From Academe: Managing a Police Department

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image Ed. Note: The following article from the September 13, 2016 “Harvard Business Review” captures some important points that we found and developed some years ago in Madison (Wisc.) in our effort to incorporate learning from business, industry, academia, and other governmental agencies. From that exploration we implemented a new leadership style and how we related to rank and file officers. A lot of this learning can be found in “The New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police” and in the PERF publication, “Quality Policing: The Madison Experience.” It’s nice to know that learning is consistent with what is being proposed today.]


“Managing a police department is a tough job, and the legitimacy crisis currently facing American policing has made it even tougher. Today’s police managers — from chiefs and sheriffs to sergeants and watch commanders — risk losing officer morale and productivity in the form of de-policing (withdrawing from their duties), and are beginning to witness recruitment and retention problems.

“For example, our own research reveals that after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, some officers have become less motivated, believe policing is more dangerous, and think citizens’ views of the police have deteriorated — phenomena often collectively referred to as the “Ferguson Effect.” These problems largely stem from the very real fear of becoming the next viral video or being fatally ambushed.

“But by ensuring organizational justice during management activities, police executives can go a long way toward effectively supervising their agencies through strained times. Organizational justice can be thought of as a leadership philosophy that focuses on three key issues:

  • Managers must ensure procedural fairness when dealing with employees… and employees should be given a reasonable voice in the decision-making process.
  • Managers must ensure distributive fairness. Organizational outcomes such as promotions, salary increases, and terminations must be fairly distributed throughout the organization…
  • Lastly, managers must strive for interactional fairness. Employees should be treated with respect and dignity…

“In police departments, research shows that organizational justice is associated with numerous beneficial work-related outcomes. For example, our own research shows that officers who believe their supervisors treat them fairly are significantly less likely to report such negative experiences. In other words, organizational justice protects them from the Ferguson Effect…

“In order to solidify trust among the community, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended first paying attention to fairness within an agency

“Strive for investigative organizational justice. If one of your officers is accused of wrongdoing (regardless of whether there is video footage of the incident), organizational justice should be at the forefront of your mind. The consequences of injustice are far too great to ignore management tactics. Officer trust takes time and effort to establish, but it can be lost in seconds. Investigative organizational justice can be achieved in a few ways:

  • Act quickly but fairly. About a year ago, a school resource officer from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, in South Carolina, was shown tossing a high school student across a classroom in a video that went viral. Sheriff Leon Lott promptly addressed the situation in press conferences and moved for an immediate investigation…
  • Be transparent with the involved officer(s) and provide as much information as possible to other employees as you go through the investigation…
  • Maintain a culture of dignity and respect in your agency regarding the investigation of citizen complaints…
  • Finally, do everything possible to handle citizen complaint investigations in a similar manner, regardless of whether it is a high-profile viral video…

“Fragmented police-community relations and excessive use of force are problems needing reform in some jurisdictions around the country. Institutionalizing organizational justice is a necessary step in this reform effort. Doing so is a leadership decision — the posture of agency fairness begins with the chief leading by example (My emphasis). This will lead other supervisors to be fair in their management practices and ultimately improve officer morale, commitment to agency goals, rule adherence, and job satisfaction throughout the agency…

“Adopting such an approach won’t solve every problem facing police departments today. But it is one of the most important — and cost-effective — ways for managers to get the best out of their officers and, by extension, improve community relations and trust.”


Scott Wolfe is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. He studies policing, organizational justice, and legitimacy.


Justin Nix is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville. His primary research interest is policing, with special emphasis on procedural justice, legitimacy, and the use of force.

  • Read the full article HERE.