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Psychological Principles and Practices for Superior Law Enforcement Leadership

By Laurence Miller, Ph.D., Boca Raton, Florida

articularly in a hierarchical system such as law enforcement, competent leaders are critical. This article integrates the twin perspectives of police and management psychology2 and applies these perspectives to two of the most crucial, mettle-testing aspects of law enforcement leadership: making command decisions during crises, and maintaining discipline and integrity within the police organization.

Command Decision Making under Stress
Many books and seminars on leadership under fire outline broad principles of crisis management in dealing with emergencies. But what does the operational command leader actually think, say, and do during a major critical incident, which may involve a hostage crisis, multi-vehicle accident, terrorist attack, civil disturbance, industrial accident, or natural disaster?

Characteristics of Effective Critical Incident Commanders
Why are some leaders better at crisis management than others? What allows one commanding officer to remain calm and focused in the heat of battle while another melts under pressure? Are certain commanders just born leaders, or is superior command leadership a quality that can be learned?

Human traits and skills combine innate talent, bolstered and refined by hard work and proper training. The professional athlete, artist, or musician illustrates this point. Certainly, without a natural gift, all the training in the world will not raise the individual into world-class status.

But raw talent alone is insufficient: the athlete or artisan must work at developing that skill to its ultimate level in order to attain and stay at peak performance. Research shows that those individuals at the top of their fields never coast; in fact, they put in far more time and effort into training than those with less innate talent. They take what is great and make it greater. This principle applies both to individuals3 and to organizations.4

The same is true of the kind of decision-making and people-influencing skills that comprise true leadership. By dint of intellect, temperament, and personality, some individuals may be natural leaders. But if these individuals do not hone those skills in the real world of managing people under stressful conditions, theirs will remain undeveloped potential.

With that in mind, most psychologists and emergency service professionals would agree on the following representative inventory of traits and skills as the basis for effective command leadership during critical incidents.5

Communication: This involves both input and output. The effective critical incident command leader quickly and accurately assimilates what others tell him or her from a morass of often rushed, confused, and conflicting information, and is then able to translate complex plans and strategies into specific, focused directives.

Team Management: The command leader coordinates individual team members' efforts. He or she is able to delegate responsibilities as needed, but can quickly jump in and take personal control where necessary.

Decision Making under Stress: It is not enough to keep from panicking under life-and-death conditions; the effective command leader must be able to think clearly and make critical split-second decisions under fire. This characteristic requires the ability to distinguish signal from noise, to take in and distill relevant data and come up with a useful response. The key is not to relax, but to maintain an optimal arousal state of focused concentration without becoming distracted by anxiety.

Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating: This is related to decision making under stress. Grace under pressure does little good if the leader lacks the necessary cognitive skills to quickly and efficiently size up a situation, evaluate appropriate actions, implement those actions, and then accurately assess their effects on the overall crisis management situation. For skilled critical incident command leaders, this cyclical process seems to occur in a coordinated flow-which is why effective crisis commanders always seem to do their job smoothly. It is not easy, but skill, practice, and experience provide the level of expertise that creates the zone of optimal performance.

Emotional Stability and Maturity: A certain basic emotional ballast and stability of character form the base for the traits of superior command leadership. Often described as charisma, this leadership quality is more than just the brashness, swagger, and popular appeal that the term implies. Rather, it consists of a calm, purposeful, self-assured interpersonal style that inspires troops with confidence and commands respect without having to ask for it. This kind of leadership loyalty cannot be bought, coerced, or cajoled-team members will extend themselves for this commander because they absolutely trust his or her judgment and commitment to the job and to their own well-being.

Making Rapid Critical Decisions Under Fire
In the cool, logical world of the academic classroom or corporate boardroom, decisions are usually made by a dispassionate, step-by-step process: first access all the relevant information, then weigh the evidence carefully, and finally come up with a balanced spreadsheet of risks and benefits to guide the appropriate decision.

