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Indy cop shop pioneers new leadership tactics

Indianapolis Metropolitan PD is launching a program to improve leadership and career achievements

Progress creeps forward in most police agencies at a glacial pace, but beginning this month, change is coming to the Indianapolis Metropolitan PD at Indy 500 speed.

After more than a year of unforgiving self-examination, the department is launching a bold effort to improve the professionalism and career achievements of its 1,700 sworn personnel through an ambitious infusion of cutting-edge fitness training, shift-by-shift performance evaluation, new promotional opportunities, and emotionally and intellectually intensive leadership development.

Supporting this formidable initiative are strong officer-survival components.

“We believe we have put together a unique approach to the future of policing,” says Lt. Rick Snyder, a driving force in drafting the new programs. “Already we’re getting calls from other agencies wanting to participate in what we’re doing or to duplicate it.”

He states IMPD’s gutsy goal: “To be recognized as the leader in the law enforcement profession for the Midwest…and even for the country as a whole.”

Technically, IMPD is a new agency, created in 2007 with a merger of the existing city force with the law enforcement division of the Marion County Sheriff’s Dept. A year later, amidst the predictable problems of trying to workably blend two long-entrenched cop cultures, Mayor Greg Ballard took office in Indianapolis after campaigning on a platform of “public safety is Job One.”

Ballard, a lieutenant colonel retired from the Marine Corps, was accustomed to strong career and leadership development programs in the military, “but he found that we weren’t doing any of that stuff,” Snyder says. “He became a major impetus for changing that,” and was fully supported by Police Chief Michael Spears and then-Director of Public Safety Scott Newman.

Snyder, an articulate, dynamic five-percenter with 14 years experience as a cop, was handpicked to spearhead the design of a multifaceted, state-of-the-art remedy — and to make it happen ASAP. (His appointment occurred about the time his notable skills as a patrol supervisor helped save the life of Jason Fishburn, a young officer who’d been gunned down during a foot pursuit. [See: An officer goes down...and the five-percenter mind-set kicks in]

At the chief’s direction, 33-year-old Snyder was given authority — “almost unheard of for a sergeant,” his rank at the time — to reach out “to any and all resources available in the department” for help. This exceptional access, he says, “allowed us to get a lot done in a short period of time.”

The groundbreaking program that has emerged was crafted from the input of innumerable sources, including departmental committees and subcommittees drawn from personnel of all ranks, local FOP union leaders and members, agencies and universities consulted across the country and abroad, and a “blue ribbon” external advisory board which included this columnist as a representative of PoliceOne.

Sgt. Bill Owensby, president of Indianapolis’ FOP Lodge #86, notes: “Early on it was apparent that management was serious because they wanted buy-in from labor from the very start. This level of cooperation is unheard of in most law enforcement circles.”

Here are highlights of the innovations that were crafted:

LEADERSHIP ACADEMY: The core component of the IMPD package is four weeks of top-flight leadership training (one week per month January through April, with the course repeated September through December annually). About 40 officers, with the minimum rank of sergeant and “college-level academic ability,” will matriculate each session, including a limited number from outside agencies.

During a “transformational” course captained and largely constructed by Bill Westfall, an internationally renowned law enforcement leadership trainer, participants will study strategies and styles of great leaders, leadership demands of “the leader, the led, and the organization,” and practice applying realistic leadership principles to such challenges as decision-making, goal-setting, performance motivation and evaluation, conflict resolution, critical thinking, supervision, skills development, effective communication, administrative obligations, liability management, and labor relations.

In addition to a certified “internal faculty,” led by Westfall, outside instructors will include Canadian trainer Brian Willis, speaking on the winning mind-set in leadership; Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute, describing what leaders need to know to assure “fair and factual” use-of-force investigations; and retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Hill, one of the program’s external advisors, addressing vision and critical thinking.

A key element each week will be the no-holds-barred dissection of a major Indianapolis OIS from recent years, two of these fatal and two in which the targeted officer survived, including the Jason Fishburn case which just culminated in a 59-year sentence for the perpetrator.

“These will be the equivalent of the military ‘staff ride’ debriefings that occur after critical incidents,” Snyder says.

Students will meet participants and surviving family members in these cases, review contemporary reports, visit the scenes, and present detailed analyses (pre-event through post-event) of how tactics and leadership decisions might have been changed to create more favorable outcomes.

“This will be approached in the spirit of fixing problems not fixing blame, and learning how to adjust as plans go awry in the field,” Snyder says. “Life-or-death events are the best test of leadership. And with some survivors available to relate in person what they experienced, this is bound to have an unforgettable emotional impact.”

