for collaboration with community stakeholders

Any person in (or seeking) a position of leadership must develop the ability to do collaborative work — this is becoming an increasingly more important aspect of leadership


Police and community leaders can collaborate to solve persistent problems.


“I’m looking forward to collaborating with all of our partners and stakeholders to blah, blah, blah.”

Collaboration sounds good, but what does it really mean?

What are the traits and skills of an effective collaborator?

Collaboration is working with others, finding new ways to solve persistent or long-term problems. Collaboration entails operating at a level higher than cooperation, and can effectively solve problems from IT compatibility to community relation issues. To collaborate is to first agree that a problem exists, that the problem has not been solved with past or current practices, that a new solution needs to be implemented, and — most importantly — that our partners and stakeholders may have valuable input in finding the new solution.

The goal of collaboration is not compromise or finding a middle-ground. Nor is it a democratic process where partners vote on what other partners should do. Collaboration seeks to find new ways to solve persistent problems in a manner that’s beneficial to all partners.

Achieving collaborative success requires the individuals involved to possess certain traits and skills. Any person in (or seeking) a position of leadership must develop the ability to do collaborative work — this is becoming an increasingly more important aspect of leadership. Collaboration skills can be taught, and traits can be developed.

Below are three of the most important keys for effective collaboration:

1. Openness to Outside Suggestions

The first trait required for collaborative engagement is accepting that other people and organizations may have some good ideas about how partners can do things better or differently. This can be a major hurdle since most people don’t like the idea of someone from outside their organization — or profession — telling them how they might do their jobs differently. This can be especially challenging for law enforcement officers because:

  • By the nature of police work, officers are in the business of telling others what to do
  • Law enforcement’s hierarchal command structure creates a culture where deference is given to those is higher positions of authority, and collaborative work is best performed in an environment where everyone is working as peers

Accepting that others may have good ideas does not mean that every idea is good, nor does it mean every idea must be accepted.

The skills needed to support this trait include the ability to keep the ears open and mouth closed, and to give some thoughtful consideration before speaking. How many times have you been in a meeting in which “we can’t do that” is the immediate response to an idea?

When ideas are rejected out of hand, people will stop offering ideas! Give time for yourself and others to consider the idea and talk about it.

Consider the input from the perspective of the person offering it — part of the collaborative process is learning the perspectives, competencies, and capabilities of those involved. Those skilled in the art of collaboration find opportunities to teach others about their own policies and capacities.

For example, if a community member feels a problem can be solved by increasing patrol staffing in their neighborhood, don’t just reply this can’t be done because you don’t have enough officers; this is an opportunity to describe the difficulty every agency has in balancing public safety demands with staffing resources. Perhaps a potential solution is adding one additional officer to the neighborhood, but in any case everyone has learned more about your staffing challenges.

When facilitating collaborative work, it’s critical to allow ideas to be considered, as others will follow your lead. Allow comments and ideas to be considered — if the idea is a poor one, let others point this out.

A conundrum in collaborative work is that, while the environment should be one of working as peers, people typically look for a natural leader to guide the group. Beware that some non-LEO members of your group may defer to the cop at the table (even if they don’t hold law enforcement in high regard). Ensure that you are genuinely working for the common good of the group, and are you not taking charge of the group.

2. Practicing Patience in the Process

Patience is needed to allow ideas to be considered and discussed (even if they are very poor ideas), and patience is also needed to endure many meetings — and the work performed between meetings.

Setting time goals to complete projects can be helpful since nobody wants efforts to flounder, but at the same time many collaborative projects fail because they are not given enough time to develop, to be analyzed, and to be tweaked before implementation.

Space prevents a longer examination here, but collaborative projects should be viewed as a circular — not linear — process. Even after completion, the initial problem addressed and the solutions implemented should be reviewed to ensure the pesky problem has not returned.

3. Making Decisions and Implementing Them

There are many traits and skills involved in collaboration, and learning how to draw out ideas from partners can be a lot of fun. But ultimately there comes a time when the process shifts from discussion to implementation. This is when decision-making skills are required.

The most challenging phase of collaborative work can be making this shift because it is easier to talk about ideas and change than to make them. If you want engagement from everyone in the group, the group has to be in a collective “let’s do this” frame of mind. Unfortunately, exactly when the group will be ready for this shift is not something that can be projected (and certainly not something that can be predicted here).

Experience in collaborative work will help you know when the time is right. This is the time when leaders will emerge to help everyone understand the time has come to implement. This is a critical time since you want everyone onboard, so as you near this shift, help your partners feel confident that the group has developed a solid plan which will lead to success.

Then, celebrate your success! Maybe the project doesn’t merit a press release, but it should merit an informal lunch with those you worked with. If you have personally done a good job, word will get out that people like working with you and will seek your involvement in the future. You will become a valuable asset for your organization, and for your partner organizations, too.

Don’t be the person who uses the word collaboration while really just thinking “I’ll go to meetings.” If you are not engaging with your community partners and willing to examine new ways of doing business you will fail — the world is demanding more of todays’ leaders.

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek