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.”
The foundational conversation for all that would follow occurred in 2010 between then-incoming County Executive Rushern Baker and Mark Magaw, then a prospect for appointment as Chief of Police. It was agreed between them that reducing crime would be the first priority of the entire government. That conversation turned on an analogy that is now referred to as the “ramshackle shack” and all the things that would need to be done to renovate it. No single discipline (plumbing, roofing, heating) was sufficient. Such was the case with public safety in Prince George’s County.
Hoping to bolster public safety and make better use of the county’s tax dollars, Magaw asked Stawinski and then-Assistant Chief Kevin Davis to implement a pair of initiatives that would transform the department’s approach to law enforcement. First, in the summer of 2011, the department launched the Summer Crime Initiative, which increased the presence of officers and brought attention from other components of county government by devoting resources to five areas that had historically struggled with high crime. Then, in 2012, County Executive Rushern Baker, based on the foundation of the Summer Crime Initiative, introduced the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI), which involved concentrating the whole range of governmental resources (e.g., police, fire, health and social services, and education) in six high-need areas. The premise of both efforts was that, in order to curtail crime, county government needed to do more than just respond to crimes when they occurred; they also had to address the underlying social and infrastructure issues that were contributing to crime in the first place. Stawinski explained, “We started thinking to ourselves, ‘Let’s take a page out of epidemiology.’ If you’ve a got a disease outbreak, if you determine the conditions that lead to it [and] interrupt any or all of those conditions, you either mitigate or prevent the outbreak altogether.”
While launching TNI represented an opportunity to rethink Prince George’s County’s approach to crime and governance, there was no guarantee that it would succeed. Rather, Stawinski and the other architect of TNI, Prince George’s County Chief Administrative Officer Brad Seamon, would have to address a number of challenging questions. Would they be able to obtain buy-in from a wide array of stakeholders in county government? Would they build trust in and ultimately empower the communities they served? Could they operate the program within the confines of their existing budget? Would they be able to obtain, analyze, and distill policies from complex data? Most fundamentally, would TNI make Prince George’s County a safer and better place to live?
The son of a Prince George’s County police officer, Stawinski had joined the force in the early 1990s and steadily risen through the ranks, serving (in among other posts) as the Chief of Staff to the Chief of Police and as Deputy Chief of Patrol Operations before becoming the Chief of Police in 2016. Over the course of his time in the department, Stawinski had made significant contributions in the areas of structure and strategy and at the same time developed a deep understanding of the challenges the agency and community faced. For example, in 2005, he and now-Assistant Chief of Police Hector Velez had restructured and then rewritten the department’s policy system as part of the department’s effort to comply with reforms mandated by the Department of Justice following allegations of excessive use of force by the department. Looking back, Stawinski states that the fact that he and Velez played an integral role in implementing these reforms and are now leading the agency demonstrates the department’s continued commitment to realizing the lessons and benefits of the reform process with DOJ. In part thanks to this multidisciplinary project, Stawinski and his colleagues had recognized that the department had an opportunity to make a bigger impact—and create long-term, sustainable results—by partnering with other agencies and employing a multi-faceted approach. “In that process,” recalled Stawinski, “I saw a lot of things and constantly asked questions. Then-Chief Magaw and I would regularly discuss having the opportunity to redesign the department’s structures, there were so many holes in what we were working with, we could do a better job if we could build new structures on a new foundation. That was an invaluable experience I had.”
One of the first opportunities to implement these far-reaching ideas came in 2011 when the department launched the Summer Crime Initiative. As Stawinski noted, the notion of devoting extra resources to five hard-hit areas was not novel in and of itself; what distinguished the strategy was the decision to deploy not only additional law enforcement officers but also representatives of other county agencies. What’s more, to increase the likelihood of effective coordination, and at the suggestion of Chief Magaw, County Executive Baker mandated that the heads of all participating county agencies attend the police department’s weekly crime meeting. By the end of the summer, the initiative had contributed to a 12.1 percent year-to-date decrease in violent crime and a nine percent reduction in overall crime. More importantly, it demonstrated to the county government the virtues of collaboration between the police and other agencies. Stawinski recalled, “That was the foundation of TNI because it created access and accountability. When the county executive mandated the directors of those agencies be in the room and then come back the next week and talk about what was or wasn't or could or couldn't be done about an issue, that changed the whole government’s dynamic.”
Buoyed by the success of the Summer Crime Initiative, the County Executive—who had been impressed by the police department’s responsiveness and community engagement—chose to launch TNI in April 2012. Stawinski and Seamon proposed to Baker that they expand the Summer Crime Initiative into TNI. As Stawinski recalled, Baker decided to make it his signature legacy issue because it was about making government more responsive and impactful. Looking back, Stawinski emphasized that the support and vision of the County Executive was invaluable to the launch and ultimate success of the initiative. “If Mr. Baker hadn’t aligned all of the county’s leaders,” Stawinski explained, “it would have been impossible for an initiative like this to succeed no matter how well Brad and I designed the architecture.”
