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This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

It's no secret that I stepped down as the Exec. Director of Can-SEBP a few weeks back and I can't say that I'm missing it. It's incredibly difficult - and not much fun - to try to effect a culture shift within any institution and for every success there can be several steps backward. Policing is hardly immune to 'new solutions', 'innovative programs' and 'modernization platforms' and it is this lack of immunity that breeds a hard-earned cynicism. I get that.

When I started out on this journey about five and a half years ago I was hopelessly naive in many respects. I believed that the best way to effect change was to build a 'coalition of the willing' that created not only space for new, promising ideas to grow from within policing, but also platforms for police officers to speak up on the needs of their communities and how EBP might facilitate those. I got a lot of side-eye from police folks for that rainbows and unicorns optimism.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight I understand a lot of that cynicism. Some of it is the result of the phenomenon of 'change fatigue' - a cyclical process in policing that occurs every 3-7 or so years, as new Chiefs come in to an organization seeking to make their mark. As one commentator recently observed:

"Just my anecdotal experience, but in policing ideas are tied to people. We have built systems that reward distinguishing yourself. Continuing my predecessor's good ideas don't make attractive bullets on my resume. I will be the idiot whose ideas are jettisoned by my successor ... I call it drive-by consulting."

Other cynicism is borne of what I call the 'outsider know-it-all effect'. Anyone who has worked in the private sector as I have, is familiar with the process whereby organizations hire outsiders to either:

a. ask insiders for their opinions and then repackage them as brilliant insights; or

b. ignore insiders and just propose a bunch of 'remedies' based on what Toyota Canada or Costco did.

Then there is a third form of cynicism I have observed and come to share, and it is centered on the opportunistic careerist. It has likely escaped no one's attention that in any organization there are individuals who learn to get ahead by jumping on bandwagons and taking prominent roles and positions that might potentially grab attention. In some instances they are ahead of the curve, and in others their stances neatly align with the latest 'modernization and innovation strategy' of the Chief du Jour.

Let's be honest: Can-SEBP has not been immune from those individuals. In fact, we've benefited them immensely over the years and usually with very little hard work, if anything, provided in return. I mean, yes, they were more than willing to show up to give a major presentation or to appear at an event and hobnob with Chiefs or big name academics, but I'm talking about actual effort that didn't entail a selfie or a spotlight*.

Everyone is familiar with the famous Drucker quote: "culture eats strategy for breakfast." One of the aspects of police culture that remains understudied is the role that careerism plays in undermining long-term change within not only individual organizations, but now - thanks to social media - within institutions as a whole. With so many people cynically exploiting opportunities for the next bump, or setting up their post-policing career by becoming the newest self-anointed expert on x, y and z, how do we, who sincerely want to effect change, make the best decisions about how to expend precious resources, who should have a voice at the table, and, relatedly, where to place trust. This change stuff IS hard and its fraught with lots of potential peril.

None of this, by the way, is a problem either unique to policing or unique to the question of how to embed evidence based policing. We are currently in the midst of a call to reform policing, and those advocating for reform - both from within and outside of policing - have yet to provide any sort of informed input as to how best to grapple with these and related issues. My 20-20 view suggests that without knowing how best to tackle this issue, and the cynicism it rightly generates, culture will, indeed, eat strategy.

~ a Cynic

*And, no, this isn't about any one individual. This is about at least a dozen or so different people.


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