The Culture of Management That Police Departments Need

When officers are promoted to management, they need a new mindset. As Ferguson and Baltimore demonstrate, they're not getting it.
May 7, 2015
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The pathologies at work from Ferguson to Baltimore have multiple, complex origins. They are deeply embedded in our society and will require the application of many remedies. Repairing the traumas inflicted by these pathologies will be a formidable proposition; repairing the causes will be even more so.

Dealing with the police departments of our country would be a much simpler matter. It would not be easy, but we know what to do. Whether we have the resolve to do it, of course, is another matter.

Let us start with the fundamental, core issue, which is the quality of police services. Law enforcement is arguably the most basic function of government. It is impossible to have a decent society without decent police services. So what is to be done when law enforcement is not decent?

The answer is clear: New management is required. Management that will develop and insist on professionalism from top to bottom. Management that understands that different communities and neighborhoods have different needs. Management that is willing to confront performance shortcomings. Management that is willing to own up to failures as well as successes.

We need two professions, and two separate cultures, of law enforcement, but we only have one. The basics of the one we have are taught in police academies, re-learned with varying frequencies over the course of officers' careers, and molded by local experience. Police department cultures are officer-centric. They reflect the experiences of police officers in the field, which in turn reflect the communities in which police officers work. Like all organizational cultures, they invariably have healthy and not-so-healthy attributes. They can be, and mostly are, respectful and professional. But sometimes -- all too often, in fact -- they are not.

When police officers are promoted to sergeant, then lieutenant, and then executive management, they bring their officer cultures with them. Their new roles may cause them to modify views and practices to some extent, but those who are promoted are rarely offered much in the way of additional training, education and development. They need much more than they get. They need a managerial culture based on values of professionalism, performance and accountability. In short, they need a whole new mindset when they assume managerial responsibilities.

As things are, however, the law-enforcement profession almost universally denigrates management and managerial responsibilities. Consider, for example, the following from the Los Angeles police department's "Statement of Management Principles": "Only line police officers perform the tasks for which police were created. They are the operating professionals. Supervisors and managers exist to define problems, to establish objectives, and to assist line police officers in the accomplishment of the police mission." Such statements are intended to honor and respect police officers, but by grossly understating management's responsibilities they end up placing far too much blame at the officer level.

The intra-police-department failures we have seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere are the same: Unacceptable police performance, endemic for years, was acceptable to those in management. If the situations had been considered unacceptable, they would have been dealt with. There are no managerial cultures in such departments. There are no managerial values or practices. Until there are, there is no way out. There will only be new faces replicating old ways.

Healthy police management cultures cannot be installed overnight. It is a long-term proposition. But new management can engage in triage as it pursues long-term gains. There are always some unacceptable practices that can be remedied quickly, while others will take time. Professional management will be, and indeed must be, open and candid about what should be expected. It serves no one to promise what cannot be delivered. It also serves no one to delay what can be done now. Until there are gains in the present, there can be no confidence that things will improve in the future.

In police work, as in everything else, professional competency is what matters most. To get it, we need both healthy police officer cultures and healthy police management cultures. We must modify the former where it is called for and install the latter where it is missing.