The Dynamics of Culture and Capacity

A Report from the 2017 Public Safety Summit

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Amidst a turbulent environment, innovative public safety leaders are moving forward to achieve dramatic new levels of capacity and public value. Right now, for example, visionary police chiefs are redesigning use-of-force policy and training to improve crime response and build community trust. Cutting-edge public safety organizations are using social networks, data, and analytics to understand crime patterns and respond proactively to community needs. And inventive policing leaders are collaborating across agencies, jurisdictions, and sectors to co-create solutions to community challenges.

Yet for even the savviest leaders, often the most challenging roadblock on their transformation journey is organizational resistance to change. How do leaders in public safety address this challenge? Skillful leaders realize that driving innovation and change requires not only redesigning organizational structures, systems, processes, and human capital, but also harmonizing organizational culture with new ways of working, collaborating, and producing public value. In this endeavor, critical questions arise, such as:

  • How do leaders create an environment of trust within their organization and its partners that fosters better creativity, experimentation, innovation, and communication?
  • What strategies and technologies are leaders using to reach across boundaries and cultures – to human services, to education, to juvenile justice, and to faith-based groups – in order to co-create new forms of public safety solutions?
  • How can public safety leaders align strategy and culture in order to not only improve operational performance, but also sustainably increase agility in policing structures, systems, and people?

To help public safety leaders work through these challenging questions, Leadership for
a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in partnership with Mark43, convened The 2017 Public Safety Summit: The Dynamics of Culture and Capacity from April 21 – 23 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This third annual Summit brought together innovative public safety, justice, and human services leaders, along with leading academics and industry experts, to learn and share ideas on how police chiefs, sheriffs, commissioners, and other officials can not only respond to broadening responsibilities more efficiently and effectively, but also transform their organizations, partnerships, operating models, and cultures to deliver improved policing outcomes and legitimacy.

This report synthesizes the key findings from the Summit. In particular, it contains special sections on 1) leadership lessons from a keynote address by James O’Neill, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, and 2) the opportunities for collaboration between policing and human services.

A letter from the Executive Director

Dr. Antonio Oftelie, Executive Director of Leadership for a Networked World, reflects on this year's summit and it's implications.

Read his letter here. >

“No matter how good your policies and your procedures are, no matter how good your technology is, no matter how great your budget is, it all begins with people and relationships.”
Art Acevedo
Chief, Houston Police Department

Report Insights

  1. Aligning Technology, Analytics, Data, and Culture in Oakland

    In 2004, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and the City of Oakland’s Information Technology Department (ITD) set out on an ambitious, long-term endeavor to revamp OPD’s approach to technology. The foundation of this effort was the creation of a shared vision for aligning technology, analytics, and data that would allow individual OPD officers to have cutting-edge technology and at the same time equip the department with an integrated system that provided a holistic view of OPD’s activities. OPD and ITD leaders anticipated that these reforms would contribute to—and be advanced by—the development of a culture in OPD and ITD that prized efficiency, responsiveness, and innovation. In other words, the goal of the initiative was to catapult OPD into the 21st century.

  2. Creating New Solutions To End Sex Trafficking

    In late 2014, when Jim McDonnell was elected as Sheriff of Los Angeles County, he realized that his agency faced an enormous challenge: how to combat sex trafficking. There was extensive evidence that this horrific crime had become widespread in the region. The National Human Trafficking Center’s hotline for reporting cases was receiving more calls from California than any other state in the country by far. What’s more, child sex trafficking had become an integral source of revenue for gangs in the Los Angeles area.

  3. Engaging Citizens and Reducing Gun Crime in Sydney, Australia

    In 2013, the New South Wales (Australia) Police Force had to confront a vexing and concerning situation. Following a series of dramatic media reports, New South Wales residents had begun to perceive that public shootings had increased dramatically. In practice, government crime data demonstrated that shootings had not risen. Nonetheless, as Gavin Dengate, a Detective Superintendent in the New South Wales (NSW) Police Force, explained, this did little to change the fact that he and his colleagues had a serious problem. “The community still believed there was an increase,” Dengate elaborated, “because the media jumped onto the issue and did a lot of work blaming the government. And, obviously, when they blame government, they look at the police force as to what we were and weren’t doing.”

