Is Defunding the Police an Agile Movement?

Ali Cox

Ali Cox

Is Defunding the Police an Agile Movement?
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In an effort to better understand and educate myself on the movement to defund the police, I recently listened to a podcast that I thought was fascinating. I found it impossible to listen without seeing a direct correlation between the rebuilding of one city’s police department and the agile transformation approach that we coach in organizations.

To set the stage, I’ll give you a synopsis of the podcast episode from The Daily (I highly recommend listening to the full episode: The Case for Defunding the Police). It is an interview with former Camden, New Jersey Police Chief Scott Thompson (Chief from 2008 to 2019). Camden, NJ was one of the most violent cities in the US when Chief Thompson took over. Over the course of his tenure, he imposed a radical initiative of dismantling the police force and building a new one from scratch that was based on the idea of community policing. This is one interpretation of defunding the police.

The remainder of this post will focus on the actions that the Camden Police Chief took (in bold) compared against an to transformation within any organization, whether it’s a police department, a large retail organization, a charitable organization, or any other enterprise. (Note: the problems in Camden were life and death, these comparisons are in no way done to diminish the seriousness of the problems Camden faced.)

The WHY

“The community didn’t like us, they didn’t trust us and to be frank, we gave them a lot of really good reasons to feel that way.”

Agile Transformation Application
A lack of transparency and communication can often lead to misunderstandings between management and employees. If employees aren’t consulted and aren’t able see the full picture, they might question the motives for decisions made by management.

“We continued to utilize performance metrics that were rooted in outputs and not outcomes.”

Agile Transformation Application
What he said! Using traditional performance measurement methods can encourage bad behaviors and anti-patterns instead of encouraging value delivery.

“Regardless of the results, we would continue to exercise the same failed policy and methodology.”

Agile Transformation Application
Did you know the definition of insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”? Nothing is more frustrating and demotivating than working hard and constantly failing. We need to implement frameworks and approaches that drive change and the acceptance of that change.

Initial attempts at reform were taken, but “everything we tried to do was essentially fought and resisted by the labor organization (police union) at the time. They would litigate every decision if it didn’t have a pay raise attached to it.”

Agile Transformation Application
Past ways of working have led to a mindset of ‘that’s not in my job description’ and employees only being willing to do more if they get paid more. Don’t take this as a recommendation to not pay people what they are worth, but the agile way of working is a team effort. Team members’ job descriptions change to ‘whatever needs to be done to deliver value.’

A transformation is more than changing the way you work; its foundation is actually in changing people’s mindset. If people can see agile as working smarter, not harder – they will shift how they respond to change and be open to new, more innovative approaches.

“I had loved the Camden city policy department, but I didn’t believe it was salvageable. I did not believe it could be resuscitated in a meaningful way. But, I saw opportunity on the other side.”

Agile Transformation Application
Hopefully, things in your organization aren’t past the point of being salvageable, but know that even dire situations have opportunity. It just takes someone who has enough power to make a dramatic change to be innovative, open, and educated.

(If you are not that person but see the opportunity, work to find a way to get to that person. Or start with small changes that can demonstrate positive impact.)

The HOW

“In 2012, the Mayor and City Council voted to abolish the Camden City Police Department and start over with a new department, created at the county level.”

Agile Transformation Application
I am not saying that you need to actually fire everyone in your organization, but the idea sparks a need to rethink how you are organized and if you are positioned for agility. Traditional silos impede agility because they are not typically set up in a manner that fosters collaboration between them. Also, traditional hierarchies impede not only the flow of information and decisions, but the flow of good ideas. The larger and more diverse your pool of people generating ideas is, the greater the chance of hitting on the best solution.

“Police are extremely resistant to change. There is a natural inclination to protect and hold on for dear life to the status quo. And people fear the unknown.”

Agile Transformation Application

Our natural instincts are to be resistant to change. Often in organizations, the changes required for agility is fought by those who do not see the benefit or don’t like change.