The overarching goal of TNI was “to achieve the County Executive’s vision of a thriving economy, great schools, safe neighborhoods, and high-quality health care by targeting cross-governmental resources to communities that have significant needs.” More concretely, it involved deploying a team of county officials, representing the full range of agencies, to six communities experiencing significant problems, including high crime and foreclosure rates and subpar educational attainment. , Implicit in this strategy was the belief that the police and other county agencies needed to sharpen their coordination and begin to establish a regulatory framework. Stawinski explained:
We were in a loop where public policy was failing and this created big problems. The most obvious issues were crime and disorder, and the community was turning to the police department and saying, ‘Why do we have all these big problems, and what are you doing about them?’ Many of the concerns were not matters of criminal law, but the police department was the most visible representative of the government. In some cases, we created new policy, in others the department was simply tasked with addressing the symptoms without developing a fundamental understanding of the underlying problems. This allowed the problems to flourish. And, so, we were caught in a Catch-22 where policy failure was creating problems, the problems led to more policy, and temporary solutions were creating frustration.
While the logical basis for TNI was sound, implementing it involved significant challenges. One was a dearth of resources, but this overlooked what was already available. To address this, the decision was made to implement TNI with only the resources already at hand, to apply them to problems in novel ways, and to marshal them in a far more coordinated manner. In early strategy sessions, representatives of partner agencies often identified services they could provide if they received additional money or personnel. In response, Stawinski and Seamon drew an analogy to Apollo 13, the NASA space mission where an oxygen tank exploded during spaceflight and the crew had to circumnavigate the moon and return home using only the equipment on board. “We said,” Stawinski recalled, “‘You’ve got what you’ve got. There’s nothing else available. We need you to detail for us everything that you can do.’” This became the inventory of services that fueled TNI. County officials simultaneously had to calibrate their approach to community engagement. To avoid unproductive friction, it was imperative, as Stawinski said, not to enter a community and “tell them what their problems were.” Instead, the police and their partners discovered that they could build trust with communities if they demonstrated that they had done their “homework” and understood a community, disclosed the full range of services in the inventory that the government could provide, and sought input from residents during town hall meetings about how to apply those resources to community concerns.
Once they cultivated trust in the communities they were serving, the TNI team had to develop and enforce a consistent approach to data management and analysis. A key facet of that effort was emphasizing to service providers that they were working in bounded areas and that government officials needed to be able to specify the address at which they were providing a service. As Stawinski recalled, the rule of thumb was that in order to apply an inventory item to a problem, the team member had to narrow the location to a specific place or, simply put, the address to which you would mail a letter. “This was the foundation of our data gathering,” Stawinski explained, “and led to our method of identifying problem areas as either issue-based (a lot of one problem) or geographically-based (several problems in a small area) clusters.” In some cases, agencies and staff members resisted these data standardization efforts. However, TNI relied on the county’s Chief Administrative Officer, Seamon, who was operationally involved with TNI, to ensure that partner agencies adhered to the standardized approach. “This is the advantage,” Stawinski said, “of having the number two person in the [county] government in charge of this. Brad determined by directive and by prioritization of resources what was going to get done.”
Over five years after launching TNI, Stawinski and his partners still see room for improvement. One of the most important priorities moving forward is posturing TNI to focus on the “second-tier issues” (e.g., infrastructure or economic development) with which residents are now requesting assistance. Nonetheless, the initiative has already had an enormous impact. In addition to reducing crime in the communities where TNI has been implemented, the initiative has been a driving force behind a dramatic decrease in overall crime in Prince George’s County. When the program first launched, the county had approximately 40,000 crimes annually, in 2010 the equivalent of 103 crimes per day; in 2016, there were 17,554 crimes in Prince George’s County, an average of just 48 crimes per day. Also in 2016, Baker appointed Linda Turner, a core team member since the beginning of TNI, to serve as the TNI manager within his cabinet. This transitioned TNI from an initiative to a core government function. Stawinski noted that Turner “is now building on the foundation of TNI and continuing the work of re-inventing government in Prince George’s County.” What’s more, in early 2017, the county expanded TNI to three additional neighborhoods and transitioned three of the original six communities to local control. Unlike before, however, those communities now have strong connections to the county government and a new capacity for problem solving. And therein lies the program’s overarching value: as Stawinski concluded, the ultimate goal of TNI was always to “build the capacity of the community to advocate for themselves.”
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.