How to use design thinking to address critical issues in policing

Design thinking seeks to redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative solutions

By Jim Gordon

It was a spring day in 2015 when “Shirley” called 9-1-1 for help for her 38-year-old son who was suffering from a mental illness “episode.” The conversation between Shirley and the 9-1-1 operator seemed “routine” as the same conversation had taken place many times before. And, as had happened so many times before, two officers were dispatched to the home to try to remedy the situation, something these officers may do several times in a single shift.

The officers arrived and met Shirley at the front driveway of the residence. Within moments, her mentally ill son appeared in the doorway, and the officers began talking with him. Seconds went by when one of the officers noticed the subject was holding a screwdriver, so appropriately started giving the subject verbal commands. This time, though, the confrontation turned deadly, and within moments the encounter was over after officers shot and killed the mentally ill man.

One goal of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office's Project IDEAS pilot was to create a partnership between academy staff, recruits and community members. (Photo/Jim Gordon)
One goal of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office's Project IDEAS pilot was to create a partnership between academy staff, recruits and community members. (Photo/Jim Gordon)

This is the scenario that helped build the foundation for Project IDEAS (Innovative Design Envisioning Alternative Solutions), a pilot program hosted at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office in California. The program was inspired by Stanford University’s “D-School” (Design School), which teaches design thinking to organizations all over the world as a method of inspiring innovation and creativity.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process that seeks to redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative solutions.

The D-School uses the following design-thinking model:

  1. Empathy: Understanding a problem in a non-judgmental fashion;
  2. Define: Defining the challenge or objective;
  3. Ideate: Sharing ideas and solutions among team members;
  4. Prototype: Designing a mockup solution;
  5. Test: Determining if the solution works.

Many D-School students attend the school to learn methods of coming up with new product lines or services. We wondered if the same process could be used to design new learning experiences for police academy recruits, develop new advanced officer training, or revise operational protocols.

D-School Boot Camp

Two other academy instructors and I attended the D-School “Boot Camp” where we were immersed with about 50 other research and development executives from around the world. After meeting our fellow students, we were given our task ‒ to develop a new way of exploring San Francisco. The D-School uses a full-immersion style of learning, so our group boarded a bus and headed to downtown San Francisco.

For us to develop a new way of exploring the city, we needed to better understand how tourists made their travel decisions, which is the first step in the process ‒ empathy. To do that, we had to speak with as many tourists as we could to learn how they made their travel decisions, what places to see, where to eat and so on.

Our day in San Francisco ended and we made our way back to the D-School lab where we went through the remaining steps of the process. The “ideation” session was the most fun where everyone got to weigh in with an idea. The setup at the D-School as a “laboratory” for experimentation lent credibility to the process and helped foster a conducive working environment where everyone, regardless of background, was on an equal playing field.

Project IDEAS design thinking pilot

After our training, I was convinced the process we had learned had merit. Communities and the public we serve are becoming more complex. I’ve always felt the community should have more input into basic academy training so recruits get used to the interaction. You won’t find a chief or sheriff who doesn’t advocate for more community relations, so why not start by allowing the community to have a say in how their officers are trained?

After returning home from the D-School, we assembled our Project IDEAS design team, which consisted of community volunteers and local university students, most of which had no prior law enforcement experience. Our community leaders and students were joined by a few academy recruits and some of our academy staff members. In all, we had about 30 participants from very diverse backgrounds.

Setting up a learning lab environment for the project is important, (Photo/Jim Gordon)
Setting up a learning lab environment for the project is important, (Photo/Jim Gordon)

The project team was coached by the three of us who attended the D-School with the goals of:

  • Developing a method of training design that forces design teams to produce solutions from different perspectives;
  • Creating a partnership between our academy staff, recruits and community members;
  • Establishing a working environment that encourages diversity.