  4. Leadership Lessons from Commissioner James O’Neill

    In September 2016, when James O’Neill became the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), he faced significant challenges. To begin with, he had to ensure that the agency was positioned to combat the many threats facing New York City, including terrorism, which, as O’Neill said, is something that is “always on [his] mind.” O’Neill was also making a significant personal transition. He had previously served as the Chief of Department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in NYPD. As O’Neill said, he had thought that that position, which involved supervising 36,000 officers, had kept him “pretty busy”; however, he would now be taking on a new level of scrutiny and pressure as the public face of one of the most prominent law enforcement organizations in the world. Finally, NYPD was in the midst of a large and delicate organizational transformation.

  5. Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative in Prince George’s County

    In the late 2000s, Henry “Hank” P. Stawinski III, then a senior official in the Prince George’s County (MD) Police Department, identified a troubling trend. Before the start of the millennium, his jurisdiction had had consistently high crime, most notably an average of 126 homicides per year. This was disturbing in part because it signaled to residents and visitors that they were often in danger (as a local radio station reported, the county’s homicide rate “dwarfed its suburban neighbors.”) In addition, the dangerous durability of violent crime indicated that the county—which, as Stawinski noted, was spending significant sums on law enforcement—was not getting an appropriate return on its investment. “We were renting public safety,” argued Stawinski, who in 2016 became the Chief of the Prince George’s County Police Department. “I refer to it as renting public safety because we accrued no public safety equity. We were spending dollars, and we never saw any lasting return on that investment.”

“Part of leadership is helping people confront the messy reality.”
Amy Edmondson
Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School


As public safety leaders strive to develop cultures and structures that promote innovation and collaboration and increase capacity, they face a number of challenges and opportunities. The biggest difficulty is finding a way to meet the ever-growing demands on law enforcement while simultaneously finding the time to take a step back and identify strategies to help their organizations evolve. At the same time, public safety officials have an exciting opportunity in the years ahead. Improvements in technology have created the possibility that law enforcement officials can start operating more efficiently and, as a result, free more of their bandwidth to focus on community policing, cross-departmental and multi-agency initiatives, and critical but overlooked issues like human trafficking. Thus, finding ways to create cultures and innovations that can bolster capacity is not just an ideal for public safety officials to strive for in the future; it is an opportunity that they can begin to seize immediately. As Nóirín O'Sullivan, Commissioner for An Garda Síochána, said during the Summit’s closing panel, “The leaders in this room have the determination, passion, and energy to drive all the capacity reforms that are needed.”

The dialogue at The 2017 Public Safety Summit: The Dynamics of Culture and Capacity pointed to three critical steps that public safety leaders can take to identify and implement these capacity-driven reforms:

This points to a broader takeaway from the Summit. Arguably more than ever before, law enforcement officials need to be multifaceted. This means that harnessing new technology and developing community policing initiatives by themselves are not enough; instead, police leaders need to employ a wide range of tools—some driven by data and innovation and others relying on more foundational interpersonal skills—to lead their organizations effectively in the 21st century. This does place an ever-greater burden on law enforcement, but it also means that the field has an opportunity to further its mission and elevate its standing, if it can move forward together. As Scott Thomson, the Chief of the Camden County Police Department, summarized during the Summit’s closing panel, “We can't convince everybody to come in to the direction in which we are going, we just need to keep going there, and keep learning from each other and supporting each other.”

The Executive Leadership Group

Leadership for a Networked World, and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard would like to thank the Executive Leadership Group for their vision and ideas that aided the development of this Summit.

Art Acevedo
Chief of Police
Houston Police Department
Janeé Harteau
Chief of Police
Minneapolis Police Department
Chris Magnus
Chief of Police
Tuscon Police Department
Tom Manger
Chief of Police
Montgomery County Department of Police
Jim McDonnell
Los Angeles County
Kathleen O'Toole
Executive Leadership Group; Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland
Dermot Shea
Deputy Commissioner, Operations
New York City Police Department
Henry P. Stawinski III
Chief of Police
Prince George's County Police Department
Scott Thomson
Chief of Police
Camden County Police Department
Chuck Wexler
Executive Director
Police Executive Research Forum

Hosted by

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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