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Police organizational design and structure.

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.

Law enforcement organizational structure, in its current form, designates a formal reporting relationship (chain of command), identifies the grouping of individuals for task accomplishment, ensures that the grouping of individuals facilitates communication, and guarantees a response to any incident. The question now becomes: How can administrators change the structure of the organization in such a way that the grouping of individuals is conducive to accomplishing tasks at the lowest employee level with a minimal number of disruptions?

Changing the Structure

In order to change the structure of the department, administrators must flatten authority and autonomy, empowering those at the bottom of the organization to make the necessary day-to-day problem-solving decisions. At the same time, managers must acknowledge and accept the fact that mistakes inevitably occur with the advent of any new managerial approach.

First, administrators should bear in mind that police organizations need only be as complex as is required to respond effectively to the demands of the community. Clearly, the complexity of community problems requires some specialization within police agencies. However, because such specialization creates additional dominant cultures within the organization, it should be avoided as much as possible. The result of such culture establishment may be an organizational structure that is made up of many subcultures, making it difficult to pull the organization together under a one-mission umbrella.

Second, administrators should realize that by the very nature of flattening and downsizing, the traditionally vertical law enforcement organizational structure becomes horizontal. At this point, interdepartmental communication may become more difficult, making it necessary to assign a liaison person to maintain continuity of purpose across the organization. The liaison would coordinate activities between precincts or districts so that no duplication of effort occurs. This, in turn, may enhance the department's problem-solving capabilities because the successes of certain programs will be immediately communicated to all precincts.

Third, when changing the organizational structure of police agencies, the tone of the department must also change to reflect a more creative approach to problem-solving. Lowering the level of authority and autonomy within the organization provides a work environment where innovation can prosper. This ultimately has a positive effect on the organization's attempt to foster a problem-solving mentality among its employees.

Finally, administrators should develop a strong planning and forecasting unit in order to ensure overall long-term effectiveness of the new organizational structure. When community problems are stable, the agency can concentrate on operational problems. However, when community problems are more volatile, administrators should appoint a "boundary spanner." This individual's primary duty would be to monitor community problems so that the department can respond quickly and effectively to citizens' concerns and problems.

Decreasing Employee Resistance

Change of any type within organizations will certainly result in some rank-and-file resistance. Therefore, changes must be well-planned and flexible in order to deal with this anticipated opposition.

Before making any change, administrators should ensure that the change is necessary. They should then implement the changes in such a way that provokes the least amount of resistance possible. This may include creating a team to monitor the change.

Any plan for change should allow for incremental implementation, encourage employee participation, and provide continual communication and education on the project. It might also be beneficial to have an employee who is committed to the change to champion the effort among other employees.


Empowering employees at the lowest level possible and encouraging creative problem-solving can improve effectiveness within police departments. This type of organizational structure frees high-ranking officers from making low-level, day-to-day decisions, leaving them to deal with the more critical problems that arise. In turn, this system allows lower-ranking personnel to have more control over their daily work decisions, freeing them from the semimilitary structures that are so commonly found in American law enforcement agencies today. This results in more highly motivated, satisfied employees.


Carl B. Klockars and Stephen D. Mastrofski, Thinking about Police, 2d. ed. (New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).

Sergeant Johnson is assigned to the Police Education and Training Division of the Anne Arundel County Police Department in Davidsonville, Maryland.
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Author:Johnson, Robert A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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