Policing Innovation

EMPAC has been developing some surveying tools to explore how innovative policing is. Early responses seem to suggest ‘not very’… In digging into why that might be, the pros and cons of being a hierarchical, disciplined, command and control culture come out.

Operationally, we know, and would forget at our peril, about the benefits of command and control (the gold, silver, bronze concept was borne out of the tragic chaos of the night of Broadwater Farm back in 1985). Yet, it’s the possible restrictions of being too rigidly hierarchical and ‘controlling’ in the policing mind-set that is the focus here. To be clear, thinking about innovation does not mean we have to reject or abandon control, it is rather about considering a different balance between the ‘order’ of now and the creativity of ‘what if’.

At this early stage of this discussion you may well be thinking already this is ‘pie in the sky’ nonsense. OK, well let’s be scientific about this. Just consider the tense interplay between science and invention. If we assume ‘science’ is a ‘respectable’ and trusted thing – it’s a logical rationale that tries, tests and proves things, so we can make advances of knowledge and be sure about things, right?

Science is the answer and the problem

Darwin was a scientist – basically an anthropologist (he studied previous life styles of various animals). One of his (unpopular) conclusions was life was a cycle of evolvement, rather than a static condition of ‘just being’. That might not sound too revolutionary but the very powerful institution of the Church condemned his early findings, and him. As well as his story being an example of the ‘trouble making’ nature of scientific advancement and discovery, his mantra of ‘adapt or die’ is particularly relevant for us to apply here.

Darwin’s ‘philosophy’ actually reinforced many earlier writings (for example, the Tao te Ching, some 2000 years previous) about the benefits of flexibility, rather than rigidity, in thinking, with his added scientific logic. ‘Strength’ can come through change and flexibility is the core point, and that’s been a steady trickle of an idea in management theory, not least in fairly recent work by Matthew Syad in Black Box Thinking (progress is based on failure etc).

Keith Thomas also wrote an interesting book, back in 1975, called Religion and the Decline of Magic. It charts the story of the ‘dark ages’ and the progress from superstition to the more ordered script of religion. And there was another major shift, and tension, from the age of religion to the age of science. Of course science and religion co-exist, but they have been at odds with each other over the times. To challenge some religious thinking, in a ‘scientific’ way, in the past has seen some folk jailed and executed for example!

So in the cycle of ‘change’ we have a cycle of tension, what Thomas Kuhn called a ‘revolution’: when mind-sets change. The tension means there is a ’status quo’ which can so very often resist change, because it is protecting a way of being ‘that works’. Before a change, people can be very comfortable with how things are now and can even regard change as a very real threat. Hence the resistance to change, or the preservation of existing order, whichever way you wish to look at it.

Science is a funny thing because although it has led the charge of change in so many ways over history, it has also fought it. Scientific development has given us so much of what is now relied upon in modern society, across engineering, medicine and communication, yet pretty much every example you select in any of the advances made, began with complete rejection and opposition from the scientific community – because of the change. Science attacks the status quo, then defends it, then attacks it again in a state of constant tension.

Beyond science: the idea

And there’s a concept beyond science: of ideas. Following the growth of science from the decline of superstition of course much emphasis is placed upon the orderly, logical scientific method. Method allows us to build rationale findings from a carefully controlled approach, right? Yet it also constrains because it cannot validate that which is unknown or unproven.

This means we have an entire history of the ‘chicken and the egg’ in science – you can’t have it because you can’t prove it and you can’t prove it because it’s not been proven. So how the heck did we ever end up with a telephone or a light bulb? Thomas Edison and Graham Alexander Bell both experienced scorn and ridicule as scientists in their pursuit of their ideas. Both were at times at their wit’s end, poor, dejected and down because of the scientific community’s resistance. Their drive was ideas based, not science based. They used a logical, scientific process but their inspiration, persistence and perspiration was ideas driven. The idea was important to be able to ‘jump’ to an outcome they perceived, which at that early stage was ‘pie in the sky’ impossible.

There lot of other names we could add to the list, like Orville and Wilbur Wright (without whom we would not now have Ryanair), William Caxton (who allowed us to be able to read things via the printing press), Disney (who was told nobody in their right mind will sit and watch a cartoon) and Steve Jobbs (who was told that daft computer idea you have just can’t be made). Thank goodness for their ideas and their persistence in not being put off by the status quo and the technical scientific community.

Rocking the world: Status quo

At the turn of the century, the remarkable Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan provided so many inventive insights, yet was resisted (quite intensely) by others and died pretty much in intellectual destitution. Amongst his contributions were mock theta functions, which were only ‘validated’ or acknowledged after this death. This sad tale is yet another example of the limitations of ‘status quo’ thinking. So we’d do well to remember the saying ‘today’s abstract mathematics is tomorrow’s applied mathematics’ as we continue.

The very notion of advancement, insight and invention relies upon a challenge to, and probably a clash with, the status quo. Yet if we quash ideas all we’re left with is as where we are today and that Darwinian concept of ‘adapt or die’ should be worrying us a bit. Even if the status quo prevails and policing controls its culture, the rest of the world will change anyway. And that puts policing perpetually in the role of an agency constantly trying to work out what just happened and that’s assuming anyone tells it. Policing has a strong culture of control you might say in order to combat its arch enemy the criminal. Policing tends to have its command and control culture; yet criminals are often innovative.

Organised Crime Groups often have the outcome in mind (get rich, quick) and then find ways, any ways to get there, as many entrepreneurs have (‘laziness or necessity is the mother of invention’): they consider ‘what if?’ It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to be outraged by the sheer audacity of criminals who do things that they shouldn’t, in ways that weren’t envisaged. It’s a real clash of cultures in the crime dynamic: the rules breakers (crooks) vs the rule protectors (cops). Guess which ones tend to be better at innovation?

So what?

We need more ideas in policing, more asking ‘why’ and what if?’ We need to encourage big ideas, zany ideas and not be constrained just by ‘what works’ – or ‘what worked last time’ because as we’ve seen the history of science is the battle to prove something (that was ‘not so’, or ‘impossible’ before), then the steadfast preservation of that when the next idea comes along. In the meantime, what ‘just worked’ is often changing too, because society is changing its habits.

Policing needs to hang on to command and control as a practical necessity and to evaluate its activities more consistently and share best practice wider. But, the culture also needs to allow a spirit of entrepreneurship: to allow itself to be a leader not just a follower in the ideas game. If we allow the status quo to resist and reject new ideas we protect today at tomorrow’s peril. All inventors are zany until their patent has sold its first million, right?


  • Stuart Furnival

    As a provider of innovative and unique mobile technology, innovation appears to be stifled within policing at a number of stages. Firstly, forces tend to rely on current suppliers or existing suppliers to the market to find, support and propose new technologies, when unfortunately those same suppliers often don’t know of, don’t have the expertise and therefore won’t support or ignore products that should at least be trialed. Secondly, there is an apathy or more politely should we say a lack of understanding about how new technologies can connect with national systems and local systems, it all seems too much to get involved with when in fact technology is built to connect, its what API’s do and it really isn’t something to fear or dismiss. although ‘resource’ is often the reason quoted as an all encompassing get-out. More recently ESN is trotted out as a reason to wait for what it can offer, when in fact surely a better approach would be to trial new tech and have it ready for when ESN is because ESN is the highway not the vehicle.
    Practical reasons such as budget of course are raised but often before products and systems are trialed so savings, benefits and return can’t be analysed. It is surely counter productive to find reasons why we can’t, rather than reasons why we can try.
    Nothing ventured, absolutely nothing will be gained.