Law enforcement agencies have come under heavy scrutiny for the past several years. As police departments are being asked to reform their operations, they continue to recognize that no local law enforcement agency can be effective without establishing partnerships with the community and others. What does that require? A step-by-step approach and an understanding of the dynamics of effective partnerships. Let me explain.

The Importance of A Police-Community Partnership

The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing points out the importance of partnerships. Pillar 4, for example, encourages law enforcement agencies to “work with community residents to identify problems and collaborate on implementing solutions that produce meaningful results for the community.”

In a previous blog post – The Value of Police-Community Partnerships – I described five reasons why partnerships are valuable. While this collaboration or partnership with the community is important, partnerships do not necessarily come easily. Research on creating teams provides some great guidance for police as they attempt to create and maintain their community partnerships.

Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 article “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” is commonly cited in literature and training about community policing and the development of partnerships. In his article, Tuckman indicates that partnerships go through four stages from new immature groups to mature performing partnerships. Police officials who understand these four stages (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing) will be equipped to develop great partnerships and adapt to changing partnership dynamics.

Step 1: Forming

The first stage of partnership development identified by Tucker is called Forming. At the Forming stage, individuals are unclear about their roles and responsibilities and serious issues are avoided. Participants tend to focus on organizational matters at this point. This is the stage when members start to get to know each other and look to be accepted by the team. In this stage, the police official leading the meeting need to provide guidance and direction to help members understand the purpose and objectives of the partnership.

Step 2: Storming

The Storming stage can be difficult, but it is necessary to the development of a high-performing team. At this stage, participants begin to share their concerns, identify issues and controversies, and confront each others’ ideas and perspectives. Additionally, participants start to identify their own roles and various cliques or interest groups start to form. The police leader’s role at this stage is challenging in that he or she must keep the partnership (1) focused on the goals, (2) avoid distractions due to individual relationships that are developing and (3) lead the group towards compromising on key issues. It is important for that leader to understand that most partnerships go through this stage and that many groups never move beyond the storming stage. But if the leader recognizes that this is a natural phase of the partnership and patiently works through these storming issues, the group can move to the next stage.

Step 3: Norming

If partnerships do make it through the challenges of storming, they enter the Norming stage where members start developing a consensus on many issues and understand their roles and responsibilities. During this stage, the leader’s role is to facilitate continued discussions and enable group members to address particular issues.

Step 4: Performing

All of the efforts of Forming, Storming and Norming lead to the final stage of development – Performing. It is at this stage when everything seems to be working well. The participants are focused on a shared vision and goals. They understand what the partnership is trying to accomplish and they are motivated to achieve its goals. They may still disagree on some issues from time to time, but they will have developed processes to address those disagreements in a positive and professional manner. The leader’s role in this stage changes as the team is beginning to act independently. At this point, the leader can step back a bit and focus on overseeing overall progress and delegating responsibilities to team members.

Summary

It is important to note that there are not necessarily clear indications when a group has moved from one stage to the next. Additionally, sometimes a team can regress back to an earlier stage, from Norming to Storming for example, but that does not necessarily mean that the partnership is failing. In this instance, the leader of the group needs to identify the causes for that change and develop strategies to keep the team moving in the right direction.

In summary, developing and maintaining partnerships is one of the key elements of an effective police department. Whoever is in charge of developing those partnerships should become familiar with these four basic small-group concepts, develop strategies to address each stage and avoid discouragement when teams move a little more slowly through the stages than they would like. Other resources to assist in creating and maintaining partnerships are from sources such as the Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.