Police Organizational Design and Structure

By Johnson, Robert A. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Police Organizational Design and Structure


Johnson, Robert A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Public agencies traditionally adhere to vertical organizational structures. This means that problems that cannot be solved at one level continue to rise through each hierarchical level until a resolution is reached.

Some organizations--particularly law enforcement agencies--carry this philosophy to an extreme by eliminating any semblance of discretion at the lowest level of the organization. Even minor decisions must be made by individuals who hold elevated positions in the hierarchy. This, in turn, impedes changes in organizational design and structure.

Police administrators need only look to the private sector to find examples of the positive effects of structural change. For instance, the American automobile industry changed its organizational structure by decentralizing operations. Industry leaders found that building smaller manufacturing plants outside the traditional Detroit location strengthened productivity, morale, and commitment. It also became clear to industry managers that structural change heightened employee motivation when employees accepted and understood company goals, especially their personal connections to them.

Unfortunately, the structural design of modern police organizations is a seldom-discussed, underdeveloped topic among managers.(1) Granted, through the years, some law enforcement administrators experimented with numerous efficiency models--directed patrol, split-force patrol, and saturation patrol--to increase productivity, lower costs, and foster better relations between their agencies and the public. Still, they often suffered from a somewhat myopic view of law enforcement work. They concentrated primarily on improving community relations, rather than improving organizational efficiency by incorporating into their plans ways to empower their own employees.

Empowering Employees

Responding to crime problems within the community requires a flexible structure that allows officers to make necessary adjustments both quickly and efficiently. Therefore, law enforcement administrators must work to design an organizational structure that empowers employees at the lowest levels.

For example, civil disturbances often require an immediate commitment of personnel and equipment. However, the initial organizational response to emergencies is often inadequate and slow to evolve, even when the emergencies are anticipated. This circumstance exists because the rigid, semimilitary structure and the chain-of-command mentality is so strongly entrenched within most police organizations that alternative structural design strategies for emergency responses are rarely implemented or even discussed. For instance, it may be possible to authorize lower-ranking officers to call out a specialized unit or borrow manpower from another district or precinct without prior approval.

Administrative functions, as well as operational ones, can benefit from employee empowerment. The budget, for instance, is an area that could be positively impacted by structural change. In many departments, even high-ranking officers have their expenditures scrutinized to ensure that any outlay of funds remains consistent with organizational priorities. In effect, this leaves them with no autonomy over their own areas of fiscal responsibility.

Certain policing concepts can be affected by the lack of employee empowerment. For example, the community policing concept stresses empowerment at the lowest level of the organization. Yet, many departments find it difficult to provide the autonomy necessary to change structure and design in response to even the most mundane and routine situations. Further, managers and administrators often vehemently protest any tampering with the existing design because they feel threatened by the loss of power and control when a flexible and adaptable structure replaces the traditional pyramid. This type of thinking dooms to failure any policing concept that requires a certain degree of employee empowerment. …

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