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Unethical Performance Appraisals in Public Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Trenton James Sr.
February 17, 2017

The Difficulty in Leadership

In 1993, William Bratton was appointed the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Bratton assumed his new role and immediately took an aggressive bottom line approach to crime prevention. Bratton predicted a 40 percent decrease in crime in three years with 10 percent occurring his first year of service. Bratton had a sincere belief that creating such a huge goal would motivate the organization to perform. By the end of his first year, serious crime in New York City had decreased by 12 percent.

Bratton’s single-minded goal was that the NYPD would create these results. This bottom line approach contributed to the practice of unethical performance appraisals by the NYPD. It also increased the utilization of outputs that failed to recognize the cost and consequences of the methods used to achieve them. Ultimately, the NYPD faced allegations precinct captains began manipulating criteria for the classification of crimes. At the same time, the Civilian Complaint Review Board noted a 36 percent increase from the previous year in complaints.

Mark Moore, in Recognizing Public Value, explains how Bratton’s approach created stress to produce based on statistics and removed focus from other important aspects related to the job of law enforcement. Performance measures associated with public safety must make sense not only to the organization, but also to the public.

Why Performance Appraisals?

Performance appraisals do the following:police

  • Directly connect the employees’ performance with the organizations strategic goals.
  • Allow the organization to communicate these goals with employees.
  • Influence pay and promotion.
  • Indentify the strengths of the employee or organization.
  • Create opportunities to develop and improve an employee or organizations overall performance.

Purpose of Appraisals in Public Safety

Performance appraisals have a direct impact on the way organizations function and provide a multitude of services. The importance of an effective and accurate performance appraisal takes on a significant degree of transparency when it involves the inherent safety of the public.

In the instance of recognizing a speeding problem in a particular area and choosing to write more tickets it becomes easier for an agency and the public to more accurately appraise the value of law enforcements actions. The outputs would be the actions taken by the law enforcement agency. The outcomes would be the results of the action of writing a ticket which is ultimately geared towards public safety.

The picture is slightly different when an agency becomes hyper focused on a specific issue and neglects other core functions. Shifting the internal focus to the expectations or bottom line results desired by management creates the opportunity to manipulate statistics.

When Ethics No Longer Matter

An unethical performance appraisal is any process that overlooks important factors in an attempt to measure or report a more desired outcome in light of conflicting information. Dean Scoville, in Police the Law Enforcement Magazine: What’s Really Going on With Crime Rates, indicated in 2011, New Orleans reported 199 murders, making it one of the deadliest cities in the nation. Criminologist considered the murder rate to be a fair indication of crime because murder is almost always reported whereas lesser crimes go unreported. Yet for the same year, New Orleans recorded among the lowest number of aggravated assaults in the nation.

The two real possibilities are that citizens have reduced the rate at which they’re reporting these crimes to police, or police have changed the way in which they classify such reports. This type of misclassification of crime by law enforcement agencies is a deflation of information and is also unethical. The output or methods by which the crime is suppressed or eliminated then becomes the catalyst for unethical performance appraisals.

Reducing Unethical Performance Appraisals

Some suggestions to perform ethical performance appraisals in public safety while reducing inflation or deflation of data are as follows:

  • Set outputs that recognize the cost and consequences of the methods used to achieve them.
  • Recognize when legitimate outcomes have been achieved.
  • List the dimensions of value in the mission statement and develop a way to measure if they are being accomplished.
  • Implement a method for recording client satisfaction.
  • Reduce reliance on bottom line objectives in appraising overall performance of the agency.
  • Decrease quota driven forms of law enforcement.

These suggestions will help articulate a clear, complete and compelling idea of the public value the agency exists to produce. They will also assist in developing a set of measures to record the agency’s performance in producing public value while inviting external accountability for creating and defining value. More importantly, the opportunity to partner in these ways with the community will increase agency transparency. Finally, it assists in the elimination of tunnel vision and broadens the scope of effective policing, decreasing the pressure to produce.

Law enforcement agencies must take a definitive approach in aligning performance appraisals with objectives that truly measure the outcomes for the public. The more consistently this occurs, the closer we will be to decreasing the practice of performing unethical performance appraisals in public safety.


Author: Trenton James Sr. is a current MPA student at the University of Kansas. He is also the Division Manager of Adult Intensive Supervision Probation Services in Topeka, KS, were he oversees the supervision of high-risk felony offenders in the community. He can be reached at t731j563@ku.edu.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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