Leading a police agency in tough times

Leading and managing a police department are two inherently different skill sets. Which do you have?

The law enforcement profession today is facing difficult choices. Departments and cities are going bankrupt, budgets are tighter, and there is not enough manpower to replenish the ranks.

This is evidenced by recent reports of shortages of applicants for the Los Angeles Police Department, the recent changes in retirement in Minnesota, and the well-documented budget problems and employee shortages in Detroit and Baltimore.

Amid these problems, some agencies seem to suffer a lack of true leadership. How can departments make things better for their rank and file? The most important asset in any organization is people! Without people, police departments do not function, jurisdictions are not patrolled, and services are not rendered to the public. Departments are asking more from every level within the organization.

I think that in these tough times, departments feel forced to do more management than leadership. It should be argued that the organizations should focus on leadership rather than management, however. The reason is that management appears to focus more on getting things right than doing the right thing.

The leadership test created by Bill Westfall is a four-part question. Are you doing: 

1.) the right thing?
2.) at the right time?
3.) in the right way?
4.) for the right reason?

When an organization is concerned about task management, the human element is lost and managers/leaders forget how the department runs. Can we change this focus?

Changing the leadership and management focus is a difficult thing. The larger the organization, the more time will be needed to effect change. The simple reason is that everything is rooted in culture, or tradition.

Officers are now tasked to be all things to everyone. Traditionally, police officers were tasked with traffic enforcement, accident and criminal investigations, and directed and proactive patrol. In the past few decades, officers are becoming more of a social worker, crime fighter, crime prevention specialist, school counselor, therapist, and everything else under the sun.

Governments are starved of cash, which means organizations pushing off all the tasks they can. Some cities are providing more funding to parks and maintenance departments than police departments.

Task management is a very successful and tangible way to demonstrate a modicum of success to administrators and supervisors. Department have officers responding to specific events — tasks — and these activities can be checked off on a sheet as completed. Managers can demonstrate that officers put so many miles on the patrol car, answered so many calls for service, made this number of arrests, and wrote this many tickets, demonstrating the presence of activity.

While this might be good to demonstrate productivity to the administration and city officials, a trained monkey can tick checkmarks on a board. This game purely generates activity for activity’s sake.

The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Study and the Kansas Response Time Study showed that police proactive patrol is generally ineffective in preventing crime. It is the appropriate and immediate response to crimes in progress and crimes that have just occurred to accurately collect information that means successfully investigating a crime.

A manager needs to demonstrate that the officers are out in society being productive, but productivity does not necessarily generate a sense of safety or security in the community. Law enforcement can only police to the level that the community will allow.

Managers forget this, leaders understand this. Leading and managing a police department are two inherently different functions, although they are sometime intertwined. Managers are needed in an organization, but managers do not inspire employees to work with less to become more.

It is true leadership that creates and generates change within a community. It is leadership that inspires someone to make positive changes. A leader who has less should be doing more with his or her people to ensure that everyone does a great job.

Taking an interest in your people and demonstrating a caring attitude goes a long way. Departments will always face budgetary (and other!) challenges, but great police leaders can succeed when they focus on their people’s success.

How does a department which has been focused more on management than on leadership change the way it does things? The first and foremost activity is to conduct a comprehensive review of the police agency, including your specific skill set as a leader or manager.

Find out if you are a leader and or manager. Once you have clearly identified your skill set, figure out how to utilize your talents and deal with shortcomings.

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