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Police supervision in the 21st century.

As we near the end of the 20th century, policing is in the midst of some very critical changes. In the past several years, community-based policing strategies have emerged as the driving force behind most of these changes. Many police agencies - large and small, rural and urban - have incorporated a community-oriented philosophy into their operational approach. While the specific objectives and tactics of this proactive policing strategy may be as numerous and varied as the communities being served, the basic premise remains the same: To promote a partnership with citizens in order to solve problems and improve the quality of life in the community.

It is too early to measure fully the success of this philosophy. Still, academicians and practitioners have devoted a considerable amount of time to analyzing different aspects of community-oriented policing (COP). Most focus on how COP requires agencies to alter their ways of conducting operations. But, despite the volumes written on the subject, little time has been spent evaluating and projecting the changes in the supervision of line personnel required under a community-oriented policing model.

In reality, if COP is to be successful, law enforcement agencies must reevaluate the way in which administrators supervise line-level personnel. The changes ushered in by community-oriented policing require agency executives to examine not only the new external environment created by COP but also the new internal environment. To do so, executives must take a close look at their organizations and become responsive to initiating change within them. Community-oriented policing requires such change and evaluation in order for agencies to predict and control their futures effectively.


Few law enforcement officers know the name Fredrick W. Taylor, but nearly every officer sworn in during the past 75 years has served under the command structure he advocated. Taylor's classical theory - organizations indoctrinated along traditional lines; highly centralized, bureaucratic, and designed on the premise of divisions of labor and unity of control - has been the enduring model of organizational command and control adopted by law enforcement agencies across America for most of the 20th century.(1)

This classical theory, modified and refined during implementation by progressive era police executives, such as August Vollmer and O.W. Wilson, represented a reaction to the rampant corruption and other inequities that had plagued American policing since its early days.(2) To reduce the contaminating effects of local ward politics on line officers, the classical model centralized authority in police headquarters. To alleviate favoritism and petty corruption in neighborhoods, the classical model established beats and revolving assignments for patrol officers. To ensure officers performed their assigned duties, the classical model instituted a military-style structure of authority and discipline. And to encourage personnel to follow the rules established by headquarters, proponents of the classical model - most notably Wilson - believed that line-level officers should adhere to a rigid chain of command and be supervised closely through massive amounts of written policy pronouncements.(3)

These command and control measures corrected many of the problems that they were designed to remedy. But in time, they created some new ones. One of the most enduring is law enforcement's inability to adapt to new policing strategies.


For the most part, police agencies have remained amenable to the classical hierarchy of organization, command, and supervision that dictates a rigid manual of procedures for employees. Unfortunately, adherence to these procedures prevents personnel in many instances from solving problems in the communities that they serve. For line officers, the strict pyramid control structure of the classical model severely limits discretion when carrying out their duties. Historically, central headquarters reserves full and final authority in all police matters.

Many have argued that this rigid top-down organizational structure precipitated the downfall of the team policing concept of the 1970s.(4) In many ways a precursor to today's community policing efforts, team policing called for the aggressive decentralization of police operations. Almost from the beginning, the movement encountered a host of problems - perhaps none more formidable than the reluctance of administrators in central headquarters to relinquish control to station and precinct commanders.

The demise of team policing and the tepid response of some agencies and officers toward community-oriented policing do not necessarily indicate a defect in these approaches. Rather, these reactions may stem from the internal environment that evolved in many agencies as a result of the classical theory.


At one time, a rigid, centralized command structure represented the best prescription to deter corruption and misconduct. However, as policing evolves with newer strategies, this centralized command and control structure will require redefinition. Police operations must become decentralized (through substations, neighborhood stations, satellite offices in storefronts for example) and move into the communities being served.

Commanders should allow these decentralized operations to become more participatory and to function with minimal interference from headquarters. Administrators should review organizational policies and procedures to ensure that ample discretion exists for officers so that they may search for solutions to problems and not merely respond according to narrowly written procedures. To bring about these changes, agencies must transform what evolved as the operational counterpart of the classical theory of organizational structure - the professional model of policing.


In many ways, the professional model represents an inevitable by-product of the classical theory. Police agencies during the reform era became vastly out of touch with the general citizenry In fact, reform-minded police leaders became so intent on shielding their agencies from political influences that police departments grew into some of the most detached and self-reliant public organizations in government.(5)

Because the professional model was driven by technology - new scientific processes, police cruisers, two-way radios, etc. - it greatly improved the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes that had been committed. However, for much the same reason, it reinforced the estrangement of police officers from the citizens they served.(6)

Currently, the vast majority of police agencies still adhere to the professional model. For over half a century, this model - based on the premise that, as professionals, police officers should act aloof from the communities they serve - has provided an operational framework for the classical theory. Unfortunately, it also has fostered an assembly line mentality among rank-and-file police officers and line-level supervisors.

Subsequently, field officers are expected to take reports, write tickets, and make arrests - often instead of addressing the more immediate concerns of the community. Under the professional model, supervisors have scorned any deviation from this easily quantifiable mode of policing. Not surprisingly, police agencies have long based police effectiveness on arrest numbers and little else.

