Community Policing . . . Starting Inside the Department
Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
John (Jack) J. Harris, M.Ed.

Police administrators continue to face increasing social, financial and organization pressures to reevaluate the police role in the community and make a commitment to community policing. Law enforcement agencies that are seen as social forces interacting and in partnership with the community stand in stark contrast to law enforcement agencies that are seen as free standing, isolated enforcers of social order. Community partnerships are better able to define problems and areas of need, than are law enforcement agencies working alone and reactively viewing the community through patrol car windows.

Police administrators, who typically agree with the philosophy of community policing, continue to reassess organizational roles in terms of partnership and community based problem solving. The "partnership", however, is often easier to see and accept by people at the top of an organization, than by line-level personnel. Law enforcement executives often find themselves making a commitment to community policing and a community partnerships with little buy-in or even active resistance from other department members.

Despite the fact that many officers believe in community policing, it can be a hard sell to line personnel. Administrators often interpret this resistance as, "officers just fighting change". While this may be partially accurate, there is another aspect that is often overlooked. When it comes to solving community problems, law enforcement executives are quick to admit their organization alone doesn't know what is best for the community. With this in mind, line personnel are encouraged to establish a "partnership with the community" by becoming problem solvers, being less authoritarian and by using more creative, proactive, innovative and non-traditional methods. At the same time however, traditional authoritarian-based, paramilitary management practices are unchanged and remain a deep tradition within many law enforcement organizations. So deep in fact, many supervisors and managers don't even realize they are still using them. With this glaring inconsistency, officers often ask, "If this stuff is so good for and more effective with the community, why isn't it good for us?"

For community policing to become a reality, organizations must adopt a philosophy and implement management practices that are consistent for the entire community - both inside and outside of the department. "Problem solving starts at home" is not just a cliché; it underscores the importance of community, partnership and collaborative problem solving inside the department.

If community policing is to become more than a passing buzzword, police executives must accept the fact that "problem solving starts at home." Police administrators must initiate changes in how they conduct business internally, at the same time they are asking their officers to change the way they conduct business on the street. Within any law enforcement agency, there are ample opportunities to apply community policing, partnership and problem solving techniques to internal issues.

It is not unusual to see line personnel develop a cynical view of community policing and adopt a "let's wait and see how long this will last, this time around" attitude. For the law enforcement profession to change from reactive responders to proactive problem solvers, administrators must model the desired behaviors and ensure that needed skills are taught and developed.

Managing law enforcement organizations from a strictly autocratic chain-of-command perspective will yield exactly what that management style is designed to produce - a unified, organized and reactive force that responds to the direction of the rank structure; reacting and obeying orders as defined by a higher authority. While, to some, this might sound appealing, this management approach can produce intense feelings of resistance, victimization and passive sabotage to organizational change. It also produces rigidity, stifles creativity, forces decision making upwards, and discourages self-initiated problem solving - all the things that community policing hopes to change.

The nature of police work requires law enforcement professionals to respond to many tactical situations with military-like accountability and direction. Situationally, this approach is necessary for the effective delivery of police services. However, when this is the prevalent or the only management style, line personnel see themselves at the lower end of the continuum of authority - a continuum that denotes the degree of importance within the agency. An expectation of passive and competent obedience, while a trait valued in military operations, can be disastrous when trying to solicit input and involvement from line personnel in collaborative problem solving efforts. If department members are to see themselves as partners in the joint venture of community problem solving, they must also see themselves as stakeholders - social equals in defining and solving internal department problems - in their own department.

"Situational Leadership" (Blanchard & Hersey) emphasizes the importance of management flexibility and the use of management styles that are consistent with the situational demands being addressed. Police administrators must create an atmosphere where situational leadership becomes the norm and where "Situational Followership" is cultivated - that is where employees can understand and distinguish between situations where strict compliance is required and where team building, collaborative problem solving skills are appropriate.

Decisions based solely on an authoritarian management system might yield structured compliance but not creative contributions and solutions, a trait necessary for community policing to be successful. The belief that, "the brass wants us to listen to the community and see what their problems are, yet they won't listen to what our problems at the department are," is not just grumbling from a few isolated malcontents, it is the reality for many officers. For police administrators, the task of making department members stakeholders is predicated on the belief that all members of the department have a contribution to make to department problem solving and service delivery, beyond just respectful compliance to orders and directives.