But in the real world of emergency crises, cognitive psychology demonstrates how effective decision makers operate in times of chaos: they employ naturalistic decision making (NDM), which describes rapid decision making in complex, messy, real-time settings-for example, what transpires during the course of responding to and managing a major chemical spill, traffic pileup, or hostage crisis. NDM has been studied for over a decade in the fields of military and civilian emergency response,6 but only recently has it begun to apply specifically to law enforcement work.7

In these kinds of critical situations, effective command decision makers seem to invoke a cognitive skill that doesn't require the kind of algorithmic, trial-and-error thinking typically taught in formal courses on reasoning and decision making. Instead, since they have accumulated a comprehensive storehouse of knowledge and experience, leaders who have become true experts in their fields rely on recognition-primed decision-making, or RPDM8, a kind of holographic, at-a-glance kind of command decision-making that usually results in the right answer. During crises, RPDM is vital, and most effective commanders employ it intuitively.

In times of crisis, a commander's brain instantly marshals his or her deep and broad knowledge and experience, comparing and weighing factors that the situation requires. In fact, the commander has done this before hundreds of times in the past: in hundreds of situations, and in various combinations, either in real life, in training scenarios, or in independent study.

So when the time comes to apply knowledge to the present crisis, the commander's brain does not have to scroll down a list of options until the right one appears; instead, his or her brain quickly sizes up the situation, performs a rapid internal mental feasibility study of acceptable options, and instantly finds the best available solution, which he or she then communicates to the response team.

Though it looks like a hunch, it is actually a distillation of a vast storehouse of operational wisdom applied to the current situation. Even though it is described here as a series of steps, to the actual on-scene decision maker, the RPDM process feels like a quick, intuitive response rather than a laborious analytic process.

The RPDM model has practical recommendations for on-scene commanders, the most important of which is assessing the situation as soon as possible, even before arriving on scene, as soon as the call is received. In any crisis, all the information or resources needed to ensure the best possible outcome is-and will never be-available. While precious seconds are ticking away, the immediate job is not to optimize, but to satisfice- to make a decision and implement the appropriate action that will control and stabilize the situation for right now-critical incident first aid.

The ability to employ RPDM depends on a track record of knowledge and experience-expertise, or what some might call wisdom-that guides the thinking of the true master of any domain. It is the same principle by which accomplished athletes, musicians, surgeons, hostage negotiators, and other experts carry out their craft with ease and skill. While, like any other human trait or talent, different individuals will show different levels of natural aptitude for a given skill, almost all practitioners can improve their proficiency by continued learning, practice, and application.

Management through Personal Integrity
Police commanders have to deal with more than just major critical incidents. Successfully managing a law enforcement agency involves all the stresses and challenges of running any private or public organization, with the added factor of having the department's product or service consist of frequent, often contentious, contact with citizens, sometimes in life-and-death circumstances. Indeed, expertise-guided naturalistic decision-making doesn't apply solely to emergencies, but informs most of the major and minor command decisions and judgment calls that law enforcement leaders make every day.

Organizational Stresses in Law Enforcement
Police agencies have undergone important changes in recent decades, some in line with changes in the larger organizational world, others more specific to law enforcement agencies, and all a potential source of stress for today's police managers.9

As in any hierarchical organization, police middle managers are responsible for the people below them and responsible to the people above. They have many masters: senior-ranking departmental officials, city and county leaders, citizen and community groups, the media, employee union groups, and even their own families. The management task of accounting to these different masters is frequently complicated by communication problems and by the emphasis on exceptional failures. In some circles this is known as the "you're-only-as-good-as-your-last-mess-up" principle.

Middle- or upper-level police managers may feel isolated from the daily street-level realities that patrol officers face, leading to friction between them and the street officers, who complain that the top brass have lost touch.

Demands for greater technical proficiency and the commensurate changes in police tactics, strategies, philosophies, and community relations require police managers to train their personnel at the same time that resources are dwindling. As public organizations face restricted budgets, opportunities for advancement within departments tend to shrink, as do opportunities for transfer to other agencies. Police managers may feel stuck in a career rut, leading to frustration, demoralization, and burnout.

At that point, a vicious cycle often begins, where deteriorating morale leads to poor police performance, which in turn results in either lackadaisical supervision (a form of command capitulation), or to harsh supervision to "keep the lid on," further eroding troop morale. The result? Resentful officers who shirk duties and even escalate abuse-of-force incidents that leads to citizen complaints. When the situation becomes public and faces censure by executive management and city officials, the process then enters its final cycle-a call for a complete overhaul of the department, often by a new administration. Unfortunately, without addressing the core problems, the cycle soon begins again.

