Leadership for a New Era

A Report from the 2015 Public Safety Summit

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For public safety leaders around the world, one thing is clear: while the basic mandate of maintaining law and order remains the same, the environment in which this mandate must be delivered is changing dynamically. Fueling this turbulent environment are powerful changes in public sentiment, demographics and social issues, pervasive and invasive technologies, and complex threats to community safety.

What’s imperative now is that public safety leaders gain an understanding of how to create newfound capacity for the future, outcomes and value that communities want, and the legitimacy that society demands.

To help public safety leaders address these questions and develop a vision for the future of public safety, Leadership for a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in collaboration with Accenture, convened The 2015 Public Safety Summit: Leadership for a New Era at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Participants learned and worked together on the challenges presented in this new era of convergence by collectively pursuing three Summit tasks:

  • Learning about strategies that organizations, inside and outside of public safety, have used to successfully adapt to societal change and transform their organizations and workforce.
  • Co-developing strategies for adopting emergent technologies, cross-organization collaboration, and new operating models while balancing individual privacy, due process, and civil liberties.
  • Gaining leadership insights on transforming organizational designs and operating models to better engage stakeholders and communities and build public trust.

Drawing on best practices from four case studies, insights from participants and special sessions, the report synthesizes action steps that public safety leaders across the world can embrace.

“We’ve got to create an environment where it’s OK to fail fast and learn faster.”
Amy Edmondson
Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School

Report Insights

  1. Hitting the “Reset Button”: The Transformation of the Camden Police Department

    One day in late July 2008, Scott Thomson, then the Deputy Police Chief in Camden, New Jersey, was summoned into the office of state Attorney General Anne Milgram and received what can only be described as a sudden promotion. Just 36 years old, Thomson had rapidly risen through the ranks of the Camden Police Department since joining the organization in 1994 and thought that the “seat [he was in] was good.” But Milgram, who was overseeing the city police department following a recent state takeover, informed Thomson that he was to become the city’s police chief. Immediately. The attorney general then took him to a room with elected officials, introduced him as the chief, and asked if they had any questions. One responded, Thomson recalled, by saying, “yeah, what’s his name?”

  2. Smart Power: Transforming Seattle’s Police Department

    One day in late 2013, Kathleen O’Toole received one of the more startling phone calls of her career. A headhunter wanted to know if she had any interest in becoming Seattle’s new police chief. In some ways, the timing could not have been worse. O’Toole, a former Boston police chief and Massachusetts public safety secretary, had recently returned to the United States following a six-year stint in Ireland where she had overseen an effort to reform policing; as she explained at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, “I had just moved home after being 3,000 miles to the east, [so] I wasn’t exactly expecting to move 3,000 miles to the west.”

  3. The Way Forward: Countering Terrorism in Los Angeles with Convergence and a New Narrative

    In mid-November 2007, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, was facing a major problem. Earlier that month, he and his colleagues had announced a plan to map the city’s Muslim population; and the vociferous response from the community (including Muslim leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union), much of which felt the plan amounted to religious profiling, could not have been swifter. Explained Salam Al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Muslim Americans were very disturbed and concerned about the ramifications of the plan and having their privacy invaded."

  4. West Midlands England: New Paths to Agility and Outcomes

    The stereotypical image of a police officer is difficult to dismiss. There’s the peaked cap, the pressed uniform, and above all the expectation that the officer is patrolling a busy street, crouched in a speed trap, or helping to guide traffic. Simply put: the assumption is that the officer is in public. But at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, Chris Sims, the Chief Constable of the West Midlands (UK) Police Department, explained how, upon taking office six years ago, he realized that in his jurisdiction, that “iconic” image would soon become a thing of the past.

I think one of the biggest threats we are facing is the speed with which change is happening and the nature of that change. We have to continually ready our organizations to tackle current challenges in order to face the next set of challenges on the horizon.
Cathy Lanier
Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief


Public Safety leaders are facing a capacity challenge. From one angle, the environment is becoming vastly more complex, creating pressure on leaders to reduce crime substantially. From another, calls to improve public trust and increase community engagement are compelling public safety leaders to reevaluate their approach.

Simply put, the public safety community must do more to achieve the outcomes society is demanding. Yet in a resource-constrained world, how can leaders build the capacity to move forward?

To help public safety leaders address this challenge and develop a vision for the future, Leadership for a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in collaboration with Accenture, convened The 2015 Public Safety Summit: Leadership for a New Era at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Leaders at the Summit focused on how the future of policing will require innovation in reducing crime as well as building community engagement and public trust. To maximize both imperatives, the public safety community, attendees agreed, needs increased capacity in policing structures, systems, and people. This can be generated by pursuing an array of organizational changes, ranging from partnering with external organizations—including academics, mental health specialists in government public health agencies, and private firms—to embracing modern policing technology, such as body-worn cameras and predictive analytics. It also requires a renewed commitment to more traditional approaches, particularly community policing, and fostering a culture in public safety that prioritizes a guardian- and service-oriented mentality.

The case studies and topical sessions at this first-annual Summit illuminated how synchronizing these innovations, partnerships, and cultural changes can transform capacity. For example, in Camden, New Jersey, Chief Scott Thomson has used cultural reform as a catalyst to help his staff adapt to a seismic organizational shift; and in the process, he has made one of the country’s most-violent cities substantially safer. Similarly, Dr. Timothy Dasey, a leading researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, described how, after participating in a simulation that employed predictive analytics, TSA officials at Logan Airport have embraced these tools to hone their work. From Boston to Camden, and Seattle to Los Angeles, change has led to new capacity, which in turn fuels improvement of public value, trust, and legitimacy.

Yet moving forward will require strong leadership and resolve. To generate more progress, public safety leaders need to preserve the strong results achieved thus far, while continuing to embrace technology and effect organizational change and cultural shifts. And in a frequently changing environment, all of this reform needs to occur at a sustainable rate.

The police chiefs and sheriffs at the Public Safety Summit are embracing this challenge optimistically. As their organizations progress, they realize greater efficiency, effectiveness, and capacity to ensure the future of public safety. They have also recognized that adversity and setbacks can be the foundation upon which meaningful reform takes place; one of the most commonly heard phrases at the Summit was “failing forward.” It is these leaders—and the optimistic and forward-thinking mentalities they have inculcated in their organizations—that will set the bar for public safety performance. Will you be one of them?


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Leadership for a Networked World’s applied research, student innovation challenge, and on-campus summit programs are an initiative of Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. TECH is a hub for students, faculty, alumni, and government and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate. LNW accelerates these efforts by connecting leaders across sectors and developing cutting-edge thought leadership on innovation and organizational transformation.

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