Dear Editor: Police work is a “wicked problem”; Dr Rowley should change tack to address crime

“[…] Dr Keith Rowley, police work is what is known as a “wicked problem”. Rittel & Webber (1973) identified the following characteristics of a wicked problem:

“[…] The problem has no end point where you can say it is ‘solved’; solutions are not true or false, but better or worse; every wicked problem can be a symptom of another problem (introducing complexity)…”

The following Letter to the Editor on the Dr Keith Rowley-led government’s response to crime in Trinidad and Tobago was submitted to Wired8868 by Mohan Ramcharan of Birmingham:

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(via Office of the Prime Minister)

Dear Prime Minister,

Rather than fight tooth and nail with your critics over the escalating crime problem—including the unprecedented 600 murders for 2022—and your failure in your responsibilities as head of the nation and head of the National Security Council, won’t it be better for you to “man up” and recognise the nature of the beast you face?

There is no need for you to reinvent the wheel, most of the work has been done for you already. I have tried to simplify this for readers below:

You see, Dr Keith Rowley, police work is what is known as a “wicked problem”. Rittel & Webber (1973) identified the following characteristics of a wicked problem:

Guard and Emergency Branch officers show off their weapons.
(Copyright TTPS)
  • the problem is difficult to define—wicked problems can be explained in numerous ways, and you explain the problem determines the nature of its solution;
  • the problem has no end point where you can say it is “solved”;
  • solutions are not true or false, but better or worse;
  • one cannot test a solution since every attempt at a solution is a “one-shot operation”—there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error as every attempt counts significantly since it changes the problem in a permanent manner so that the original problem is gone forever;
  • does not have a fixed number (or describable set) of potential solutions;
  • every wicked problem is essentially unique and cannot be replicated;
  • every wicked problem can be a symptom of another problem (introducing complexity);
  • and planners are liable for consequences of their actions.
TTPS Guard and Emergency officers during an exercise in Sea Lots in July 2020.
(via TTPS)

Unfortunately, Dr Rowley, the current problem-solving culture within the police service is as follows:

  1. There is a historical predominance of traditional hard systems thinking (HST) for problem solving where there is an assumption that “fixing the system” fixes the problem.
  2. A culture that places emphasis on numerical data and statistical validity without looking at cause and effect, variables and interdependencies.
  3. The police service tries to define the problems, their causes and effects in absolute terms, without regard to complexity.
  4. Police managers are increasingly required to respond to high variety, complex problem contexts for which they are ill-trained, if at all.
  5. Low variety problem-solving approaches such as HST clearly is not sufficiently adaptive in new environments/situations. The top-down management approach from hard systems thinking (HST) is too slow and inflexible to cope with the rate of change and complexity of situations which require elasticity that comes with soft systems methodology (SSM) and viable systems model (VSM).
  6. There needs to be greater understanding of systems’ contexts.

(Adapted from Newsome and Wiggett (2014)).

Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds (second from left) offers a hand to acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob (second from right).
(via Ministry of National Security)

Explaining the above is beyond the scope of this letter due to limited word count, and therefore readers are encouraged to research these themselves.

Crime fighting requires systems thinking: the ability to view the interconnectedness of the entire “criminal system” inclusive of the police force, in a holistic manner, and looking to see where applying leverage can have the most effect upon the entire system.

It means taking into consideration different perspectives, from different stakeholders, applying methodology (think of this as a series of small improvements or iterations) instead of methods (a single fix) and recognising the limitations imposed by the system itself and that sometimes there are no solutions only improvements.

A systems thinking approach therefore includes the police force and considers all the complexities of the force itself—intangibles such as bias, training, selfishness (what is in it for me?), corruption, attitude as well as the tangibles such as equipment et cetera.

TTPS Gold Commander Erla Christopher (right) gestures to the monitor at the Command Centre in Tobago, as law enforcement officers there prepared for the 2021 THA election.
(Copyright TTPS)

Newsome and Wiggett (2014) identified 10 characteristics of systems thinking force:

  1. has clarity of purpose, derived from the service users’ perspectives (i.e. the public).
  2. adopts a whole systems approach, where interdependencies (tangible and intangible variables and their connections to each other) are understood.
  3. has staff that understand the purpose, and their service responses are flexible to help achieve that purpose.
  4. understands that the greatest influences on performance and service are determined by the system, and the system pushes back.
  5. understands the implications of setting boundaries within a system and seeks to engage the whole system to make a series of improvements.
  6. uses a variety of measurement and information to understand system performance, to identify learning (including self-reflection, an area which makes people uncomfortable to face their own shortcomings) and secure improvement.
  7. understands the variety of its demand and how services can be optimised to satisfy this.
  8. trusts staff to apply informed professional judgement in support of achieving purpose (and therefore staff are not micro-managed).
  9. has a culture of learning and continuous improvement where staff are empowered and equipped to understand and improve their own performance.
  10. respects and encourages the staff’s sense of vocation and recognises the value of this in improving their well-being, commitment and whole system performance. In other words, staff taking ownership of the problem and the opportunity to bring improvements helps morale and performance.
Acting Deputy Commissioner of Police Erla Christopher (left) congratulates Wayne Mystar on his promotion to senior superintendent.
(via TTPS)

Dr Rowley, traditional policing methods will have a high probability of failure in a modern society. That is not to say that they don’t have their place. But the police force must evolve, from the perceived “brute squad” to a highly effective thinking and performing unit.

It will take a lot to make these changes, not least changing attitudes and mindsets—systems have a way of resisting change. You have already seen how poorly-educated police officers resist change.

You may want to investigate Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and Viable Systems Model (VSM) mentioned above, a combination of which have been identified by Kinloch et al (2008) as a more effective tool.

If you want to succeed, rather than further alienating your detractors, identify the core problem you face, which is that your current police force is not effective in its present form and drastic changes are needed. Begin there.

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About Mohan Ramcharan

Mohan Ramcharan is a Trinidadian living in England, an LLB (Hons) law graduate, systems thinking practitioner, and critical thinker. He is a product of two cultures and strives to be ethical and impartial in his thoughts and actions.

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One comment

  1. An approch that is underpinned by academics is critical. However, what is the solution for Trinidad’s other ‘wicked problem’? (corruption, deception and wanton dereliction of duties on the part of many in the society). An honest day’s work on the part of many (across the society) will go a long way in ameliorating a lot of the problems we face (less politicking and more patriotism will help also).

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