Managing Organizational Stress
Sewell's10 conceptualization of the police commander as a law enforcement executive is a good place to start the process of organizational stress management. In this model, the police executive develops a vision or internal mission statement that guides his or her image of the department's goals and purposes. With the energy and stamina to stay the course and see projects through to completion, he or she can also deal with the day-to-day challenges of running a department or section. The effective law enforcement executive possesses the traditional management skills-planning, organizing, staffing, training, communicating, reporting, and budgeting-yet also has the ability to creatively improvise in the service of the vision or mission.

Two essential leadership qualities are credibility and respect, because without these, most other management skills will not work. Credibility is a product of communicating and acting consistently with the executive's values, beliefs, and principles, as embodied in his or her vision. Personnel in any type of organization may not always agree with the leader's opinions and directives, but they will respect them and follow them to the extent that they believe the leader to be a person of honor, who operates out of principle, and who is willing to consider alternative viewpoints in an atmosphere of mutual respect.11

Because the law enforcement executive straddles several worlds, he or she must know how police organizations work, must know the latest developments, must be able to adapt to stresses, and must have a broad, detailed knowledge base about the community that the department serves. While some of this data can be gleaned by intensive research, much of it will necessarily be a function of experience.

All too often, in law enforcement agencies as well as other organizations, the endemic stresses that accumulate over time are a symptom of systemic problems within the department. Correcting these problems requires the police executive to take difficult but necessary steps to institute organizational changes that address stress within their own departments. Although these measures do not necessarily require a psychologist, they are based on a few commonsense psychological principles of leadership.12

To begin with, the law enforcement leader must be visible and accessible. He or she must be seen by the troops as actively running the department, open to constructive feedback, and sincerely concerned with both people's welfare and how well they perform their duties.

In times of departmental crises, the ideal leader should be a bedrock of stability and consistency; the troops must know that he or she can be counted on to do the right thing, to not confuse urgency with crisis, and to handle problems effectively. Leaders who want to lead need to take the extra time and effort, not just work by the clock.

True leaders do not fear feedback, and are always ready to learn and expand their knowledge base. They do not have subordinates who are afraid to confront them with conflicting data if the goal is to improve the department's overall performance. True leaders are not afraid to be wrong in the present if the correction will lead to being right in the future.

Knowledge growth works in the other direction, too, and true leaders make continuing education and training a priority. Many departments link continuing education credits to promotions and/or pay bonuses, but the police executive should make learning a virtue in itself.

Learning should not be a punishment, although basic training necessary to do the job is required. Leaders do better to create a culture of knowledge13 where becoming smarter about an aspect of law enforcement - or any other type of professional work - is not an indulgence, but as a admirable example in self-development, on a par with intensive postgraduate firearms practice or advanced crisis negotiation training.

Discipline and Behavior Change
Being fair does not mean relaxing tough standards; on the contrary, honorable leadership builds morale and motivates the troops for better performance. To maintain this morale, the police leaders must treat all members of the department with respect. Even though individual management styles may vary - from formal and hierarchical to casual and egalitarian -the basic common elements of respect and integrity suffuse successful organizations of all types. The troops know when their commanders are treating them right and will strive to reciprocate.

Too many would-be leaders confuse respect with fear; the latter works only as long as the situation is avoidable, or until someone more fearful comes along. True respect is built on consistency, trust, and integrity.

Effective police executives demand excellence, but they freely acknowledge and reward their troops' honest effort and hard work. They delegate responsibly and avoid micromanaging, but know when to step in and provide hands-on help when appropriate. They make a good-faith effort to rehabilitate underperforming officers, but know when to cut their losses, and will not let a truly bad apple continue to rot the departmental barrel.

Good discipline begins with assessing and monitoring a problem officer's behavior to detect precursors or patterns of misconduct or substandard performance, and to apply effective interventions early. Discipline should be consistent, impartial, immediate, and definitive. Ideally, the goal should be to correct the misbehavior, while salvaging an otherwise effective officer.14 To this end, interventions should be targeted to a specific problem. Initially, using non-punitive interventions, such as coaching and counseling, is usually preferable to using punitive measures, which should be reserved as a last resort.

