December 11, 2021

“Shark Tank” Program Encourages DC Officers to Share Their Ideas


Dear PERF member,

As I listen to many of you, I hear a common refrain that it is getting harder and harder to reach cops who are feeling increasingly under-appreciated. So when I hear something inspiring and fun, I want to share it with you. And this is what happened this week when I was meeting with Robert Contee, the police chief in Washington, DC.

Robert asks me if I have seen the TV program Shark Tank. Well, it turns out that my family loves Shark Tank.  We get a kick out of Mr. Wonderful.  I once saw him having breakfast in San Francisco and stopped to say hello.  I interrupted his breakfast and he growled at me.  But I digress.

If you haven’t seen it, Shark Tank is about budding entrepreneurs going before a group of multi-millionaires and billionaires, and having a few minutes to present their ideas for a new product or new kind of business. If you win, one of the fat cats gives you money to launch your idea (in exchange for a share of any profits you make).

If you’ve seen the show, you may be thinking, “Rich people are very different from you and me.” But rich people are like a lot of people – they come in all shapes and sizes. My own experience is that the very rich tend to be pretty down to earth and self-effacing, and have an eye for what works.

Shark Tank shows us how important first impressions are in getting an idea sold, which is an important life lesson. You study the billionaires – the “sharks” – and how they think. What’s important to them? How do they “size up” people so quickly? How do they decide which contestants to invest in? What kind of questions do they ask?

We all make judgments every day about people we meet. Life is about judgment, character, assessing risk, and finally, being decisive.

Back to Chief Contee. He has a wonderful life story of growing up in a tough part of Washington, and overcoming life’s challenges to become chief of police in a city he truly loves. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Last summer, Chief Contee had an idea – Why not bring the concept of Shark Tank to his department? Why not take something that is fun, and get his cops interested in proposing ideas that could make a difference in the department? And the department could find sources of funding to implement the best new ideas.

So it’s about having fun and getting people involved to encourage innovation and change. I thought, “What a cool idea!”

Chief Contee announced the program in this video message to Metropolitan Police Department employees. In the video, he asks employees to share their ideas about how to improve the MPD or create new programs in areas like community engagement and officer wellness.

To make his program similar to the Shark Tank TV show, Chief Contee didn’t ask employees to put their proposals in writing. Instead, he asked each contestant to make a short video in which they make their pitch and explain their idea.

I think this is just terrific, and it’s not just about having fun. Robert explained that it’s about encouraging all MPD employees to feel that their ideas, wisdom, and creativity are valued. “We need ideas and solutions for improving efficiency, building bonds in the community, and supporting employee well-being,” he told his officers. “I don’t want you to have to wait 30 years to be in the seat I’m in, to consider fresh ideas or try something new.”

MPD received about 25 Shark Tank pitches, and an MPD panel has been evaluating them. The first phase of the program, in which contestants made their 1 or 2-minute video pitch, was followed this week by a second phase, in which the contestants were given about 10 minutes to explain their idea in greater detail, in person, to the panel.

The review panel includes Chief Contee, his Chief of Staff, a police union representative, and representatives of the Washington, DC Police Foundation and Code 3, nonprofit groups that are providing funding for ideas that need financial support. It’s interesting that only a few of the 25 proposals would require additional funding; most can be done with existing resources.

Here’s where the MPD program differs a bit from the Shark Tank TV show. The Police Department isn’t going to announce just a few “winners.”  Instead, they’re working to implement most or all of the ideas that seem smart, practical, and doable. All of the contestants will receive feedback in some form. If the department cannot implement a contestant’s idea, it will explain the reason why. In some cases, it may be a matter of adjusting an idea to make it work better in the MPD.

Many of the proposals are about community engagement, officer wellness, and employee development.

Once the department starts implementing the ideas, it may produce short videos showing how it happens, especially with proposals that involve community engagement. The videos will be shared with MPD employees, so they can see that the department is serious about putting employees’ ideas into effect.

MPD hopes to announce the results of its first round of ideas in January. The department will contact all of the candidates over the next few weeks and give them feedback.

And MPD’s Shark Tank isn’t a one-time program. The department hopes to conduct multiple rounds of soliciting ideas every year.

Police chiefs need to lead their departments very differently than ever before. They need to throw out the old play book and look for innovative ways to capture the imagination of their workforce. Chiefs need to appeal to the best instincts of their cops and professional staff, encourage their creativity, and find ways to give air time to their ideas. The very act of seeking input says a lot about the chief and other leaders in a department, and what they see in their workforce.

So good job, Chief Contee. You’re showing real leadership and outside-the-box thinking.