Racial Justice and Policing in Camden NJ: Lessons for Change Leaders

[Adapted from Russ’ new book, coming out in September 2021: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

In 2012, crime was spiraling out of control in Camden. The city had a murder rate 18 times the national average. Officers saw themselves as warriors trying to dominate criminals, not as professionals there to protect and serve the public. Relationships between the police and African Americans were extremely tense. At that time, most cities had experienced dramatic drops in violent crime, and Camden’s leaders had several models to consider, from tough-on-crime methods like stop and frisk, to community policing, where officers form relationships with the residents and business owners in their precinct.

Camden’s leaders ultimately opted for a version of the second approach, but first they did something radical: they disbanded the police department and gave the county control over policing in the city. Those who’d been laid off could apply to be re-hired. Several new people joined the force. The powerful police union was taken over by new leaders who were committed to change. Interestingly, the county didn’t immediately change its policies and practices (though some were changed in the coming years). Rather, city leaders first spent time meeting with residents to ensure they had a voice in how the new department would operate.

Those conversations proved important, so much so that the person who became police chief in 2015 made clear his top goal: build relationships with the community. Over the next several years the department trained officers in the art of de-escalation; preserving life was the goal, and use of force by cops was to be used only as a last resort. Complaints about police using excessive force fell. By 2020, murders had declined 63%, robberies were down 60%, and overall violent crime had fallen 42%.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise reasons for these improvements. But comments from community leaders reveal what changed their perceptions of the police. As one put it: “Before the change, the police department didn’t care about our safety. When they made the transition, they built partnerships with members of the community.” Those partnerships created trust. The residents then started sharing more information about law breakers, helping increase the number of murders solved from 16% to 61%. Significantly, this trend has continued since 2017, when many other have cities experienced big increases in violent crimes.

What can we learn from Camden?

While there are several lessons, I think two are critical to all leaders. First, consider the wise advice from leadership expert Jim Collins. When considering a change, first ask Who? and then What? Start by getting “the right people on the bus, in the right seats,” as Collins puts it. In general, the “right people” are those with character, who play well with others, who are open to change, who have a strong work ethic. That’s what Camden’s leaders did. Rather than institute a host of new policies and procedures (the What), they started by focusing on the Who. As they got those people on the bus, they worked together to plan and implement the What – the strategies, practices, and procedures to implement.

And second, Camden’s leaders understood the power of relationships. Most of Camden’s residents, especially African Americans, didn’t trust the police prior in 2012. They saw the police as an enemy, which only heightened tensions. So, the new Camden police chief emphasized relationship building, and it began making a difference. Most residents were willing to give the new police department a chance when its officers showed a genuine interest in getting to know them and learn about their concerns.

Two key lessons for leading change, from the Camden story:
1. First “who,” then “what” – get the right people on the bus, in the right seats
2. Build relationships with key constituents before initiating the change

I’d argue that these two lessons are ageless. Indeed, they’re present in the Hebrew Bible. God’s decisions to select Abraham and Moses – the Who – for key leadership roles were essential to living out the covenant God wanted with the Israelites. And the trusting relationships God formed with Abraham and Moses were equally critical. Abraham and Moses were able to tell God to cool it when God was ready to unleash massive punishments. God, like all leaders, needed to have a few people who would speak truth to power.

What about you? Do you have the “right people on the bus, in the right seats,” for what you’re trying to accomplish? What’s the level of trust among those people, and with your key constituents?

The Rider and the Elephant: Switch Book Details How to Create Change

A remarkable book provides leaders with a practical, simple framework, based on the latest brain research, for turning an organization to a new direction.

If you’d like to read a book on making organizational change happen that’s very practical, organized around an easy-to-understand framework and filled with great examples, I recommend you put “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” at the top of your summer reading list. The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, successfully integrate the latest brain research into a simple (not simplistic) model for leading change, and they delight the reader with amazing examples told in a smart, colorful manner.

The model has three parts, all of which are demonstrated in this extraordinary story.

