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How Police Leaders Can Lessen the Impact of Policy Changes on Officers

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

By Robyn McCullough
July 24, 2021

Police departments nationwide are currently experiencing a high volume of changes. These changes may be driven by external or internal forces and may include changes in areas such as policy, culture or technology. As we all know, change is hard. And we are demanding a lot of it from our law enforcement officers. These changes are weighing heavily on departments, which is evident in the struggle to recruit and retain officers and low officer morale. Policies are only getting longer and more complex while demanding that officers unlearn past behaviors and adapt to a new way of working, sometimes instantaneously. These changes and increased demand from officers can increase stress and affect mental health and well-being. Currently, police reform mainly focuses on how police departments interact with the public during this transformation. Little focus has been put on how police departments will interact with their own front-line officers. What happens inside the department will be reflected in officer performance and the quality of community interactions. Therefore, the change must start from the inside. It is time to start focusing the conversation on how police leadership can better equip and prepare their front-line officers with the information and skills needed for a successful change journey.

Right now, all police leaders are in the business of organizational change management. The success of new policies and the transformation of police culture lies heavily on leadership ability to manage change and influence adoption from front-line officers. Large police departments seem to struggle more than small departments, likely due to a higher level of complexity of engaging and communicating throughout a large organization.

In general, police officers are supportive of reform efforts and understand the importance of community relations in order to effectively do their jobs. What they don’t support is the manner in which change decisions are made and communicated throughout the department. Surveys show that there is a disconnect between decisionmakers and front-line officers, contributing to distrust and low morale. Officers see policies and decisions being written or influenced by civilians, academics or high-ranking officers who are no longer in the field. Once policies make their way down the chain to the front-line officers, these officers question the policies’ legitimacy and are left feeling that they don’t have a voice. They feel a lack of support from their leaders.

Fortunately, there are actions that police leaders can take to improve the change experience for front-line officers and supervisors. The value of the order-following paramilitary culture of policing is being challenged externally by the public, and it must be challenged internally as well in order to break down barriers and have authentic conversations to gain the respect and trust needed to shift the organization. Officers must be included when important decisions are being considered that would have an impact on their daily jobs. The perspectives from those with experience in the field are valid. This does not mean that their perspectives are the correct way, nor that they should hold more weight than perhaps a community member’s perspective, but it does mean that they must be included in the conversations. Inclusion of officers may result in slight modifications or unveil unintended consequences of the proposed change. Ultimately, officers are the ones who will be carrying out the change. Including them in the conversations will increase transparency, trust and legitimacy of the decisionmaking process.

Second, officers must feel that they are supported and appreciated by their leadership within the department and across the community. This does not mean that officers are blindly supported when policies are clearly violated. What this means is that on a normal basis, a routine should be established to recognize notable officer performance. Leaders should get to know their front-line officers on a human level. Recognition by leadership will help officers feel that the decisionmakers know and understand who they are and what they deal with on a daily basis. When decisions are made, officers will feel that those in charge understand their needs and are making decisions in support of them.

Lastly, more thought should be put into the manner in which policy changes are communicated throughout the department. Having an internal communications strategy can improve the quality of messaging, close communication gaps and provide a consistent approach. The traditional “do-as-I-say” paramilitary culture should be reserved for high-stakes situations and no longer works when communicating policy decisions. Front-line officers will want to know why this decision was made, who was involved in the process, how this decision will benefit them and how it will impact their job. At the end of the day, officers are humans and they seek understanding. Leadership must be prepared to answer questions and be willing to have their decisions challenged.

Change is messy, and it’s unrealistic to think despair can be eliminated entirely. However, police leaders can equip themselves with the necessary change management tools to lessen the impact and best prepare their front-line officers. If not, the negative impacts to the police department will be felt both internally in areas like recruitment, retention and morale and externally in officer interaction with the public.

Author: Robyn McCullough is a public sector management consultant with a focus in change management and internal communications. She earned her Masters of Public Administration from the University of San Francisco and her Bachelor of Business Administration from American Military University while serving active duty in the United States Air Force. You can reach Robyn at [email protected]. Twitter: @mccullougrs

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