Police Leadership and Organizational Culture on Police Effectiveness

In a recent article, I discuss some of the antecedents and consequences of “de-policing,” a term used to refer to reductions in proactive policing strategies. Increases in de-policing also coincide with increases in public pressure and aggression (e.g., protests, ‘viral’ police use-of-force videos). Recently, there have been various movements meant to “reform” police departments, such as efforts to de-fund the police and efforts to end qualified immunity. Unfortunately though, these efforts can come off as aggressive and may decrease officer motivation and increase their cynicism of their jobs. This is important, as officer motivation and morale is likely a key mechanism contributing to the de-policing effect. On a broader scale, efforts to de-fund the police would constrain agencies’ abilities to train their officers, acquire new technology, and leverage data/digital evidence to be more proactive in preventing crime.

Understanding qualified immunity is important for this conversation. Qualified immunity is a doctrine that protects officers from prosecution as long as they were acting in “good faith,” i.e., with good intentions and to the extent of their knowledge and training. As stated above, many policymakers are calling for the elimination of qualified immunity because they see it as unlawful, presuming that it allows officers to do whatever they want without any consequences. However, this statement is not entirely true, as it fails to recognize that qualified immunity only applies to officers who act in good faith and does not apply to those who commit constitutional violations. As an officer’s effectiveness in handling use-of-force incidents directly relies on the training and/or policies implemented by the department, an officer may be acting in good faith and within the scope of their training yet still end up in a “awful but lawful” shooting (i.e., a horrifying shooting incident that is technically lawful).

While the urge to completely eliminate qualified immunity laws might seem like a good way to hold officers accountable, it is unclear whether it would do more harm than good in terms of public safety via a de-policing effect. If an officer becomes involved in a shooting yet acts within the scope of their training, they feel as though they are acting in good faith;  these are the officers that would be protected by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is not intended to protect the “rogue officer”; it is intended to protect the well-intentioned officer. Should qualified immunity be removed, officers would constantly be fearing prosecution despite acting in good faith; this could make officers hesitant to act even when they should. Qualified immunity is an essential law that allows police officers to do their jobs and respond to incidents without pause, and its removal could have deleterious effects.

One issue with qualified immunity is that it is not always applied consistently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and what is considered “reasonable” in the eyes of the officer at the time of the incident can vary. This is partially because whether police are “effective” depends on the goals set by the department. There are no universal guidelines to govern police organizations, and officers can only perform as well as they have been trained. Thus, there will be natural variation from agency to agency, with some agencies holding their officers to higher standards than others. Further, some agencies regularly work to strengthen and update their policies and training to coincide with current ‘best practices,’ expert opinions, and research. However, many law enforcement agencies still use outdated practices and could benefit from increasing internal accountability of officers and updating their practices — many agencies are unable to do this though, because they do not have the manpower nor funds to take upon such an effort.

Nonetheless, there are ways to change departmental culture to improve officer behavior and reduce “awful but lawful” shootings. As mentioned above, officer motivation and morale are key factors that increase an officer’s performance, so it is key to learn how to motivate officers to do better. At the moment, it seems unclear whether fear-based tactics (i.e., the fear of prosecution) would achieve this goal. Rather, other research shows that police confidence in their training, perceptions of their department’s legitimacy, and relationships with their supervisors can actually increase police officer morale and subsequently encourage them to engage in proactive policing. Yet, implementing real reform in police departments would require adequate staffing and budgets, which ironically runs directly counter to proposed “reforms” that call for de-funding the police.

A 2021 study by Ismail Demirkol describes police occupational culture in terms of six constructs (authoritarianism, alienation, social cohesion and loyalty, cynicism toward the public, and autonomy) and the relationships with officer motivation. The study found that officer motivation is complex yet most certainly is impacted by occupational culture and job satisfaction. Namely, social cohesion and loyalty with supervisors and peers within a department positively impacted officer motivation and willingness to be proactive. The findings by Demirkol (2021) echoes those from a 2021 Manhattan Institute report in that officer motivation/morale can be impacted by organizational-level factors such as perceived fairness of the organization, relationships with supervisors, and confidence in their training. Additionally, a 2018 study by Justin Nix and Scott Wolfe found that officers reporting better relationships with their supervisors and more confidence in their organizations were less susceptible to de-policing effect after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. In that same study, officers who felt supported by their supervisors/agencies also reported reduced emotional distress and felt more confident in their interactions with the public.

Leadership styles, or the behaviors a supervisor uses to influence and motivate their subordinates, vary widely and influence the performance of officers in myriad ways. For example, leaders can be controlling vs. enabling, aloof vs. available, task-oriented vs. person-oriented, or strengths-based vs. weakness-based. Leadership styles likely influence police performance via their impact on motivation, with research suggesting that employee motivation and performance can be improved with shifts in leadership styles. For example, a 2021 study by Azis Ali and colleagues found that leadership and work motivation both had significant and positive effects on personnel performance. This finding is consistent with a 2020 study by Muhammad Adriansyah and colleagues, where positive leadership and organizational dynamics were linked to improved officer motivation and performance.

Negative administrative/legal sanctions for poor performance seemed less effective in improving officer behavior and motivation, per the 2021 study by Ali and colleagues. Regarding the conversation on qualified immunity, it might be important to consider this finding further: if threat of sanctions doesn’t improve performance or motivation, then it seems unlikely that fear of prosecution (via ending qualified immunity) would improve performance or motivation.

Considering the impact supervisors can have on officer performance and willingness to change, strengthening leadership behaviors of supervisors and enhancing their roles as mentors may be an effective and feasible avenue for improving police behavior and increasing accountability. For example, supervisors could regularly review personnel performance and spend additional time mentoring and/or training officers accordingly. Supervisors could also identify individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and use this to inform officer unit assignments where they will perform best. Relatedly, supervisors could use technology to enhance their mentorship roles, such as using body-worn camera footage as a training tool to review poorly-handled incidents. They could also provide incentives to reward good performance. Officer stress, fatigue, and work volume can also increase burnout and can also take a toll on officer performance. Supervisors are encouraged to regularly check in with their officers regarding their health and wellness and intervene when necessary to ensure that officers receive proper support, resources, and referrals for their health and wellness, particularly after stressful experiences (e.g., officer-involved shootings).

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