According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2011), 6,659 local police agencies in the United States are staffed with less than ten officers and 4,036 local police agencies have between 10 and 49 sworn officers. In other words 10,695 of the 12,501 local police agencies in the United States have less than 50 sworn law enforcement employees. That means that approximately 86 % of local agencies deal with the similar staffing and operational issues that necessarily affect small to mid-size agencies in America.
I work for a 31 person police department in Central Maine. We cover a 13 square mile city with approximately 16,000 residents (census.gov, 2014). We have approximately 1 sworn officer per every 516 residents, which is less than the national average of 1 sworn officer per 400 residents (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In 2014 my police department responded to approximately 35,000 calls for service. In short we are a busy department with a lot of crime to deal with.
I supervise the detective division at my agency and we are perpetually short-handed. At full strength I have 3 general practitioner detectives, a drug detective, and a patrol investigator assigned to the detective division. Because I am a support services supervisor and the School Resource Officer arguably belongs assigned to a support services unit I also supervise the school resource officer. As I am sure anyone who works for an agency my size understands, our agency is often not fully staffed and thus we face the challenges of keeping up with a full workload.
The purpose of this article is to share my experience and hopefully help current and future investigative supervisors succeed in their endeavors.
Be Prepared to Face the Grind
If you work for a small to mid-sized agency and you get assigned as the investigative supervisor please give up on the idea that you have just been assigned to easy street. We as investigative supervisors cannot afford to watch our men and women sink into the abyss of unsolved cases and paperwork. We are responsible for effectively managing our divisions and sometimes that means we have to get our hands dirty.
I, for one, refuse to hand a high priority sex assault case to a detective that just received two child abuse cases, a child pornography case, and an embezzlement case (all this week). If my next option is a detective with just as much on his plate and my final option is a drug detective struggling to stem the flow of heroin and oxycodone into the city then I am going to work the high priority sex assault.
Does working a high priority sex case reduce my ability to manage the division? Arguably yes. However, assigning the case to a detective who doesn’t have time to adequately serve the victim and the needs of the community is simply irresponsible and I will not assign cases that won’t get worked to the best of someone’s ability.
Similarly, I won’t watch the detectives assigned under me get buried by on call work. As such I take a week of call a month to help waylay the burden on my division. Patrol may be the backbone of every department, but detectives are the people who are called when the worst has happened and we must be available at all hours, on weekends, and on holidays. I proudly share that burden with my detectives.
In short to be an effective manager of the small to mid-size investigative unit the supervisor must be a leader as well as a manager. This is not something that is easily attained and requires constant introspection.
Play to the Strengths of Your Detectives
I will often see unit managers assign tasks based on a rotational system. While this keeps the case load even it does not necessarily serve the department or the community in the best manner.
I have some detectives that, due to training, experience, and personality, handle certain cases better than others would. I have detectives that can talk to anyone and detectives that talk better to some than others. I have detectives that are great with embezzlements but not so good with robberies. I evaluate each case and determine who will be the best person for the job and assign the case based on this rather than some random rotation.
That being said if the detective that is best for the job has too much going on already I will assign the case to another detective. This serves two purposes: 1) it makes sure that all of my detectives are well rounded, and 2) it keeps one detective from getting overwhelmed with cases, which is actually the purpose of a rotational assignment.
Some will critique this manner of assignment as too subjective. However, it is the job of the investigative unit supervisor to properly manage the unit, be efficient, and serve the needs of the department and the community. I believe that assigning the best person to the job accomplishes each of these goals while using a common sense management approach.
Be a Real Person
Be a real person” is a simple way of saying “don’t forget where you came from.” Most of my detectives knew me as a detective. They remember the complaints I had about patrol (we all have them), the complaints I had about caseloads, and the complaints I had about my supervisors. Fortunately, I remember all of those things too. As a result I try to be real with my subordinates. If they get an assignment that is really undesirable I can commiserate or empathize with them while still reminding them that the job needs to get done and they are the one to do the job and do it well. I am also careful about overloading the detectives and screen their call outs, not only to be fiscally responsible but to manage case overload.
The investigative unit supervisor also needs to be available to his or her subordinates. The vast majority of the time (when not out working cases) I am in my office with the door open. My door opens out onto the main work area for our investigative unit and therefore I can keep a finger on the pulse of the division. It also makes me available to the detectives should they need or want my input. The value of being available and remembering where you came from cannot be understated.
In summary I have discussed three suggestions on managing the small unit investigative division. I have had some pretty good success stories managing the division this way and while my way isn’t the only way, I will say that it works.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2011), Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/csllea08.pdf
United States Census Bureau (2014), State and County Quick Facts. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/23/2380740.html
William Bonney is a Detective Sergeant with the Waterville, Maine Police Department. He has served with the Waterville Police Department for the last 17 years, holding various positions including Detective, Patrol Supervisor, and Detective Sergeant. Det. Sgt. Bonney has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology from the University of Southern Maine and a Master of Criminal Justice from Boston University.