For many years, leadership development has been a hot topic within the policing industry. In late 2014, President Obama convened a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, bringing together community activists, academics, policy makers and police chiefs to address the growing rift between law enforcement and the public. Underpinning the discussion was the need to cultivate the next generation of leaders, not only to mend police-community relations, but to help prepare officers for the impact of new digital technologies and evolving public safety threats.
But despite consensus regarding the need for leadership development in policing, implementation has proven difficult. To a certain extent, the problem is cultural. Law enforcement is a hierarchical industry in which rank carries enormous significance. In many police departments, leadership is considered the responsibility and privilege of high-ranking officers, leaving junior personnel to learn these critical skills through observation or osmosis. Unfortunately, this trickle-down approach doesn’t work in an action-oriented environment where officers must be prepared to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. In the middle of a domestic altercation or other field incident, police officers can’t pause to consult their watch commander.
Lack of prioritization also poses a problem for leadership development initiatives, which tend to take a backseat to more immediate tasks like patrols, protests and investigations. Most police departments treat education and training as separate from – or secondary to – routine operations, meaning that officers can go years without practicing crucial leadership competencies. When training does occur, it often focuses on new technology, procedures and other tactical elements of the job. Furthermore, current leadership curricula often rely on theory rather than real-life scenarios and challenges, which doesn’t make sense for officers who spend most of their time in the field.
Cost also presents a major obstacle, as many police departments have limited financial resources and may be reluctant to invest in “non-essential” programs.
So how can law enforcement agencies address these challenges and build a better paradigm for leadership development – one that balances legacy practices with the evolving realities of the industry?
The first, crucial step in building an effective leadership development program is to identify the unique vision and core values of the police department. Some objectives will remain consistent from one organization to the next, but others will vary depending on a range of factors, such as community demographics, department size and experience, and political environment. For example, a police department in a rural setting may not have the same requirements as its metropolitan counterpart. There may also be experience gaps between personnel at different levels or within different function areas.
Once a leadership framework is in place, senior staff can begin the process of evaluating personnel based on performance and competencies. What skills gaps exist within the organization? Having this information at hand will allow police departments to design a customized leadership program that corresponds to specific points of strength and weakness.
While some changes will be department-specific, others merit industry-wide implementation. Instead of only investing in high-ranking officers, law enforcement agencies must focus on creating a leadership culture that transcends every level, giving junior personnel the tools and confidence to act independently and appropriately in any situation. By embracing a collective leadership mentality, police departments can begin to build a sense of mutual responsibility, respect and community, ultimately improving overall organizational performance.
Police departments must find ways to incorporate leadership training into everyday operations, instead of offering occasional lectures or seminars. Developing training programs that mirror the active, hands-on nature of the job is crucial. This approach, known as “action learning”, exposes officers to the types of challenges they can expect to face each day, leaving them better equipped to respond to real-world situations. Nor should educational opportunities be reserved for under-performers; agencies must proactively develop the expertise and competencies of all personnel, rather than using training as a remedial tool in the aftermath of an incident.
Perhaps the most important component of any leadership development program is reporting and having the right analytics tools to measure results. In theory, leadership is more qualitative than quantitative, making it difficult to evaluate the success of training initiatives. Nevertheless, law enforcement agencies that establish a system of leadership metrics will be able to accurately measure progress against program goals and analyze data from employee self-evaluations. This information, in turn, will help senior ranking officers assess the success of the program for their departments and make adjustments, when necessary.
Finally, with respect to cost, reluctant parties should consider the enormous return on investment that leadership development programs may yield by improving organizational performance and reducing the likelihood of complaints, lawsuits and other damaging events.
President Obama’s Policing Task Force released its final recommendations in May of last year, concluding that, “Leadership needs to come from all three sectors in every jurisdiction – local government, law enforcement, and the community.” We all share the responsibility for making the world a safer place, for officers and citizens alike. All that’s needed is someone to lead the way.
Jody Weis is a Director of Accenture’s Public Safety business in North America, and a retired Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.
During his time at Chicago PD Jody directed a cultural change in utilizing ‘intelligence-based’ crime fighting strategies to deploy resources in a proactive posture. Using cutting-edge technologies and highly trained units, the Chicago Police Department achieved its lowest homicide totals in 45 years under Jody’s watch. In 2011, Jody was awarded the esteemed Community Service Award from the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation.
For 23 years, Jody served in the FBI, retiring as the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Philadelphia Field Office – one of the nation’s largest FBI Field Offices. He served the FBI in seven cities and held all positions from Special Agent through Deputy Assistant Director (DAD). Jody is a frequent lecturer at the Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University of Chicago and the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. Jody graduated from the University of Tampa in 1979, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. He is a native Floridian, born in Ft. Myers.