How Every Police Agency Is (Or Can Be) an Incredible ISLAND Unto Its Own

ISLAND—Inclusion, Safety, Laughs, Accountability, Nourishment, and Direction—is a way to train and treat all public safety employees (and the community they serve) as a group of people who are influencing each other without much outside influence.

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Palmyra, Wisconsin, is a bucolic little burg of around 2,000 people nestled in the Kettle Moraine State Forest where the Scuppernong River flows into Spring Lake and Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive becomes East Main Street.

Its location in Jefferson County makes for a reasonably manageable commute eastward to Milwaukee or westward toward Fort Atkinson and beyond it, Madison.

Visitors seek out the cafes, restaurants, craft stores, and gift shops dotting the downtown streets. In summer the people enjoy biking and hiking on trails that in wintertime serve as trails for Nordic skiing and recreational snowmobiling. On Friday nights people come for "Music on Main" and supper at the Nite Cap Inn—voted best fish fry in Wisconsin.

People of Plamyra doubtlessly count themselves fortunate for not suffering the crime taking place in the larger cities not far away. Indeed, the number of violent crimes reported in Palmyra all of last year can be counted on one hand.

One might consider Palmyra to be a tranquil island. In fact, the concept of being an island is one utilized by Palmyra Chief of Public Safety James Small, who spoke recently with POLICE to describe how he uses this imagery to fulfill his agency's mission and vision.

Building and Being an ISLAND

Chief Small developed the acronym ISLAND—Inclusion, Safety, Laughs, Accountability, Nourishment, and Direction—as a way to train and treat all public safety employees (and the community they serve) as a group of people who are influencing each other without much outside influence.

"The idea behind ISLAND is that each of our work groups—our islands—forms on their own and develop their own culture," Small says.

He explains that it's similar to the way Australia broke away from the Pangea land mass some 180 million years ago—in the Jurassic Period—and evolved on its own without outside interference.

"You end up with things like kangaroos, which don't really exist anywhere else, but are an important part of [that place]," he says.

"'I' is for Inclusion," Small says. "That's everybody having the same opportunities—eliminating the 'in groups' and 'out groups' and having everybody be a part of the team and standing on equal footing."

Small says that S—safety—has to do with treating each other with civility and respect so that everyone can improve communication and trust with each other.

"Laughs is about finding ways to have fun at work—doing things that are constructive, that are fulfilling our mission as part of having that fun," Small says.

Accountability on Small's ISLAND is organizationally global and individually local. He explains that employees are encouraged to engage in behaviors because it's helping move the organization forward—to fulfill specific objectives—not to avoid punishment.

"So even if something negative happens, it's not necessarily solely the employee's fault—the organization has some responsibility. For example, maybe we didn't train the person properly. Maybe we have a poor policy that needs to be examined," he says.

"Nourishment that has to do with how we're building ourselves, you know, how are we feeding ourselves? What's our ongoing development plan? How are we growing in our skill set? How are we fulfilling what our interests are? And then what are we doing for our wellness? Are we taking care of ourselves? Are we dealing with our mental health?

Finally, the D—direction—how the organization is messaging these ideas and communicating them internally and externally.

"Do we have everybody going in the same direction and trying to get a common vision and a common way that we're going to communicate with each other?" he says.

An Archipelago of Islands

This ISLAND way of thinking can not only be applied to the agency as a whole—from the nation's largest in New York City to one of the smallest in Palmyra—but to individual units within a department.  

Different duties and assignments—from Admin, to K-9, to Motors, to SWAT, to Vice, and everything in between—have their own practices and procedures tailored to those unique mission objectives.

"When you look at from the organizational standpoint, ultimately it's going to break itself down to individual work groups," Small says. "The performance of all these work groups collectively becomes the performance of the organization."

He continues, "You'll see—I think—in larger organizations, one work group where everybody's happy and everything is going great. Then there's a different work group where everybody's miserable and they all want to quit. So how do you address all of these things and keep the good work group doing great work while at the same time addressing the concerns that are in this other work group that aren't maybe having that same experience?"

Small says that among the number of challenges that come with that is the fact that you can't just use a single strategy for every work group.

"You've got these different groups within, within the larger team that all have their own objectives—they have their own responsibilities and, and what makes one work well, won't necessarily work for the next one. You don't want to disrupt the group that's working well, but at the same time you want to address whatever the issues are within the other group."

Small has taught ISLAND in a variety of public safety settings such as the Wisconsin Department of Justice New Chiefs Training and the Wisconsin EMS Association Annual Conference. It can also be applied to other areas of a person's relationships and outside activities.

"We're all members of more than one island in our lives," Small says.

This is true in myriad ways. It's particularly and uniquely true of Chief Small.

"I grew up on Washington Island, Wisconsin," he explains, "and graduated from a high school class of seven people—the smallest public school in Wisconsin. A lot of the ideas [for ISLAND] are things I learned intuitively by living in a community that's on an island—understanding that the connections between everyone mattered. It was highly influential on my leadership style."

Foundational, Fundamental Philosophy

Small says that the ISLAND concept ties directly into another foundational, fundamental philosophy that permeates his department in every employee from the moment they're hired.

"Part of our mission is that we're improving safety in the community through relationships and the actions of dedicated employees who are kind compassionate, problem solvers," Small says. "You care about what you're doing and you make decisions to make things better."

He adds, "When you get down to what people actually expect from a responder, that's what it is. They want you to show up and be nice. They want you to be there, actually taking interest in what you're doing, and caring about where you're taking things. They want you to make decisions that ultimately make things better."

That might be as near to an island paradise as any police patrol is likely to ever get.

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