The combined effect of the classical theory's strict organizational structure and the professional model's dependence on quantitative measurements discourages line-level officers from suggesting even minor changes to the everyday operations of the police department. To this day, in some departments, officers are met with strict discipline for slight deviations from the traditional system. Such a heavyhanded, top-down management structure represents a significant stumbling block to the implementation of any innovative policing approach.(7) Before agencies can take community policing to the streets, they must confront internal impediments to its successful implementation. To do so, it might help to view the changes coming to law enforcement within the larger context of changes occurring in society as the 21st century approaches.


In his book, The Third Wave, noted futurist Alvin Toffler examines many of the forces that will shape society in the next century. He predicts that to survive in the 21st century, organizations will become significantly less top heavy.(8) Flattened hierarchies will, in turn, vastly alter the traditional bureaucratic pyramid structure common in most organizations, including law enforcement agencies.

Toffler also speculates that successful organizations will become more flexible, capable of interchanging two or more structural shapes as conditions warrant.(9) If we apply Toffler's thesis to police agencies, the advantages of such structural flexibility become clear. In times of riots or other mass disorder, the police must quickly become a rigid, central unit of operation. A clearly defined and strict chain of command becomes critical to applying force efficiently and to initiating a quick response to social upheaval. However, when relative tranquility prevails, the rigid command structure must give way to a flexible response to specific community problems.

This structural duality requires that police supervisors operate flexibly under both systems. In one sense, it means adapting to a situation that demands strict command and control for the sake of public and officer safety; in another, it calls for allowing patrol personnel more accountability, control, and input in their daily beat work.

The coming changes to and expectations of society will require law enforcement leaders to reexamine many fundamental components of policing. Three that will assume particular importance are agency mission statements, approaches to supervision, and methods of evaluation.

Changing Mission

The mission statements of the 21st century must be redesigned to reflect values. The underlying premise of these mission statements will change from merely enforcing laws to encompass problem solving and the formation of partnerships with the community.

To support these redefined mission statements, supervisors will be expected to promote creativity and broaden the scope of their leadership. They must become leaders with a vision for pulling their organizations forward.

In adjusting their command styles, supervisors will find that it makes good sense to allow the line-level personnel who are most familiar with problems in the community to have a say in developing solutions to those problems. In fact, effective community-oriented policing requires input from line-level personnel.

As we move toward the next century, the challenges facing communities show every indication of becoming more complex and difficult. To respond adequately to these challenges, police agencies will be required to reexamine their supervision methods.


The coming years will bring changes to many long-accepted maxims of police supervision. Police supervisors in the 21st century will be required to alter the traditional role of merely seeing that subordinates follow procedures, adhere to manual regulations, and engage in behavior that is consistent with departmental expectations.

In their newly emerging roles, supervisors will spend less time commanding and controlling and more time helping officers identify and find solutions to community problems. The supervisors of tomorrow will guide and coach line officers and encourage problem solving, risk taking, and innovation.


As the roles of officers and supervisors change, so too must the methods by which supervisors evaluate their officers. If community policing is to succeed in reducing crime through closer police-community cooperation, simply requiring officers to produce numbers every month will prove to be an inadequate measure of performance.

Instead, supervisors of the 21st century will evaluate officers primarily on their abilities to assess and solve community problems. Supervisors also will assess officers' effectiveness based on their ability to remain in touch and to communicate with the various groups within their beats.


Community-oriented policing ultimately will change the way that law enforcement agencies provide service to the community. These changes represent philosophical innovations, as well as stylistic ones. Police commanders must remain responsive to the evolution necessary in supervision strategies to ensure the effective implementation of community policing.

Today's officers come from a far different ideological plane than officers who entered policing just 20 years ago. Supervisors have an obligation to mold these officers' performance according to the community-based strategies that will be the standard of policing in the next century. To do this, supervisors must inspire these officers to become problem solvers and encourage them to become more entrepreneurial in their jobs.

Despite the many challenges facing society and policing in the coming years, the future looks bright for those in law enforcement. If agency administrators and supervisors embrace change rather than fight it, they stand a much better chance at controlling their own destinies.

But, the future is fast approaching. As the authors of the book Megatrends 2000 put it: "The dominant principle of organization has shifted, from management in order to control an enterprise to leadership in order to bring out the best in people and to respond quickly to change."(10) Now is a good time for law enforcement administrators and supervisors to ask themselves if they are looking toward the future or living in the past.


1 G.L. Kelling and W. J. Bratton, "Implementing Community Policing: The Administrative Problem," National Institute of Justice, July 1993, 3.

2 Jeffrey Patterson, "Community Policing: Learning the Lessons of History," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1995, 5.

3 W.J. Bopp, O.W. Wilson and the Search for a Police Profession (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977), 5.

4 L.K. Gaines, M.D. Southerland and J.E. Angell, Police Administration (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 125.

5 G.L. Kelling and M.H. Moore, "The Evolving Strategy of Policing," National Institute of Justice, September 1988, 108.

6 Supra, note 2.

7 M.K. Sparrow, M.H. Moore, and D.M. Kennedy, Beyond 911: A New Era for Policing (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 57.

8 A. Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).

9 Ibid., 263.

10 J. Naisbitt and P. Aburdene, Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990s (New York: Avon Books, 1990), 231.

Sergeant Birzer serves with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department in Wichita, Kansas.
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Author:Birzer, Michael L.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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