Successful Police-Chief Mentoring: Implications from the Subculture

By Eisenberg, Terry | Public Management, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Successful Police-Chief Mentoring: Implications from the Subculture


Eisenberg, Terry, Public Management


For elected and appointed local government officials, management of the police department and its leadership is a demanding, complex, and challenging task. The cost of police services is proportionately the largest expense in local government budgets, and the adverse consequences of mismanagement are the most severe.

These adverse consequences, which are caused by dysfunctional organizational behavior, may take the form of unnecessary and/or extreme operating costs, big financial settlements from civil liability lawsuits, labor/management relations strife, and the loss of community respect and trust in the police and in city or county government.

Preventing these untoward outcomes is largely possible through good management: good management by executive-level police department staff, especially the chief, and good management by the elected and appointed officials. Excellent management by administrators becomes even more critical when the quality of police department management is lacking. Although most police executives are conscientious, skilled, and always respectful of the best interests of their communities, others are not. This article concentrates on the latter.

To a large extent, policing is enigmatic. Why the police do things the way they do is sometimes not understood by citizens or even by local government officials. Much of what they do and how they do it is dictated by the law. But other aspects of police operations are based on what traditional wisdom suggests and on what is best for the organization and its members.

When conflicts arise between what's best for the community and what's best for the department, it's not unusual for police executives to opt for the second choice. Gaining an understanding of the police subculture, especially when such conflicts occur, can aid officials in the management and mentoring of their top police executives.

THE POLICE SUBCULTURE

Here are some "overheard" remarks and contentions made by police personnel. They're particularly revealing of the subculture.

"A police chief is a patrolman promoted." This statement, once made by an experienced and well-respected police executive, certainly does not apply to most police executives today, but unfortunately it does apply to some. What it means is that, for some chiefs, little growth and development occurs between the time they were patrolmen and the time they were appointed chiefs.

These executives continue, for example, to make decisions as chief as they did when they were police officers. The additional time available to the executive to gather and analyze information, which is typically not available to a working police officer, is not applied to the executive decision-making process. Accordingly, decisions are likely to be both premature and off the mark.

"Handle the call, and go on to the next one." From the first day of police officers' training in the recruit academy, they learn that sometimes it's necessary to placate citizens with whom they come into contact. This sometimes means not being entirely honest with them about their concerns. Telling burglary victims, for instance, that detectives will follow up on their cases, when they know that the circumstances of these cases will not result in any follow-up, becomes standard operating procedure.

Advising citizens that a particular desired action is not his or her responsibility, nor even that of the police department, is another example. Commonly, this is done to end the patrol assignment and get onto the next one. Even with the popularization of community and problem-oriented policing, some officers are neither taught nor encouraged to seriously engage in long-term problem solving. This kind of behavior carries over to the decisions and actions of some who are now in executive positions.

"We just don't have enough police officers." For almost any type of problem that a police department may be experiencing, the solution advocated by police executives is more officers. …

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