Feature

In 1992, a mayoral commission called for major managerial reforms for Boston Police Department. At the same time, the department was struggling to change from a police force that only responded to crises to one that embraced a community-policing model.

Bill Bratton, the new department chief charged with leading these change efforts, asked organizational psychologist Joan Sweeney, PhD, to help him tackle these sizeable challenges. At that time, Sweeney didn't have extensive experience in law enforcement: Her work had been focused on labor-management issues and organizational change. But that, it turns out, is exactly what Bratton was searching for.

Ten years later, Sweeney is still plying those skills as a top-level consultant to Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans and his department--the largest police agency in New England. Thanks in part to her expertise, the department has evolved into one of the country's premier community policing agencies, often cited here and abroad as an example of a change effort that works.

Some of the new approaches Sweeney has introduced include a focus on systemic change, integrating adult-learning models into management training and paying greater attention to the nuances of organizational culture. Sweeney conducts many of her efforts as part of a multifaceted project emanating from the commissioner's office called "Priority Change Initiatives." Each initiative involves systemic changes related to basic policing practices, business processes, technology, and management and leadership development.

One of these efforts--the Strategic Planning Initiative, designed and implemented by Sweeney and agency leaders--used an inclusive, long-term planning process to address crime, quality-of-life and management issues. Through the effort, which first took place in 1995 and again in 1999, 350 people worked in 17 teams that met over a six-month period in structured, facilitated meetings. The teams--including community leaders, residents, elected officials, clergy and police personnel--sorted out their needs, wants and conflicts, and carved out action plans for each of the city's 11 police districts.

The 1995 group, for example, determined that the commonplace rotations, transfers and shift changes characterizing police placements ran counter to the community policing philosophy of building relationships between police and citizens. As a result of that discussion, the department made structural changes, so that officers worked as part of neighborhood-focused beat teams.

Creating systemic change is by nature long-term and may therefore be frustrating to some, Sweeney says. "This work creates particular challenges in a police environment because the public's expectations of the police department are tied up with officers' speed of response to calls for service," she explains. "That tends to foster an environment that makes more complex problem-solving and systemic change more difficult."

Sept. 11 and its aftermath are added strains on these efforts, she notes, as officers face new demands without additional resources and citizens place new expectations on police. Still, Sweeney feels confident that the changes under way in Boston are gaining a firm foothold.

"It has become a police department and a city where working in partnership is now the norm, and that in itself is a sea change," she says.

--T. DeANGELIS