Most often new academy recruits are trained by veteran officers. There’s certainly a place for that in basic training, but the recruits are only receiving the instructors’ point of view, which is not always the world we live in. The officer-involved shooting scenario mentioned at the start of this article was the perfect scenario to use as our first Project IDEAS design thinking project.

Setting up the proper environment for this project was the most important part otherwise we risked the possibility we wouldn’t achieve any of our goals. We set up the room as a “learning lab” with easel charts, props, and lots of food and drinks. As our first night together approached, the three of us who were coaching the group felt a bit nervous as to how the process would turn out.

As you recall the first step in the design thinking process is empathy. We watched an in-depth interview Shirley had done with a national news network regarding her experience.

Step two of the process is to define the challenge. In this case, the design team asked, “What could Shirley have done to avoid the confrontation between law enforcement and her son?”

The design team went to work on step three, the ideation session. This is where the design team got to work together and develop new ideas for Shirley’s experience. Our coaches wandered around the room and watched the interaction. It was great to see so many different people with such diverse backgrounds working together.

Brainstorming and interaction between participants is a key part of the design-thinking process. (Photo/Jim Gordon)
Brainstorming and interaction between participants is a key part of the design-thinking process. (Photo/Jim Gordon)

Design team reviews mental health crisis calls

Ultimately the design team came up with a new protocol for responding to mental health crisis calls. The draft protocol included an education component, wherein family members could notify their local law enforcement agency in advance if they have a family member with mental illness. That component could also include specific training on how to prepare for a police response, how to keep family members calm and how to communicate with the responding officers.

In addition, the protocol included specific communication criteria for the responding officers to make direct contact with the reporting party. During that brief communication, the officers could also ascertain specific details on potential weapons in the immediate area, where the subject is located, etc.

Step four of the process involves making a “prototype,” so our design team designed a simple form-style checklist officers could utilize when responding to a mental health crisis call.

Finally, step five of the process included a test to see if our prototype would work. The design team created two scenarios, one exactly as Shirley had first experienced, and the second using the response protocol checklist they had developed. Both scenarios were run with academy students who were not involved in our design team, so the results would be a little clearer.

The academy students went through the first scenario and reacted precisely as the original officers had done, which ended in an officer-involved shooting. The second scenario using the newly designed protocol resulted in the safe detention of the mentally ill subject. Although the design team needed to refine the prototype further, the test for our purposes turned out to be very successful.

Improving connections between the community and police

As the scenarios were unfolding, I could see many of our design team members were very emotional. In talking with them, it was clear that they had never been exposed to something like the scenario that was being discussed before, and also that the work they had done could potentially save a life.

After discussing Project IDEAS at the conclusion of our experiment, I had several team members who wanted to continue and be a part of another project team. Others said the project was a life-changing event for them. Unquestionably all of them walked away with a much better understanding of the varying viewpoints offered during the prototype design.

Many team members said the project was a life-changing event for them. (Photo/Jim Gordon)
Many team members said the project was a life-changing event for them. (Photo/Jim Gordon)

What did Project IDEAS achieve?

There were several positive outcomes from this experiment:

  • The design-thinking process forced the design team to look at different perspectives and develop a solution from another viewpoint, in this case, Shirley.
  • The process encompassed more of a three-dimensional approach to designing the solution, which could be much more beneficial for agency/community relations, particularly in the event of a future critical incident.
  • The process fostered very good working relationships among all of the participants, regardless of their background.
  • The learning that took place, from all perspectives, was an invaluable success. Law enforcement team members came away with different views, as did our community members.

Companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft stay on top of the market by continually engaging their users in developing new products or services. Project IDEAS showed us that we can engage a diverse section of our own “user group” in a very proactive environment to seek alternative solutions to some of the most complex challenges we face in policing.

About the author

Jim Gordon is a retired captain from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office, California, with 25 years of service. Jim served as the regional academy director for several years and is credited with developing one of California’s first scenario-based academy programs. Jim is a CA POST Master Instructor and holds a Master of Science in Adult Education from Cal State University, East Bay. Jim can be contacted at

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