Discipline by Coaching
The difference between coaching and counseling lies in their focus and emphasis. Coaching deals directly with identifying and correcting problematic behaviors. It is concerned with the operational reasons those behaviors have occurred and with developing specific task-related strategies for improving performance in those areas. Most of the direction and guidance in coaching comes from the supervisor, and the main task of the supervisee is to understand and carry out the prescribed corrective actions.

For example, an officer who fails to complete reports on time should be given specific deadlines for such paperwork as well as guidance on how to word reports so that they do not become too overwhelming. An officer who behaves discourteously with citizens could be given specific scenarios to role-play in order to develop a repertoire of responses for maintaining authority without abusing the public.

One useful model of law enforcement coaching15 divides the process into stages.

Coaching Stage 1: Identify and define the problem. "There have been four complaints filed against you for excessive force or abusive behavior in the past nine months."

Coaching Stage 2: State the effect of the problem. "When citizens view an officer's behavior as unnecessarily harsh, it makes it harder and more dangerous for all of us to do our jobs. Each officer's actions have repercussions for every other officer and for the whole department."

Coaching Stage 3: Describe the desired action. "There seem to be some common threads in these complaints. Let us review some of these situations and see if we can come up with better responses. But the bottom line is your style of interaction with citizens has to change." At this point, the supervisor and officer review scenarios and discuss alternative responses, using discussion and role-play as needed.

Coaching Stage 4: Make the resolution to the problem attractive. "We appreciate your efforts to be an enthusiastic, top-notch cop. These new ways of doing your job will help you to be even more effective on patrol."

Coaching Stage 5: Document and summarize the action and changes to be taken. "Okay, I'm noting here that we reviewed this and that you agree to make these changes."

Discipline by Counseling: Counseling differs from coaching in two main ways. First, it is less task-focused and more supportive, non-directive, and non-evaluative, and seeks to understand the broader reasons underlying the problematic behavior. This is especially appropriate when the difficulty lies less in a specific action or infraction and more in the area of attitudes and style of relating.

Second, counseling is less top-down directive than coaching, and puts more of the burden of change on the supervisee, encouraging the officer to creatively develop solutions to his or her difficulties. Much of the feedback is in the form of reflective statements, so that a dialogue emerges that moves the supervisee increasingly toward constructive problem solving.

Supervisor: Do you know why I asked to speak with you today?

Officer: Well, I guess there have been some complaints about me.
[Discussion continues about the nature of the complaints and their consequences]

Supervisor: I see you have been here seven years with a pretty good record. What's been going on lately?

Officer: I don't know, maybe the job's getting to me. Ever since the Jones' shooting, it's like everything seems to drag. And the civilians seem more of a pain than ever-every little thing ticks me off. Oh yeah, and things at home haven't been going that great either.

[Some further discussion about job and personal problems]

Supervisor: Well, I'm glad you told me that, and I understand things have been rough the past couple of months, but I'm sure you understand that we need to maintain a certain standard of professionalism. I am going to refer you to our employee assistance program for some counseling to help you get your bearings. In the meantime, I would like you to take the next few days to think of some ways you can improve how you're doing things out on patrol. Jot them down, in fact, and we will meet next time to discuss this further. You do your part, and we'll help you get through this, agreed?

Officer: Okay, I'll try.

Supervisor: Well, I need you to do more than try, because the situation does have to change. So get back to me with some specifics next week and we will take it from there.

Leading in Changing Times
True organizational reform is not easy, and it does not happen overnight.16 Even committed law enforcement executives often come up against a municipal, state, or federal bureaucracy that is accustomed to doing things the old way and expects the department leader to straighten out his or her own house-without, however, being given the latitude or resources to make the truly needed changes.

But if the police executive is a person of integrity in both crisis and routine situations, the rank-and-file will genuinely appreciate his or her efforts to improve conditions on their behalf and, even more importantly, will respect and comply with required changes on their part, if these are seen as being fair and equitably distributed throughout the department.

