Police Futuring—Is It in Your Future?

Strategic organizational forecasting through formalized police “futures units” is the next step in the evolution of modern law enforcement. For decades many businesses in private industry have utilized futures studies to help determine a direction for an organization. Unfortunately, futures studies are not being utilized in the same way in the law enforcement community, despite the potential for futures units in law enforcement agencies to facilitate long-term problem solving and assist in implementing strategic plans through systematic forecasting of emerging challenges and issues. Administrators could create solutions to optimize the police response to any possible scenario. The implementation of a formalized futures unit could advance the growth and succession planning of a law enforcement organization and serve as a cornerstone to its future success.

An example of a successful futures unit is a program operated by the Shell Oil Company. According to Shell Oil, the company has more than 40 years of experience in futures studies, more commonly termed “futuring.” The company has a team of people exploring plausible future scenarios through the year 2050. From 1970 through the 1990s, Shell Oil was ahead of the curve on many worldwide events primarily through organizational foresight, which placed it in a position of advantage when deciding how to react to major world events affecting the oil industry. This proved to be beneficial when Shell Oil anticipated situations such as the 1980s oil embargo and the fall of some world governments, such as the Berlin Wall crisis.1 Shell Oil had already predicted these scenarios before these events actually happened and, subsequently, had already planned its response, giving Shell Oil an advantage over its competitors.

This type of forward thinking must be encouraged and implemented into law enforcement culture and training. The key to a successful law enforcement agency in the 21st century will be the inclusion of a formal futures unit as part of an organizational structure. These units should mimic private industry with their advanced planning and strategy. By implementing a futures unit, department leaders will plant the seeds of foresight and change management. Organizational leaders should note when the answer to any question is “because we have always done it that way.” That way of thinking reaffirms old habits and processes that, if objectively evaluated, might be proven to be outdated and restricting progress. An administration that embraces futuring creates a culture of innovative, forward-thinking people, which allows the organization’s overall operations to be more versatile.

Police FuturesA Foundation for Success

Many law enforcement agencies have already been practice varying degrees of futuring, but administrators generally refer to their forms of futuring in other terms, such as strategic planning or projecting. These forms of futuring that law enforcement officials engage in do not rise to the degree of those practiced in private businesses, such as Shell Oil, nor to the degree that the author proposes. Most law enforcement agencies would like the ability to better anticipate the future when planning, but they are often restricted by deadlines or critical events that take immediate priority over this type of advanced planning.

In 1999, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) begin teaching a futures research course to students at the FBI National Academy and began a collaborative partnership in futures studies with the Society of Police Futurists International (PFI). The tragedy of 9/11 was the catalysts for the creation of a formal Futures Working Group, and on April 2, 2002, FBI Director Robert Mueller and PFI President Gerald Konkler signed the Futures Working Group Memorandum of Understanding.2 The group has continues to work together to assist law enforcement in dealing with future issues. Although the FBI-PFI Futures Working Group focuses its efforts in a global forum, it also advocates law enforcement agencies to develop their own futuring capabilities to better forecast and develop strategies for their jurisdictions. In California, the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) created a means for managers across the state to learn futuring skills at the Police Officers Standards and Training Command College.

POST Command College has become the premier training program for law enforcement futures studies since its creation in 1984. The core of the Command College is training to introduce law enforcement leaders into the specialized field of futuring. This course provides instruction in futuring and methods to extend foresight to keep pace with modern technologies and trends driving change. The goal is to teach law enforcement leaders how to be more creative and innovative when planning strategies for resolving law enforcement problems. An emphasis is placed on scanning and trending local, national, and worldwide events of interest to the future of law enforcement. Students are immersed into futures studies with subject matter experts in all facets of futures topics.

Andy Hines, PhD, Program Coordinator at the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in Foresight and contributing instructor for the POST Command College Program, has assisted private organizations to establish internal foresight capabilities. He suggests that to be successful, futuring efforts should start small and be built up from there. Dr. Hines said that introducing foresight or futuring can be a bit of a shock to some organizations. Implementing effective futures studies takes time and persistence. It’s essential to minimize the drain on resources and often helpful to start small and build foresight capacity incrementally over time. As a first step, it could be beneficial for the agency to complete a small project that maps out a plan to introduce the capability with a five-year timeframe.3

The best way to implement a true futuring capacity into a police organization is to create a functional unit that has the time, expertise, and skill to engage futures analysis to create a foundation for planning and efforts to protect the public from issues and threats as they emerge. Retired police chief William R. Rector stated that any police organization would benefit from an individual or group working to anticipate and prepare for future events, thus giving organization leaders insight and ultimately an advantage when making decisions.4 The creation of a futures unit would do exactly that.

