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Navigating the tough terrain of transformation

A COPS Office report on 13 agencies that have successfully implemented change is readable, useful and relevant to PDs undergoing the challenges of modern policing


Change in policing is most associated with new uniforms, an updated patch design or patrol car logo, or a shift from one brand of pistol to another. A new chief will often revise the department’s mission statement and make a few visible changes to imprint their influence. Fundamental change in culture, focus and mission is a different beast entirely and not nearly as comfortable or exciting.

Police1 has featured many articles on change in policing, both from internal efforts and external pressures. A sample of article titles includes:

A recently released report from the COPS Office of the Department of Justice addresses the issue of adapting to change. “Implementing Change in an Ever-Evolving World Law Enforcement’s Innovative Responses to a Constantly Changing Landscape” begins with an examination of the elements of change. The bulk of the 50-page document consists of brief profiles of 13 agencies and their experiences dealing with change. With the case studies included, the report is readable, useful and relevant to many agencies undergoing the challenges of modern policing.

The case studies are of “large and small law enforcement agencies that have undergone or are currently conducting change initiatives to address a wide range of pressing issues common to law enforcement, such as backlogged sexual assault cases, lack of community trust, inadequate information and intelligence sharing, and increases in violent or juvenile crime.”

The report cites “the COVID-19 pandemic, concurrent increases in some types of crime, tense police community relations, contentious use of force incidents, and increasing negative media attention” as examples of the need to have a strategy for change.

In both private industry and government, change and reinvention, usually brought on by a crisis rather than futuristic thinking, has developed many forms and formulas. Here, the COPS office postulates that change management consists of eight major aspects: leadership, strategic clarity, stakeholder engagement, resources, agency and task alignment, communication, performance measurement and sustainment.


While leaders are familiar with after-action reviews, change leadership begins with a before-action review. Change initiatives often begin when an emerging threat to the organization is identified. Part of the process is examining potential failure factors. The report urges team-focused rather than leader-centric decision-making.

This may be the most challenging aspect of change management. The culture of law enforcement leadership is leader-centric — a strong, dynamic person wearing the stars or birds announcing a plan and carrying the flag. Collaboration, although a necessary component of community policing, is not a value inculcated in academies, especially those who trained the current generation of leaders. I wrote about this in a 2019 Police1 leadership brief.

Strategic clarity

Policing borrowed the flurry of excitement over mission statements from the 1980s and early 1990s and began posting mission statements on their new-fangled web pages. While the concept has become diluted (you might want to revisit my article “5 things I hate about department mission statements”), the idea of charting a road map is essential.

The COPS report says it this way: “Without a clear strategy, change efforts are aimless and unlikely to produce meaningful results. The most effective strategies are short, appealing, and memorable. They emphasize purpose over product — intention over invention — and answer the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions: Why does this change matter? How are we going to achieve it?”

Stakeholder engagement

The question of whom to invite to the table for discussion is an important first step. It may involve conversations with people with whom we are uncomfortable and may have some hostilities to policing. While every problem has a solution, every solution holds the potential for unintended consequences. Internal decisions can inadvertently disregard the needs of those most affected. The report notes, “Properly conducted, a stakeholder analysis will identify key stakeholders who have the perspectives, expertise, and resources needed to enact the change.”

Resources and sustainment

At some point, budgets and staffing must be considered in managing change. As the report notes, “Insufficiently funded change initiatives produce unsatisfactory results. Quality is not free, and successful change initiatives cost agency time, talent, energy, and money.”

George Doran, along with co-authors Arthur Miller and James Cunningham, first presented the S.M.A.R.T. acronym for goal setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) in a 1981 article. For those who weren’t born yet, the 1980s saw an explosion of management gurus trying to address the lagging American industrial economy, especially the automobile and steel industries that were taking a beating from Japanese competitors.

The report notes that, “The alignment of departmental structures, functions, and business processes with the desired outcomes is an essential part of change management. Agencies should establish metrics to assess whether they are performing to plan, track agency resources, establish accountability, provide update information for stakeholders, and identify risks and opportunities.” Using S.M.A.R.T. goals can keep an innovation plan on track.


The COPS report urges that throughout the change process, agencies should employ all available messaging methods as venues for discussion and engagement.” In the Police1 article “The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors in 2022,” communication was number six with the commentary that supervisors should “Communicate in all directions — horizontally and vertically.” Using multiple venues can ensure that decisions, progress and corrections are seen and heard by all involved.

Every leader knows that change will happen. The only question is whether it happens through planning or through crisis.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.