In other words, it's not all or nothing: a law enforcement leader with a vision can almost always accomplish something valuable, even if external circumstances force the reality to fall far short of the goals. ■

1The sign "The Buck Stops Here" was on President Harry S. Truman's desk in his White House office. Truman received the sign in October 1945 from Fred M. Canfil, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Missouri. President Truman referred to the desk sign in several public statements. The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" (passing the responsibility on to someone else). The sign has been displayed at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, Independence, Missouri, since 1957., August 9, 2006.
2 L. Miller, Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (Springfield: Charles C Thomas, 2006).
3 J. Briggs, Fire in the Crucible: The Alchemy of Creative Genius (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); and D.K. Simonton, Greatness: Who Makes History and Why (New York: Guilford, 1994).
4 J. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't (New York: Harper Business, 2001); and A.J. Le Storti, When You're Asked to Do the Impossible: Principles of Business Teamwork and Leadership from the U.S. Army's Elite Rangers (Guilford: Lyons Press, 2003).
5 R. Flin, Sitting on the Hot Seat: Leaders and Teams for Effective Critical Incident Management (New York: Wiley, 1996); and G. Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998); and L. Miller, "Command Leadership Under Fire," Law and Order (June 2005): 26.
6 J. Hedlund, G.B. Forsythe, J.A. Horvath, W.M. Williams, S. Snook, and R.J. Sternberg, "Identifying and Assessing Tactical Knowledge: Understanding the Practical Intelligence 168 THE POLICE CHIEF/OCTOBER 2006of Military Leaders," Leadership Quarterly 14 (2003): 117-140; and G. Klein, "The Effect of Acute Stressors on Decision Making," in J. Driskell and E. Salas, eds. Stress and Human Performance (Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1996): 49-88; and J. Orasanu & P. Backer, "Stress and Military Performance," in J. Driskell & E. Salas, eds. Stress and Human Performance (Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1996): 89-125.
7 D. Spaulding, "Intuitive Decision Making," Police (March 2005): 62-64.
8 G. Klein, "A Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Model of Rapid Decision Making," in G. Klein, J. Orasanu, R. Calderwood, and C. Zsambok, eds, Decision Making in Action ( New York: Ablex, 1993): 79-103; and G. Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
9 D. Griffith, "What Characteristics Make a Good Chief? Police (June 2003): 14; and D. Grinder, "People-Oriented Leadership" The Police Chief 70 (October 2003): 30-34; and G. J. Margolis and N.C. March, "Creating the Police Department's Image," Police Chief 71 (April 2004): 25-34; and K. J. Peak, L. K. Gaines, and R. W. Glensor, Police Supervision and Management in an Era of Community Policing (2nd ed.) (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 2004); and E. A. Thibault, L. M. Lynch, R .B. McBride, and B. R. McBride, Proactive Police Management (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2004).
10 J. D. Sewell, "The Law Enforcement Executive: A Formula for Success," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (April 1992): 22-26.
11 M. C. Bolino and W.H. Turnley, "Going the Extra Mile: Cultivating and Managing Employee Citizenship Behavior," Academy of Management Executive 17 (2003): 60-73.
12 R. Ayres, Preventing Law Enforcement Stress: The Organization's Role (Alexandria: National Sheriff's Association, 1990); and D. Grinder, "People-Oriented Leadership," Police Chief 70 (October 2003): 30-34; and T.J. Jurkanin, L.T. Hoover, J.L. Dowling, and J. Ahmad, Enduring, Surviving, and Thriving as a Law Enforcement Executive (Springfield: Charles C Thomas, 2001); and J.D. Sewell, "Managing the Stress of Organizational Change," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2002): 14-20.
13 L. Miller, Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (Springfield: Charles C Thomas, 2006).
14 L. Miller, "Police Personalities: Understanding and Managing the Problem Officer," The Police Chief 70 (May 2003): 53-60; and L. Miller, "Good Cop - Bad Cop: Problem Officers, Law Enforcement Culture, and Strategies for Success," Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 19 (2004): 30-48.
15 H.M. Robinette, Burnout in Blue: Managing the Police Marginal Performer (New York: Praeger, 1987).
16 H. Toch and J.D. Grant, Police as Problem Solvers: How Frontline Workers Can Promote Organizational and Community Change (2nd ed.) (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2005).



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 10, October 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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