Police Facilities: Design for a Peaceable Society

By Jake Davis

Public safety and policing agencies have interacted with communities throughout history. And in that span of time, the balance between peace, protection, and power has continued to find its equilibrium. How communities respond takes on a unique expression in every city, from community-led social services, to restructuring of public safety organizations, to changes in legislative policies and city ordinances. No one solution will be the cure, but combined they all empower communities to take a step forward to a more peaceable society.

One element supporting positive change and potential for collective healing can be found in the built environment where public safety agencies are building new bridges to healthy community interaction. Architecture and public spaces can create and define those unifying elements of care both for the communities and for those who are sworn to uphold justice and protect the public. New facilities offer prime examples of how the built environment can help deliver a more equitable experience to those interacting with the justice system.

We have identified three elements of design that can offer positive impact to both the public and the officers and staff who serve the public:

  • Community Engagement – This is seen in a variety of applications, from the ways that an agency communicates externally to the public, to how they support and accommodate multi-language , multi-cultural demographics within their jurisdiction. But a police facility also expresses both a literal and figurative engagement through transparency of space and operations as well as how it is designed to respect the individual who enters into the building.
  • Departmental Connectedness – A public safety facility connects staff and officers together through comfortable break areas and efficient and accessible work environments. Additionally, it makes movement from inside administrative areas to outside police vehicles a convenient and comfortable connection for officers.
  • Holistic Wellness – Designers must consider both the people occupying the facility as well as the wellness of the building itself. Acoustics, lighting, thermal comfort and daylight all play a role in creating a healthy building for a healthy human environment.

The Ethos behind the Design

Understanding the ethos or belief system that drives any organization is vital to creating a space that best reflects the values of that organization. At the new Englewood, Colorado police headquarters, the city was committed to designing for equitable communities: The project’s ethos—to facilitate “community” from within, and to responsibly address the urban and civic needs without—became a primary design driver for the project. The greatest challenge and reward for a modern police department is building trust within their community. The most important design driver for this 21st century facility came from the city’s three goals:

  1. Be practical and strategic about encouraging connection while supporting security.
  2. Provide an environment that conveys a dedication to excellence and pride in public service
  3. Set the tone of safety and dignity for all who walk through the doors.

The architecture of the main lobby creates opportunities to build relationships and trust within the community. The space is configured as a welcoming gallery to support larger civic functions. Non-institutional seating is arranged into small settings to enhance the lobby as a supportive and non-threatening environment to engage with police officers and staff. Glazing in the lobby provides continuous views to the plaza and city park. This transparency conveys the message of a police department that is approachable and committed to serving their community.

Integrating Nature

The 50,000-square-foot facility was envisioned as a space naturally lit during the day and transformed into a community beacon at night. Integrating nature and daylighting with the human experience became a key for the design in every part of the building. This simple building has two separate intersections of movement, one oriented to the public, the other oriented to the police officer. Each intersection is defined by a two-story space with a monumental stair, and separate daylight feature as a common ingredient. Interior spaces offer views across the lobby to the park, and traditionally internal spaces such as evidence processing, and locker rooms feature skylights and translucent windows for daylight.

Designing for Wellness

Officer wellness is a multifaceted concept of using workplace design to reduces police officer stress creating a positive impact on an officer’s mental wellbeing. Over time this can have an improved cumulative effect on a department’s daily interaction with their community.

For an operational facility such as this, designing for wellness begins with spaces configured to build community from within, and then to facilitate a positive engagement with outside individuals or groups. Warm materials such as walnut finishes on walls and ceilings create a soothing effect of nature. Elements of biophilia include live planters and direct sun streaming through skylights. Internally, spaces have been configured to promote casual encounters between staff, to reinforce the concept of community, where space builds relationships and breaking down the typical hierarchical structure of a department for a more human experience.

The result of this ethos-driven building was the recognition as one of the top design public safety facilities in the country for 2020. It serves as a prime example of how public buildings become a community-wide asset.

Big Impact Ideas on a Shoestring Budget…

While it may appear easy to integrate meaningful design ethos into a new building, the question arises, “What can we do now to improve our police stations with minimal budgets for improvement? Can we really make a different to comfort, connection, and efficient operations on limited funds?” Here are seven big impact ideas to consider:

  • Acoustic control. Noise affects not only the ability to focus and be productive, but also impacts employee satisfaction with a direct correlation between increased noise to stress levels. Special acoustic consideration is given to secured spaces, particularly in interview rooms where proper acoustics is imperative for privacy and confidentiality. Additionally, noise reduction aids sound quality while recording interviews as well as reducing the sense of victimization for those being interviewed.
  • Lighting tuned to shift workers. Sensitivity to circadian rhythms are a necessary element of lighting design for a facility that operates on a 24/7/365 schedule. New lighting technologies take advantage of positive biological effects on humans to help ease transitions from outside to inside at night.
  • Access to daylight and views. Countless studies confirm that sunlight is important to mood, decreased absenteeism, improved memory functions, and a host of other benefits. Removing a wall to give access to windows may be a solution, or installing strategic sky lights.
  • Integrated socialization – Many police stations need a culture that breaks down hard-walled fiefdoms and opens departmental areas for more casual interactions, encouraging relationship building, knowledge sharing, and a strengthened sense of shared mission. Removing a wall or turning a wall into a glass wall creates visual openness encouraging understanding and communication. All of a sudden a culture of silent agreement becomes an opening conversation
  • Mental health focus rooms – As policing cultures moves closer to peer support and outside mental health clinicians, the need for spaces within the workplace environment to include space to decompress or reflect will increase. A little-used nook, break area, or storage room may be transformed into a unique quiet zone.
  • Introduce biophilia – The simple introduction of plants into the workspace can help bring the outside in, lower stress levels, and brighten the interior environment. Plants are a simple way to soften the harder edges.
  • Hang a welcome sign – Many PD lobbies aren’t very friendly places. They openly display security and protective elements, but give little thought to how it welcomes the public to put people at ease.  Something as simple as a well-designed welcome sign expresses hospitality. A rug, a lamp and a couple of chairs can do the same.

The police headquarters of the future will be more than just a place to write police reports or, book an arrestee. The building design visually conveys the values of transparency, equity, and shared community mindfulness. These facilities will become community centers offering broader resources for all citizens to access social services or participate in community programs within a physical space that honors the dignity of all human beings leading to equity, healing, and transformation.

DLR Group Principal Jake Davis, AIA, leads the national team of public safety planners and designers who are delivering game-changing facilities across the country.

Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the January/February issue of Correctional News.