By Brenda Bond
There is nothing like a crisis to move an organization toward much-needed change.
And it certainly looks like the Massachusetts State Police are in the midst of an organizational crisis. To be fair, the state police is not the only public institution to have let decades of complacency and malaise settle in to overshadow the valuable work of most of its public servants. Thousands of state police employees protect us and serve the public interest every day. For this, I am thankful.
However, recent shocks from the overtime scandal have put a spotlight on continuing troubles within the agency. The State Police Academy is under investigation for problematic and discriminatory practices. A police-report-writing cover-up resulted in a leadership change last fall. These examples point to an agency ripe for reform. But they also point to an opportunity.
The evidence shows that the organizational practices and culture of the state police are failing the organization, the public, and the good people who work there. By reconstructing its practices and perceptions, the agency can restore public trust and institutional legitimacy.
Tapping into best practices and research from across this country could help create a new and improved state police. For example, technology may hold the key to effectively managing personnel assignments and analyzing spending patterns. Research can inform decisions about overtime versus new hiring as a remedy for staffing shortages or staff management. The state police may well be adhering to best practices in their law enforcement and investigative work, but we must be assured that they also conduct a complete review and updating of policies, procedures, management structures, performance and accountability systems.
It appears that state police overtime problems thrived in the absence of fair and transparent accountability structures or management systems. How else could this problem remain unnoticed for seven years? An overhaul of administrative financial performance and accountability systems may be needed. But such a change must come with structures to hold people accountable, such as consistent audits leading to increased efficiencies.
Discriminatory practices at the State Police Academy and mistreatment of personnel throughout the agency are problems exacerbated by an out-of-date and aggressive approach to modern policing. Just ask the men and women recruits. Women are still forced to complete tests designed for men and of questionable validity and value. It’s time for a complete review of police training policies and evidence-based training of men AND women as distinct individuals.
While the Municipal Training Committee has reported that these practices are under review, recent discriminatory treatment and punishment of women recruits show the need for immediate action. Recommendations for change already are in place, and it’s the responsibility of the state police and Training Council to act on them. Yet, archaic and discriminatory practices remain, problematic employees often are excused, and speaking up within this type of environment is risky.
It will take nothing less than a decade of effort to achieve meaningful and sustainable change in the Massachusetts State Police. Here’s why: Organizations are complex and involve formal and informal structures, people and politics. These structures are meant to prevent inappropriate influences based on personal or external interests, and problems arise when they are inadequate or broken.
Long-held beliefs, attitudes, habits and conduct within state police culture not only allow bad behaviors to persist, but also distract from professional and dedicated work. When some individuals are undermined, or when others misuse the organization, it cannot achieve its mission, or worse. To change the culture, attention must be paid to emotional, behavioral and intellectual dimensions. Expect resistance, but look to leaders and champions at all levels to steadily foster change.
Research and practical experience tell us that an agency in crisis provides an opportunity, but only if there is political will and leadership.
The state police agency alone cannot reinvent itself. Change is superficial and will not last if it doesn’t encompass a wide spectrum of structures and practices, with advice from outside experts in organizational development, performance, human resources, training and other areas. We must be skeptical of anything less.
Professor Brenda Bond is chair of Suffolk University’s Institute for Public Service. Her research focuses on public safety policies and practices and organizational change in criminal justice.