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The Fugitive Task Force: an alternative organizational model.

The use of task forces in law enforcement has grown steadily over the last decade. The ability of multiagency operations to effectively investigate drug trafficking and other crimes that cross jurisdictional boundaries has led to other applications. Today, police departments across the country pool personnel and resources to address concerns from automobile theft and asset forfeiture to juvenile gangs and serial murders.

According to Bureau of Justice Assistance data, over 1,000 multijurisdictional antidrug task forces exist in the United States.(1) This figure does not include operations that focus on other offenses, such as organized crime or stolen vehicles, but it does suggest the extensive use of the task force concept by law enforcement agencies and the value placed on its role in addressing widespread problems and enhancing the effectiveness of police in general.

Law enforcement agencies remain largely identical in structure, and for the most part, they use the same enforcement, investigation, and prevention techniques to fulfill their missions. At any particular time, police departments allocate labor and resources by addressing either acute criminal activity or a perceived problem. Therefore, law enforcement agencies often find common interests and cooperative incentives that easily suit task force formation.

Because the hierarchical structure most law enforcement agencies employ provides an adaptable and common model, most task forces adopt this same design. Although it seems practical, this approach uses features similar to most police departments (e.g., same command structure) but ignores other issues of organizational behavior in mixed-group settings. In order to provide for both its success and continuing existence, a task force must identify and eliminate potential negative influences, as well as promote positive ones.


Several factors affect the degree of success or failure task forces can achieve. Dissension among members within the unit may develop along formal (agency) and informal (personal) lines. These problems affect any group undertaking to some degree but especially those where each participating entity may represent a different type of organizational bureaucracy and culture.

First, mixing personnel from different agencies usually requires that each individual officer work with, or for, someone from another department under a common organizational structure. Although agencies may agree on equal representation in participation, command, and control, most task forces do not necessarily function that way. Division of labor, jurisdictional focus, and personnel performance issues can destroy the equal and common aspects of the operation. Conflict among members working in a traditionally structured task force remains the most frequent problem that arises in this environment. Conflicts can occur because of unequal workloads, competition over case credit and seized assets, or alliances that develop among agencies or personnel for control or influence in the unit. Unit effectiveness eventually deteriorates as factions emerge along formal lines and informal groupings by rank, experience, and assignment.

Moreover, police departments, generally well-defined bureaucracies, are rank-oriented from their overall administrative structure to the smallest subunit. Because this style of organization works for individual agencies, it often appears equally effective in a combined-agency setting. In fact, smaller groups from similar organizations frequently do not adjust to a larger integrated configuration; they tend to retain their individuality?

Specifically, despite emphasis on a shared goal and administration, agency affiliation and influence may negatively impact task forces in the following ways:

* Input from governing boards and department heads can interfere with task force administration, depending upon the level at which it is made. Administrators who directly communicate with subordinate officers in a task force, or vice versa, damage the integrity and effectiveness of the unit chain of command.

* Disproportionate staffing, with one department providing more members than another, reinforces department affiliations, creates partisanship, and polarizes unit members.

* Line supervision creates its own level of competition, influence, and representation within a task force. Supervisors, like rotating commanders, can promote departmental interests as they interact with other supervisors and exert influence over subordinates.

* Despite strategic and operational agreements, multijurisdictional units function in an environment of competing interests and special agendas. Group priorities may be based on an individual jurisdictional demand rather than a comprehensive approach to the problem.

* Task force administration may require that members operate under different payroll, recordkeeping, and report format systems. For example, policies between agencies might vary regarding overtime pay after a certain number of hours worked, causing significant inequities and conflict between officers doing the same work.

Problems in task force operations develop at many levels and range from personality differences to competition between political entities. Each problem remains distinctive but also has similarities generated by joining together organizationally unrelated individuals and otherwise autonomous groups in a specific enterprise. Yet, law enforcement agencies can avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with task force operations by trying another approach.


Several years ago, the FBI and the Utah State Department of Corrections formed a task force in Salt Lake City, Utah, focusing on the apprehension of fugitives. Within a few months, the number of participating local law enforcement agencies grew from two to five with the addition of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office and the police departments of Salt Lake City and West Valley City. Known as the Fugitive Task Force (FTF), it included three FBI agents, three Utah Department of Corrections officers, two Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office detectives, two detectives from the Salt Lake City Police Department, and one West Valley City Police Department investigator. In addition to supplying personnel, each department provided access to its information and record systems. The FBI served as the lead agency, furnishing administrative support and facilities.

Based on a similar operation sponsored by the FBI in Detroit, Michigan, the FTF approached fugitive apprehension under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between participating agencies. Designed to take advantage of the combined resources of several agencies and to target fugitives most likely involved in ongoing criminal behavior, the FTF also impacted unlawful activity in general. Agencies established the FTF as an umbrella fugitive operation to supplement existing individual agency efforts by providing liaison between intelligence resources, thus expanding existing investigational operations.

A year after its inception, the FTF had arrested over 700 fugitives in Utah, throughout the United States, and across international borders. Because of its innovative approach, this unit became a model for similar groups sponsored by the FBI throughout the country and received recognition as one of the most successful task forces in coordinating and focusing efforts to pursue fugitives.

