Doug LePard, Deputy Chief; and Michelle Davey, Inspector and District Commander, Vancouver (British Columbia) Police Department
truism in policing is that the only thing cops hate more than change is the way things are. Police officers from any country will agree that police officers are often resistant—sometimes in quite creative ways—to doing things differently, yet want things to be better. How are these two seemingly opposing perspectives reconciled? The answer is a well-planned change management strategy.
The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an organization of over 1,800 sworn and civilian staff, serving a city of over 640,000 in a metropolitan area of approximately 2.4 million. Frontline uniformed police officers in the VPD number more than 800.
Historically, patrol officers routinely conducted interviews of suspects they arrested; it was seen as a basic investigative task no different than interviewing victims and witnesses and seizing physical evidence. But beginning in the 1990s, this practice deteriorated for a variety of reasons, including high call volume and the myth that most accuseds’ statements are found inadmissible in court.
By 2008, while the VPD Patrol Division was well led by an exceptional commanding officer and high performing in many ways, including work ethic, teamwork, and handling of critical incidents, one area with room for improvement was in the thoroughness of criminal investigations. When a new commanding officer, who had an extensive investigative background, took over the Patrol Division, his anecdotal impressions were that suspect interviews were conducted only in a small minority of cases. This meant considerable potential evidence was lost and patrol officers were not developing confidence and competence in basic investigative techniques. To establish a baseline, a representative random sample of arrest reports submitted by patrol officers was analyzed to determine the percentage that included at least an attempt to conduct a suspect interview. The results were even lower than anticipated: only 7 percent of arrest reports documented any such effort.1
The time was right to change this deficit in investigations, as crime and call-loads were coming down and staffing levels had been improved. As a result, the commanding officer created a strategic goal to improve the overall quality of investigations, particularly suspect interviews. The key to success would be the strategic implementation of various complementary initiatives over time, along with continuous positive encouragement.
The first step was for the commanding officer to meet with every patrol squad to describe his vision for improved investigations and to hear the squad members’ input. There was some trepidation and resistance because interviewing suspects was seen as “something new” to so many of them. Nevertheless, they provided invaluable input regarding what they saw as challenges, including training and equipment. Positive (and quick) responses to their suggestions with concrete actions showed their input was valued and enhanced the chances for the initiative to be successful.
Initiatives to support success were many and varied. Young officers at the police academy were provided improved instruction on interviewing skills, then encouraged to try their skills in scenario-based settings. Once they were comfortable in a controlled environment, field trainers were tasked with ensuring the academy recruits had opportunities to practice this skill in the field. Within a few years of graduating from the police academy, most patrol officers were also provided with additional interviewing instruction during a basic investigator’s course, with the focus on advancing their skills. Further, all patrol officers were provided with an online interviewing refresher course combined with classroom-based refresher training during in-service training days. Digital audio recorders were made readily available so officers could conduct interviews in the field. (Pens and notebooks were seen as “old school” for this new generation of tech-savvy police officers.)
From the start of this initiative, the VPD recognized that if officers were being asked to conduct more interviews with suspects, then the appropriate infrastructure had to be in place. To address this need, state-of-the-art interview rooms were added to the scope of work during renovations of several police facilities. The result was a fourfold increase in the number of digital video interview rooms available for patrol officers to use for interviews.
The “Station NCO,” a position staffed 24/7 by a sergeant and a choke point for the quality review of arrest reports, became responsible for providing support and encouragement regarding suspect interviews where an interview hadn’t been attempted.
To advance the initiative, the commanding officer then partnered with a district commander (also a former major crime detective) who shared a passion for improving the quality of patrol investigations. Their next step was to create a “Suspect Interview Guide for Patrol Officers” and an “Interviewing Expectations” memo. Both were bundled in a professionally bound booklet and personally issued by the authors to each member. The memo clearly set out the minimum expectations for suspect interviewing and how these were being supported organizationally. The guide provided both basic “must know” interviewing information, and also more advanced advice in the form of multiple scenario-based scripts, with running explanations and advice. This would serve the interests of those wanting to meet minimum expectations, and also those officers who wanted to go beyond a basic “what’s-your-side-of-the-story?” interview and build more advanced interviewing skills.