It is important that everyone understand the benefits of agile and experience what good agile can do for them. We need to approach a transformation to agility by ensuring that we educate the entire organization on:

  • Understanding the Agile mindset
  • Knowing how to use the selected frameworks, approaches, or processes (Scrum, SAFe, Lean Kanban, LeSS, XP, DAD, etc.)
  • Understanding the benefits, not only for the organization as a whole, but for the individuals

To get maximum buy-in, an organization’s people need to see the opportunity as well!

“The initial reaction from most people was that they didn’t believe it was real. And the most symbolic thing was that we took down the sign down off the building.” When this happened, they realized it “wasn’t a paper exercise.”

Agile Transformation Application
To be successful in a transformation, it’s important that an organization’s people understand that it is something they need to embrace. It is not going away. I recommend a kick-off with everyone who will be going through the transformation. Brand the initiative – make it clear that a transformation is just that, it will change things… it is “not a paper exercise.”

“After the sign came down, everyone in the Camden City Police Department (including Scott) was fired. Officers had to re-apply for their jobs, re-take psychological exams, and complete a 50- page application. Many of them (including Scott) were re-hired.”

Agile Transformation Application
This is extreme and perhaps not necessary when approaching an agile transformation. However, one element that fuels success on an agile team is the concept of self-organization. Team members need to be empowered to determine the roles needed on their teams, the people who are best to fill those positions, and the assignment of those people to a team.

When faced with getting everyone on board, Scott made it clear that, “Failure is not an option, we are moving forward – I don’t want to hear the words, ‘We’ve always done it this way’ because we are going presume from this day forward that we’ve done it wrong. And, you have an opportunity here to be co-authors of a new policing paradigm.”

Agile Transformation Application
This is right on point. The six most expensive words in business: “We’ve always done it that way”. Agile is about constantly reflecting on ourselves and how we work to discover new and better ways to do everything. Embrace everything and you can improve everything.

“That new paradigm was getting Camden police officers to think of themselves as guardians instead of warriors.”

Agile Transformation Application
Agile encourages people to think of themselves as an active part of the solution instead of cogs in the machine.  

“We put people in the neighborhoods. We took squad cars away from them. We said, ‘This is your corner, you’ve got this for the next 12 hours. I don’t want you to arrest anyone unless it is for a violent offense that took place in your presence. I don’t want you to write tickets. I don’t want you to do anything else except get to know the people in this neighborhood.’”

Agile Transformation Application
Do the Gemba – management should ‘walk the floor’ and actually see and understand what people do.

Don’t make the only time that people interact with management be the times when there’s a problem or when somebody screwed up.

“For a lot of officers, they didn’t like it at first but when they started to have increased interaction with people in the community, it eats away at the cynicism.”

Agile Transformation Application
In any transformation, you are going to be uncomfortable; you may not like it at first. But the more exposure you have to successes and to the new ways of working, the more open you’ll be to acceptance. Success breeds success.

“We were an organization that only interfaced with its community in moments of enforcement or crisis. And that was the lens in which the community defined its police.

And, unfortunately, that was the lens that the police defined its community. And, there was never the opportunity to get to know the individuals… and [after dismantling the department,] they were no longer de-humanizing the people that they have to work in the community with and for.”

Agile Transformation Application
Realize that people may have a bad taste in their mouths from past negative experiences with agile “methodologies” (agile is not a methodology, by the way; it’s a mindset). I’ve seen organizations where management thought being agile meant that their teams were doing Scrum (misinterpreting Scrum to mean ‘doing things faster with less people’). Management didn’t change, but just expected teams to ‘be agile’. That can leave team members with a bad attitude. We sometimes need to reset the attitude with education, training, mentoring, and coaching.

Interaction also leads to empathy – unless you understand someone else’s point of view, you can’t understand how best to work with them, to serve them, to solve their problems.

The new ways of policing “was not seen as something that they welcomed but the onus was on us to give them the positive experiences to start to change their opinion.