Can police administrators initiate significant changes in law enforcement/community interaction without precipitating major malcontentism or invalidating a very necessary chain-of-command protocol? The answer is yes . . . if police administrators are willing to reevaluate and redefine their management practices and executive roles as they relate to the department decision making and input processes.

For officers to believe they are stakeholders in their department and for community policing to become a reality, police managers will more likely have to make greater changes than will line personnel. In an authority-driven organization, problem definition and proposed solutions are usually judged by whom make the recommendations, rather than the accuracy of the definition or the effectiveness of the solutions.

Situations where there are high demands and low control cause major emotional distress for those involved. Law enforcement personnel who have a heavy emotional investment in the job and little or no control over factors affecting that job will become the most distressed. They often express their distress with passive resistance and sabotage, knowing that open dissention can bring sanctions for insubordination.

To create an atmosphere of cooperation and reduce the sense of victimization, people either have to reduce their level of emotional investment in the organization or believe they have a meaningful degree of control or input into their job roles. Talk about empowering department members, partnerships and collaborative problem solving usually occurs in the context of working with the community outside the department. However, these concepts are often mere "buzzwords" or are simply ignored when they are applied to the community inside the department. Line personnel are quick to see the discrepancy and realize that, despite what is being said, they have very little power in terms of their role in department problem solving.

Collaborative problem solving and teamwork does not require police managers to relinquish their power or status. Unfortunately, internal collaborative problem solving, partnership and empowerment are often seen as a threat to management's authority, status and position.

Police managers have real power and authority within the organization. Creating internal partnerships requires managers to accept the fact that, collaborative, department stakeholders can better define and solve internal problems. Managers must learn to situationally give up some of their authority-based decision making. Participative decision making has to and can effectively co-exist in a police agency with chain-of -command decision making.

Being a stakeholder means having a real say and an investment in the process. For community policing to become a reality, law enforcement executives must create an internal atmosphere of "problem solving begins at home." Better interpersonal, problem solving and group dynamic skills (including, team building, conflict and anger management, mediation techniques and communication skills) must become a requirement for all law enforcement personnel, regardless of rank. Until police administrators are willing to create an atmosphere of internal partnership, community policing will remain just a trendy buzzword.

While tactical decisions require tactical compliance, organizational input on less exigent matters must be solicited and valued. Partnerships based only on rank and status will yield at best compliance, not genuine buy-in or creative investment. Group processes that value input and permit open, candid discussion can exist side-by-side with the traditional paramilitary command structure without compromising organizational functioning or discipline. This does, however, require higher-ranking personnel to redefine the manner in which they manage and interact with their employees. Rigid, rank- or status-driven decisions produce reactivity. Open, respectful group processes can enhance the quality of police service and increase the sense of ownership by line personnel in the mission.

Commanders, who are comfortable with and benefit most (in the short-term) from rank-driven, reactive compliance, may see this change as a threat to their authority. In the long-term, however, these changes and a real sense of internal partnership will result in an overall improvement in department effectiveness and will make an administrator's tasks easier to complete.

A workforce committed to the organization's long-term goals is far superior to a workforce of enthusiastic obedience by newer members, passive compliance by mid-career personnel and open cynical negativity by veterans who gave up years ago on the idea of being stakeholders or that their input would be valued.

Teaching police managers to interact with non-managers in group discussions on a equal level and without personalizing criticism can be a difficult task. Creating cross-functional teams that run parallel to the command structure is an important challenge for police executives who really want community policing to be an integral part of the department. A commitment to "problem solving starts at home" has to become a reality before community policing can become a meaningful part of a department's culture.

Law enforcement executives who make "Community Policing . . . Starting Inside the Department" a management reality can expect to see positive internal and external changes. On the other hand, law enforcement executives who continue with business as usual inside the department while espousing the value of community policing outside the department, can look forward to continued internal resistance and misunderstanding and will not realize the full benefits of community policing.

©E-S Press 1999 -