Managing the Emerging Public-Safety Workforce

We need to re-think the military-style model and find ways to make law-enforcement agencies reflect the communities they serve.
March 27, 2015
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

Public-safety agencies, and particularly those engaged in law enforcement, have long been pervaded by a military-style system of management that felt comfortable to the veteran and baby-boomer generations that came along after World War II. But a purely hierarchical, command-and-control, don't-question-authority model that works in combat seems more and more ill-suited to the increasing challenges of law enforcement in communities that too often see police as a sometimes-brutal occupying force.

These factors present a series of challenges to public-safety leaders as they work to build and replenish their agencies' workforces: how to engage millennials whose attitudes are often very different from those of the World War II generation; how to build police forces that reflect and connect with the communities they serve; and how to pass on these gains to the next generation of public-safety leaders.

It's clear that many millennials are driven by a more intrinsic motivation of purpose and meaningful work than the generations that came before. They want and expect the flexibility to explore solutions to society's challenges that aren't found in algorithmic, assembly-line approaches descended from the industrial-efficiency theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor a hundred years ago. And they embrace technological innovation.

In public safety and elsewhere in government, today's executives and middle managers must create an atmosphere that welcomes millennials' fresh perspectives and outside-the-box approaches to problem-solving. As modern best practices from the business world reflect, a mindset of "this is how we do things because this how we've always done things" is a formula for institutional paralysis.

Along with the need to engage and encourage millennials, the recent killings by police in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island underline the need to create a law-enforcement workforce that can strengthen community policing and build trust between police and the communities they serve and protect.

This is going to require a proactive effort by law-enforcement agencies nationwide. They will need to take a variety of approaches, but one they should consider is a renewed emphasis on properly structured police cadet programs. As a 2006 graduate of Baltimore's police cadet program, I speak from experience. A strong cadet program can go a long way toward building a police department that a pluralistic society needs by engaging young people with a vested interest in the community.

A strong police cadet program might be modeled on the one operated by Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, in which cadets, who are full-time department employees, work in an administrative capacity while going to school to obtain the required college credits to enter the police academy. I'd recommend a community-service component, requiring cadets to help out at a homeless shelter, high-school sports program, nursing home or other community institution -- a way to demonstrate that there are other ways to solve community problems than by making arrests. And the place to start recruiting for a cadet program is in high school, where sports and JROTC programs would be particularly fertile recruiting grounds.

There's a final aspect to changing the way law-enforcement agencies are managed to embrace the attitudes of millennials and build a community-focused force: passing these new approaches on to the next generation of public-safety leaders. As the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero put it, "What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation?"

Nevertheless, despite the mass retirements of the baby boom generation that are already upon us, too little attention is being paid to succession planning throughout government. Now is the time for public-safety organizations to start grooming junior members for middle-management and executive-level positions through professional-development training that will enhance decision-making competencies and leadership skills. There's no better way to ensure that the way we manage our public-safety agencies continues to evolve for the better.