That’s why we started to do things like ice cream giveaways and pop-up BBQs.” Beyond being able to provide food to the community, these events gave people the chance to “get to know each other, engage with each other, engage with us, and get to know us.”

Agile Transformation Application
Change your organization’s relationship with itself and between everyone in it. Get rid of traditional ‘command and control’ attitudes and ways of managing people and embrace the ‘servant leader’ attitude that an agile mindset requires. Make work fun, host gatherings that encourage people to get to know each other on a personal level. The more people feel connected to peers, the more they will contribute since they are not only financially invested, but also emotionally invested in their team and the organization.

“Community policing… can’t be a unit that does it, it can’t be just a small group of officers that does it. It has to be a philosophy that’s embraced by all.”

Agile Transformation Application
You aren’t agile if just part of the organization is agile. Yes, it can help if IT has the agile mindset and uses agile frameworks, but if the business side isn’t aligned and doing the same thing, you can only go so far. Agility is not just for IT anymore – it needs to reach every corner of the organization to harness its power.

The NOW

“I don’t use the word success; I use the word progress.”

Agile Transformation Application
Don’t try to take a giant leap and expect immediate success. Choose small efforts to start with, experience success, tweak as needed, then scale up. The truth is an agile transformation is never really finished. The job of improving is never over; there’s always room for improvement.

“This progress is something that should be celebrated.”

Agile Transformation Application
Improvements need to be celebrated. Celebrate because it motivates. Also celebrate failures because that’s how we learn. Use metrics and KPIs that help celebrate successes and failures and stop using them as ammunition.

“We stopped fishing with a net and started fishing with a spear.”

Agile Transformation Application
Instead of thinking that you just know what your customers want, talk to them. They will give you insight into their lives and desires. Develop a relationship, empathize with them, and I guarantee you your job will be easier.

“I don’t take the credit for the progress goes to the police department, I think it goes to the communities themselves because all we did was provide the opportunity for them to reclaim their neighborhoods.”

Agile Transformation Application
Management needs to provide the environment for their people to be able to excel in their work. The people who do the work typically know how best to get it done and solve problems. Management needs to give the vision and intent and trust people to work in a way to meets the expectations provided.

“I would be willing to take money from my budget and put towards a program to keeps people in the intercity engaged. I know the impact that that would have in the community.”

Agile Transformation Application
People are instinctively motivated by the sense of belonging, the acknowledgement of being heard, and the feeling that they matter. The more you can support these elements, the more your people will be motivated and subsequently internalize the success of the organization as their own.

When asked what he learned from his experience and recommendations for other communities looking to make a change, “If you going to defund it [the police], do so in a meaningful way. So that the money that you are re-appropriating is going towards a root cause issue, it’s going to systems and people that are ethical, they are providing applications that are evidence informed… I hope that it is done in a way that it [the money] goes to the right people so they can do the good work that we know that they can do.”

Agile Transformation Application
Don’t have knee jerk reactions to big, hairy problems. Take a step back, get people involved, get as many ideas as possible about how to solve problems… you will have a better chance of hitting on the right idea (see graphic above).


If you need help flipping the script or “defunding the police” in your organization, we can help! Our Enterprise Agility solution was designed specifically to help organizations define and implement a strategy for adopting Lean-Agile methodologies and promoting powerful cultural changes.

— Ali

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About the Author

Ali Cox

Ali Cox

Alison (Ali) Cox, Netmind Senior Instructor and General Manager, has experience since the mid-1980s in various areas, including business analysis, project methodology development and training, systems development (mainframe, client-server, and web), and telecommunications management. Alison began her career in the financial services area, and then moved into systems development for accounting systems. She has provided consulting and training in business analysis and project management for small companies to Fortune 500 corporations worldwide and speaks Spanish fluently. Alison is also a partner of TEMSS (Telecommunications Efficiency Management Strategies and Services), which provides telecommunications efficiency auditing and billing analysis services to clients in all areas of business across the United States. She completed her Master of Business Administration in MIS and Accounting from the University of Georgia. Connect with Ali on LinkedIn.

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