Successfully finishing the academy will require “completing substantial reading and writing assignments, computer exercises between sessions, essay exams at the end of each area of study, and a final thesis at the end of the course,” Snyder says. “It will be a true test of talent and commitment.”

PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT: Also launching this month is an innovative department-wide performance-tracking process that Snyder describes as “a huge development in itself,” considering that no effective system has existed in the agency’s past. “Before, about the only way performance got measured was when you got written up and disciplined,” Snyder says.

Rooted in a principle that Westfall advocates called “Catch a Cop Doing Something Right,” the process consists of four steps:

  • Every supervisor and subordinate get together one-on-one and agree on specific personal and departmental goals.
  • Supervisors then document examples as they occur of “notable performance, positive and negative” — an officer’s commendable actions during an arrest, for instance, or poor communication with a complainant. Brief narratives of these are entered into the involved employee’s computerized “performance log.”

“Peers can make positive entries regarding an officer, too,” Snyder explains. (If a fellow officer has observed something negative, however, that must be reported directly to the supervisor.) As soon as an entry is logged, the involved officer can read it, “so there are no secrets, no surprises,” Snyder says. “Everyone always knows where they stand.

  • Mid-year, each supervisor and subordinate review and discuss the log and the subordinate is informed of “how he or she would rate if a performance appraisal had to be given at that time.” Goals can be adjusted accordingly.
  • Finally, there’s a formal and official year-end review and evaluation.

“We want to highlight and capture as much as possible of what officers do right, every day,” Snyder says, “in the belief that positive behavior is more likely to be repeated when it is noted.”

CAREER ADVANCEMENT: FBI stats indicate that the average length of service for LEOs killed in the line of duty is 7-10 years, the average age 37. Snyder and his teammates took note of this and speculated that one significant behind-the-scenes factor might be “job complacency, which can be augmented when an officer believes his or her career has reached a plateau and additional recognition declines.”

In an effort to counter that, IMPD is announcing two new job “designations”: master patrol officer, available to sworn personnel with at least 10 years on the street, and master detective, with eligibility after eight years’ investigative service. With union support, these will be incorporated into the labor contract that takes effect in 2011, with a pay differential that is still being negotiated.

The designations (they are not considered new ranks) are earned according to a variety of training and performance criteria, and they can be lost if training requirements and “exceptional” performance evaluations are not maintained. This “encourages innovation, rewards operational achievement, and offers opportunity for officers to stay engaged in a specialized career even if they do not advance in rank,” Snyder says. Personnel assuming the new designations will be required to attend the first week of the Leadership Academy.

As part of a re-engineered promotional process, performance evaluations will be considered as well as traditional written and oral testing for rank advancement, beginning with the test period due in 2011. “For the first time, candidates will have to show satisfactory performance at the job they’re currently doing before they can apply for the next rank,” Snyder says.

FITNESS: Approaching officer survival from a health-and-fitness angle, IMPD has included in its makeover a physical improvement component. During the last few months, while other elements of change were in their final planning phase, the department kicked off a voluntary strength and conditioning program in a new gym, equipped with new workout gear in its onsite training academy.

Workouts follow the precepts of CrossFit, the demanding conditioning program favored by many police and military tactical ops teams, champion cage fighters, and elite professional athletes. To date, Snyder says, more than 500 officers have signed on for ongoing training, and the idea of getting in peak-performance shape “is catching on like wildfire.”

COLLEGE CREDIT: Before the end of 2010, Snyder hopes to complete a strategic-partner agreement with one or more colleges or universities in the Indianapolis area to offer financially favorable educational opportunities—“on-site, off-site, and/or online”—for officers interested in earning degrees. One university already has expressed willingness to offer a 50% tuition discount.

“There’s great benefit to having a more highly educated workforce,” Snyder says. “When officers are engaged in a self-interest activity like working for a degree they’re likely to be more engaged on the job as well.”

His ultimate goal is to get the Leadership Academy accredited so that participants would automatically earn college credits for successfully completing the course.

WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: In April, IMPD will stage a one-day conference on police leadership concepts from a female perspective, open to officers of any rank from Indianapolis and other agencies, regardless of gender. “This will be a coaching program, built around the challenges and principles of leadership excellence,” Snyder says. Some 200 participants are expected to attend, providing “extensive networking opportunities.”

Snyder concedes that with its ambitious program, IMPD is sailing into somewhat uncharted waters. “A few other agencies have done one or two of these things,” he says, “but to our knowledge none has attempted to do all at the same time.

“We’ll fine tune and regroup as we go along whenever necessary, but I’m confident that we have the potential for creating something that will transform not only our agency but perhaps our profession.”

For more information, including how to enroll delegates from outside agencies in IMPD’s Leadership Academy, contact Lt. Rick Snyder at: S8626@indy.gov

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