The distribution of this booklet occurred in combination with the presentation of a professionally produced “roll call briefing” training video, which featured a humorous interviewing skit to catch officers’ attention; testimonials from a range of respected patrol officers regarding the benefits of suspect interviewing; and directions in the form of a simple, narrated decision tree for various suspect interviewing scenarios. This training video was placed on the VPD Intranet so that all officers would have access to it in the future, as was an electronic copy of the booklet. In addition, copies of the booklet were added to the package of information issued to all new patrol members.
Throughout this timeframe, clear direction was given to managers and supervisors that members were to be provided advice and reminders in a supportive and encouraging manner, and it was always framed in the context of helping them to be successful police officers, not admonishing them for failing to follow directions. As a result, officers were encouraged and supported in their efforts at every opportunity, whether by their sergeants or by managers who took the time to recognize them for their efforts. This recognition ranged from complimentary emails to commendations. The commanding officer routinely reviewed many arrest reports where suspect interviews had been conducted and sent written praise down through the chain of command to the officers, which was often read aloud at roll call briefings. Recognizing there had to be a further incentive for some officers, the material in the interviewing booklet became “examinable” for the purposes of increment exams for line officers (passing the exams results in significant pay increases) and promotional exams for aspiring sergeants.
A follow-up audit in 2010 showed the number of investigations in which there was at least an attempt to conduct a suspect interview had increased from 7 percent to 67 percent of cases. By 2011, that number had increased to 89 percent, and patrol officers obtained admissions or confessions in almost one-third of cases. This was a remarkable improvement over a relatively short period of time and a credit to the patrol officers’ professionalism. Efforts were continued to maintain, enhance, and further entrench the results that had been achieved.
Once the new practices were well established, a new policy was developed and implemented to reflect the interviewing expectations already in place. The policy was adopted with no overt resistance by the officers and with concurrence by their union, which had been consulted during the policy’s drafting. The lack of resistance was largely because the policy reflected exactly what officers were already doing due to effective and positive change management. This was a far better strategy than unilaterally imposing a new policy without having done the work of listening and acting incrementally to build buy-in and create the best chances of individual and organizational success.
The benefits of the significant increase in suspect interviews have been many. As Vancouver’s senior prosecutor agreed, charges were approved where there would not have been sufficient evidence otherwise; there was a higher likelihood of guilty pleas because of the compelling nature of a lawfully obtained confession; and there was a higher likelihood of a guilty verdict for those cases that proceeded to trial.2 As a result, the goals of improving public safety were met, and more victims saw that justice was done. In addition, officers spent fewer hours in court, which resulted in an increase in the numbers of officers available to deliver policing services on a daily basis. Finally, the police officers learned new suspect interviewing skills. These skills, among others, contributed to their ability to routinely conduct more thorough investigations without missing opportunities to gather evidence or requiring detective follow-up; this, in turn, reduced the demand on detective squads. The increased expectations and support also enriched the patrol officers’ work, built their confidence in their ability to interview suspects, and better prepared them for future assignments to detective units.
Change management in a culture where change resistance is the preferred mind-set takes time. Managers must be patient, strategic, and willing to think outside the hierarchy of the chain of command to achieve behavior change. In this case, the organizational objective to increase the quality of patrol investigations generally, and suspect interviewing specifically, was highly successful. This behavior change was well worth the investment of time, patience, resources, and commitment. ♦
|Deputy Chief Doug LePard, a graduate of Simon Fraser University, is a 33-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. He has been the commanding officer of the Operations Division since 2008.|
Inspector Michelle Davey, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, is an 18-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. She is currently the district commander of one of four patrol districts and commands over 200 police officers.
1The baseline numbers and results are drawn from departmental pre- and post-implementation analyses.
2British Columbia is a “charge approval” jurisdiction, like several other provinces in Canada, where the police can only recommend charges, and crown prosecutors decide whether to approve them or not for prosecution.
Please cite as:
Doug LePard and Michelle Davey, “Managing Change: A Success Story in a Culture Resistant to Change,” The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): 50–53.