A futures unit will potentially add value throughout an organization, minimize wasted funds, and enhance efforts to suppress crime or meet public safety expectations. The futures unit could also have positive implications on recruitment, equipment procurement, crime analysis, crime prevention, and deployment strategies of resources. This type of unit would have the flexibility to tackle any topic submitted for research and provide new innovative ideas for consideration.

An additional example of how a futures unit could benefit an organization is in its long-term strategic planning A futures think tank can provide better insight for the chief and command staff to consider in decision making and organization-wide direction. Departments could develop true strategic planning, driven by the command staff and supported by the futures unit, which would evolve as information became available and events occurred. This “living” strategic plan would eliminate the problem of traditional strategic plans that can quickly become outdated or ineffective due to unanticipated events related to budgets, critical incidents, natural disasters, the economy, or other factors.

Expert Insight
Law enforcement and futures experts provided opinions on this concept and revealed several points to consider for any agency establishing a futures unit. The first was that the concept of futuring must be delivered from the top down to ensure buy-in. The best selection for a Futures Unit Commander to oversee or participate in such a unit would be a POST Command College graduate. This would ensure the entire command staff would be updated by someone who has a clear understanding of the capabilities and limitations of such an endeavor. A department policy should be established outlining the goals and objectives of the futures unit, and the unit should be accessible to all department divisions.

The panel of experts also revealed several points for concern when establishing a futures unit. The first concern was to avoid assigning officers to function in a dual role. The ability to balance futuring responsibilities along with an officer’s primary duties might be near impossible and would diminish the officer’s ability to gain futuring expertise. It’s also important to assign only those officers who have an interest to work in this specialized field, as some officers may be resistant to the new ways of thinking required for futuring. For a futures unit to be successful, the selected staff must be composed of forward-thinking officers who are open to a shift in organizational culture. In other words, they must be willing to go against the grain of traditional methods of planning, research, and training.

How It Would Work
Department futurists would accept topics to research from all divisions to encourage ownership at all levels. A professional futurist with private industry experience and success should be initially hired, if possible, as his or her knowledge and experience would be extremely useful in establishing the foundational needs, and the futurist could serve as an advisor with a clear understanding of what will be required for success. The profit margin for a law enforcement agency would be best demonstrated by reduction in crime and the enhanced safety and trust of the community. As the unit gains more task and responsibilities, additional staff should be added. The core goal is to get the organization thinking more innovatively and strategically.

Staffing the unit with sworn officers, mentored and trained by a futures expert, is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of having the sworn staff become subject matter experts in organizational futuring. Once the sworn staff is functioning at an acceptable level, the professional futurist could be contracted on a quarterly basis and be available for consulting when necessary.

A final point for consideration should be any existing staffing shortages and allocating funding for such a unit. As most departments are facing zero growth or limited growth budgets, trying to find money and resources to fund such a unit could prove very difficult. The likely solution would be to take resources from other divisions. This could result in backlash from other divisions that are already struggling to work within their budgetary restraints and might cause a lack of support from the onset of this endeavor. Alternate methods of funding might need to be considered—based on an individual agency’s budgetary climate.


Law enforcement agencies that readily embrace this new concept will move forward quickly in this specialized area. They will develop, through trial and error, the best methods that fit each individual agency’s needs and begin operating with new and more innovative methods. As demonstrated by the private sector, a futures unit could make an organization more progressive and better prepared for the unknown. This type of organizational futures-based critical thinking can create new opportunities of innovation for the next generation of police officers.

Eventually, the author predicts that all agencies will move toward some form of futuring, which will impact law enforcement in a positive way. By doing so, an organization will broaden and extend its methodologies to be better prepared to anticipate future obstacles and opportunities. Traditional ways of thinking will always be the foundation of law enforcement; however, more innovative forward-thinking generations will forge the way to the future.♦

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining, and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

—Copyright 2014
California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training

1 Shell Global, “Shell Scenarios,” http://www.shell.com/global/future-energy/scenarios.html (accessed February 12, 2015).
2 Futures Working Group, “About FWG,” http://futuresworkinggroup.cos.ucf.edu/aboutfwg.php (accessed February 12, 2015).
3 Andy Hines (program coordinator, University of Houston graduate program in foresight, and instructor, POST Command College program), personal communication, April 21, 2014.
4 William R. Rector (police chief, retired), personal communication, December 17, 2013.

Please cite as

Rene R. Chow, “Police Futuring—Is It in Your Future?” The Police Chief 82 (March 2015): web only, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/police-futuring-is-it-in-your-future-2.