Administration and Design

Administrative oversight of the FTF remained the responsibility of one FBI supervisory special agent (SSA) who dealt directly with the heads of the participating agencies. This SSA coordinated MOUs, facilitated participation, and served as the representative for the FBI - the sponsoring agency. The SSA coordinated with a second agent responsible for the division of labor and day-to-day administrative management of the group. Functionally, unit members worked on their own department's pool of arrest warrants, prioritized cases, and opened investigations within the task force.

Below this level of supervision, FTF members maintained individual responsibility for specific duties, including gathering intelligence information, tactical planning, operating computer systems, conducting surveillances, and making interstate contacts, as well as maintaining investigative caseloads, spread equally within the unit. All members were investigators who held no other formal rank in their departments. Although the FBI had administrative oversight, no supervisory positions existed within the task force. In fact, membership in the unit excluded anyone holding rank and required that an investigator transfer out if promoted while assigned.

This unusual approach to staffing was based on balancing individual workloads, group responsibilities, and agency representation. Accordingly, the combination provided an atmosphere of equal commitment and cooperation and required that each participating agency carefully select only those officers who could work in such a group situation.

Built on a participative management premise, in which everyone contributes to the decisionmaking process, the FTF approach limited the competitive influences of individual departments from inside and outside the unit by allowing the group to function without the typical oversight of department administrators or immediate control of line supervisors. To address any issues of equal investment and participation, task force membership originated on a specific commitment and remained limited to those departments with a significant fugitive caseload. In addition, each individual assigned to the unit took on a specific responsibility within the task force (e.g., tactical responsibilities, surveillance duties, etc.). Judged by general group output, the task force did not compare work production between members.


The FTF proved successful by departing from the traditional task force format and structure. The most innovative aspect was not simply its focus on fugitives but rather the nontraditional law enforcement organizational structure it implemented. The FTF highlighted limited supervision, group achievement over individual performance, and delegation of authority on an equal basis among all unit members, not just by officer rank or agency size and jurisdiction.

This particular task force worked because it allowed members to make command and administrative decisions normally delegated only to a superior. This democratic approach successfully relied on the ability of each working officer to recognize problems, determine needs, and implement courses of action. Through equal delegation of authority, task force members consistently met group goals and exceeded expectations. In this regard, the FTF not only operated successfully by conventional task force standards, but it also created an environment in which its members could function without the competitiveness, territoriality, distrust, and self-interest often inherent in other groups.


Task force operations represent intraorganizational relationships in an interorganizational context, resulting in both positive and negative consequences. Because the working environment of a task force is determined by the relationships that exist between different participating organizations, individual behavior becomes as much a function of department culture as of officer personality, and both interact in this multiagency context. While the formation of a task force successfully addresses several larger issues (duplication of services, coordination of effort, economies of size, etc.), it creates other smaller, discrete, organizational problems, such as disproportionate staffing, differing pay rates, and varying operational procedures by federal, state, and local agencies.

The participative management structure that worked in the Fugitive Task Force may not succeed in all task force applications. The pursuit of fugitives does not include many of the inherently competitive and self-interest influences that drug investigation, gang suppression, and many other law enforcement endeavors contain. However, understanding the innate problems and issues that result from bringing together autonomous law enforcement agencies remains one of the most important factors in forming any multiagency unit. The time and effort spent in gathering support for a task force venture should give equal attention to the organizational design that best fits the chosen objective, rather than assuming that one administrative structure that serves the component parts will suffice for the whole. For the successful task force, one size does not fit all.

For Further Reading

R. Bocklet, "DEA-State and Local Task Forces: A Body for Law Enforcement," Law and Order, January 1991, 272-279.

Arnold I. Burns, deputy attorney general, address before the Southeast Region Drug Task Force Conference, Gatlinburg, TN, January 28, 1987.

Kenneth R. Coyle, "An Implementation Study of Cooperative Law Enforcement Narcotics Control Task Forces," Evaluating Drug Control Initiatives, Conference Proceedings, (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, June 1990).

Bill Gordon, "The W.A.N.T. Task Force," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1990, 2-5.

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Office of the President, National Drug Control Strategy (Washington, DC: January 1992).

Judy O'Neal, "Performance Evaluation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Program," Evaluating Drug Control Initiatives, Conference Proceedings (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, June 1990).

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, "Law Enforcement Task Force Evaluation Projects: Results and Findings in the States," April 1992.

Crime Decreases in 1997

According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) final 1997 reported crime statistics, violent crime totals decreased 3 percent and property crime totals declined 2 percent from 1996 levels. By offense, the violent crimes of murder and robbery each decreased 7 percent in 1997, while aggravated assault was down 1 percent, and forcible rape showed a slight decline. Property crime decreases included 3 percent for motor vehicle thefts and 2 percent each for burglary and larceny-theft incidents.

These statistics are based on a Crime Index of selected violent and property crimes submitted to the UCR Program by more than 17,000 city, county, and state law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The 1997 Crime Index total of approximately 13.2 million offenses represented a 2 percent decline from the 1996 total.

Overall, cities experienced a 3 percent decrease, while crime increased by 1 percent in rural areas. Regionally, the south had 40 percent of the reported crime in 1997; the west, 24 percent; the midwest, 22 percent; and the northeast, 15 percent.

Complete crime information is contained in the FBI's Crime in the United States, 1997, which is available on the FBI's Internet site at


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance "Law Enforcement Task Force Evaluation Projects: Results and Findings in the States," April 1992, 1.

2 based on the author's experience.
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Author:Buhler, Milan L.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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