On Dec. 14, 2004, Don Berwick, who was then CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), delivered a talk at a hospital administrators’ convention. Berwick had ideas for saving large numbers of lives by significantly reducing the “defect rate” of certain procedures using process-improvement procedures that had been very successful in other industries. His research convinced him that these procedures would make a huge difference, but he couldn’t require physicians to change their practices. So he challenged the hospital administrators in the room to step up.

“Here is what I think we should do. I think we should save 100,000 lives. And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006. ‘Some’ is not a number; ‘soon’ is not a time. Here’s the number: 100,000. Here’s the time; June 14, 2006, 9 a.m.”

No doubt the administrators’ jaws dropped. But Berwick was just getting started. He then spelled out six specific interventions that had been shown to save lives (such as keeping a pneumonia patient’s head elevated at a certain angle so that oral secretions wouldn’t go into the windpipe). But the administrators needed more than information; they had to be motivated to take on the many barriers to change in their institutions.

Berwick then introduced a mother he’d invited to the convention. The woman’s daughter had died because of a hospital’s medical error. Then a second person spoke, the chair of the North Carolina State Hospital Association, who said that “an awful lot of people for a long time have had their heads in the sand on this issue [of injuries and death caused by hospital errors], and it’s time to do the right thing. It’s as simple as that.”

The campaign save 100,000 lives began. IHI provided participating hospitals with step-by-step instructions on how to implement the new medical procedures, the research base for these procedures and training. IHI also helped the hospitals’ leaders communicate with each other through a weekly conference call (as many as 800 people participated), and arranged for the most-successful hospitals to mentor those that joined the campaign later. Many physicians resented the new procedures, but those procedures soon produced impressive successes, and in the months after Berwick issued his challenge more than 3,000 hospitals joined the campaign.

And on June 14, 2006, precisely at 9 a.m., Berwick announced that the participating hospitals had exceeded their goals: The campaign had prevented approximately 122,300 avoidable deaths. Moreover, hospitals were institutionalizing the new procedures, ensuring that uncounted lives would be saved in the future.

At first glance, this may seem to be an exciting story about an inspiring, risk-taking leader. But there’s far more to it than that. The authors of “Switch” use this and other examples to illustrate their framework for leading difficult changes, one built around current understanding of the human brain. As the Heaths explain, our brains have two key parts that affect our decisions and actions:

• The logical, rational side, which analyzes our options and thinks long-term. It is very good at self-control. The authors call this “the rider.”

• The emotional side (a much larger part of the brain), which feels pleasure, pain, love, empathy, and so on. It’s more short-term-oriented and demands instant gratification. The authors call this “the elephant.”

Our rider tells us we need to change our diet and use the gym regularly if we really want to shed 30 pounds; our elephant won’t let us walk past the Ben and Jerry’s without trying the latest flavor. If you visualize a rider sitting atop an elephant, you understand the dilemma: The elephant is far larger and stronger than that lonely rider.

On the other hand, the wise and rational rider doesn’t provide energy for change; indeed, the rider is often at risk of “paralysis by analysis,” getting lost in the facts and options. That’s why our elephant is so critical: We don’t make difficult changes without feeling highly motivated. So we need both rider and elephant pulling in the same direction to successfully change.

Let’s take another look at the campaign to save 100,000 lives through the lens of the “Switch” framework. Berwick appealed to the hospital administrators’ rider through his documentation of the problem. He gave the rider a clear destination (save 100,000 lives by June 14, 2006) and explicit directions (six interventions that were known to save lives). Berwick also hooked his audience’s emotions — their elephants — through the two people he introduced at the conference.

There’s a third part of the “Switch” framework, called “shaping the path” by making the change easier. In Berwick’s campaign, the path to change was simplified through the use of step-by-step instructions and support groups. The weekly conference call enabled real-time communications among hospital leaders. And the campaign helped those hospitals that weren’t making progress by connecting their leaders to colleagues who had started earlier and were experiencing success.

The Heath brothers have given us a path to leading change that will appeal to your rider as well as your elephant. It’s a delightful read, and a very important book.