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October 20, 2010
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

7 habits of unsuccessful departments

Mutual respect and communication will strengthen the agency and multiply its effectiveness in serving the community

Last week, Chuck Remsberg did an article — 7 habits of successful departments — that offered some excellent suggestions and best practices.  Unfortunately, we sometimes see police leaders who end up doing the exact opposite of what one may call a best practice.  So it seems fitting that we follow up with an article on unsuccessful departments. Without further delay — but with a respectful nod to Stephen Covey — here are seven characteristics of weak police agencies.

1. Serving the Wrong Customer
The first customer of a police leader is the officer in the patrol car. If officers treated citizens the way some supervisors treat officers there would be complaints rolling in on a daily basis. Compassion, communication, respect within a department creates the same attitudes on the street. If you want cops who care about the citizens you need leaders who care for their cops.

2. Pretending to do Community Policing
Chiefs are forced to claim they are doing community policing and will attach that label to the slenderest thread of something that resembles it. Genuine community policing involves bringing diverse interests into a discussion of community problems. Line level officers are critical to the success of collaborative efforts and must be empowered with discretion and resources.

Public relations, crime prevention, and community meetings don’t amount to community policing but often are substituted for the hard work of communicating and collaborating.

3. Assuming Integrity
Some departments over-assume police delinquency and have no trust in the professionalism of their officers. At the equally distressing opposite end of that spectrum is a department with no accountability and no healthy policy in place to maintain integrity.

Audits and reviews of all aspects of policing that are subject to discretion and abuse should be a part of operational structure. This includes evidence, petty cash, working with youth, drug enforcement, traffic enforcement, and attendance patterns. Monitoring officer conduct maintains discipline and serves as an early warning system for officers who need guidance. It also indentifies, rewards, and encourages integrity.

4. Exotic Training
The default training strategy of ineffective police departments is “scheduling by brochure” — the lack of a focused set of training objectives in favor of catching training as it happens along. While it’s good to offer specialty training to keep officers interested and motivated, sending an officer to underwater evidence recovery school makes little sense when basic competencies remain un-mastered. Underperforming police agencies fail to establish a cohesive and relevant training plan.

5. Bootstrap Counseling
Agencies that do not attend to the psychological health of their officers will suffer loss of productivity, shortened officer careers, and higher levels of sick leave and injury. Ignoring the traumatic events — or defining traumatic events as “just part of the job” — creates a sense of hopelessness in officers that can lead to a slow erosion of their effectiveness. Regular supportive and preventive services should be as important as any other department operational consideration.

6. Line-led Culture
Leadership requires the establishment and maintenance of culture and tradition. Departments that fail to create a sense of identity, mission, and purpose from its leaders will create their own out of the basic human need for identity and belonging. Values of hardened and cynical officers can dominate an agency if not countered by positive and rich symbols, ceremonies, language, and traditions established by high-performing leaders.

7. Unshared Leadership
Leaders who fail to understand that they are not always the smartest person in the room fail to cultivate the intellect and influence of their officers and staff. Ideas must be genuinely welcomed, available for consideration, and rewarded. Leaders may not want to share power, but it is essential that they share influence. Not every idea is a good one, but not every good idea comes from the command staff. Underperforming law enforcement agencies are almost always governed by fear of engagement with managers.

Effective policing is accomplished through an artful blend of strong leadership and discipline, balanced by trust and support of those who do the hard work on the streets. Mutual respect and communication will strengthen the agency and multiply its effectiveness in serving the community.


About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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