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Understanding the Disconnect Between Police Leaders and Frontline Officers

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

By Robyn McCullough
August 28, 2021

This article expands on the July PA Times article I wrote titled, ““How Police Leaders Can Lessen the Impact of Policy Changes on Officers”.

Protests for police reform no longer dominate the front pages of the news cycle, but nonetheless, police departments nationwide are still grappling with how to best respond to the demands for change. Some cities, like St. Petersburg FL, are piloting crisis response teams, while states like Washington have already issued sweeping reform legislation.

Generally speaking, police officers are supportive of reform efforts. However, they become skeptical when the new policies are being written by civilians, academics and senior police leaders who are no longer in the field. I had a professor in college who would often say, “Get closest to the people, closest to the problem.” Policing is no different. Frontline officers must have a seat at the table when creating new policies. This inclusion will bring a unique perspective that can reveal the unintended consequences of the proposed policies. Additionally, bridging the gap between police leaders and frontline officers will help to create a trusted relationship and a culture that is critical for the organizational change needed in today’s policing.

To understand the disconnect between police leaders and frontline officers, one must first understand the dynamics and culture within the organization. Police leaders may feel that they already have a good understanding of their organization, but leaders can become shielded over time from the authentic voices of those they lead. Rarely do people want to be the bearer of bad news to the boss, which can result in leaders having a skewed perception of reality within the organization. Additionally, the culture of policing creates an environment in which frontline officers feel that they cannot speak openly with those of higher ranks, or they risk being perceived as negative or unmotivated and fear repercussions.

One way to better understand the current state of the organization is by conducting interviews of individuals from all levels, backgrounds, roles and units within the department. Using a third party to conduct the interviews may help to create an environment where interviewees feel comfortable speaking freely. The purpose of the interviews is to understand the individual’s goals, motivations, likes and dislikes about their working environment, including experiences with past changes within the department. Afterward, the interview insights should be analyzed to identify recurring themes or patterns to illuminate the overarching picture of the organization’s current dynamic. The outcome of the insights is intended to spur a positive course of action, and not to be hyper-focused on failures or criticisms of the department or individuals. Therefore, framing will be crucial.

What I have found, and what I suspect to be the case in other police organizations, is that those at the top of the chain of command have a more optimistic outlook regarding the department’s direction and strategic goals. Most likely, this is caused by the greater visibility and inclusion that police leaders have into the decisionmaking process of strategic initiatives. They are more frequently provided with updates on progress and milestones towards those goals. However, as you move further down the chain, inclusion and visibility into decisions decrease alongside optimism of the department’s overall direction.

Another disconnect that I have found is around each group’s stated missions. Police leaders can be thought of as the visionaries of the organization. They set the path of strategic objectives and their mission is to drive the performance of the organization. For police officers, the mission is clear and simple—protect and serve the community. As you can see, the missions of each group are different, and sometimes can feel conflicting.

Once there is a common understanding of the dynamic within the department, police leaders must acknowledge the reality of the current situation and make a real effort to bridge the gap. This is where details matter and will vary by department. What is important to the frontline officers? Do they want more face-to-face interaction with leaders? Do they feel that they are properly recognized for doing good work? Do they feel that new policies are properly reflected in the training they receive? What suggestions do they have for improvement?

Bridging the gap between police leaders and frontline officers will establish more trust and help shift the culture to promote acceptance of organizational change. Police leaders must first make an effort to truly understand those they lead in order to create a change management approach that is uniquely tailored to the department’s needs. These are only the first steps on a long journey, but the outcome is crucial in today’s climate and will be reflected in the department’s performance and ability to transform in this new age of policing.

Author: Robyn McCullough is a public sector management consultant with a focus on change management and internal communications. She earned her Master 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 Handle: https://twitter.com/mccullougrs

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