By Dennis Rosenbaum, Megan Alderden, Gary Cordner, Lorie Fridell, Susan Hartnett, Stephen Mastrofski, William McCarty, Jack McDevitt, and Wesley Skogan
he typical national study of a policing topic entails sending a survey to police departments to be filled out by chiefs, sheriffs, or their designees—one official respondent per agency.1 This method works well for determining the prevalence of structural characteristics (for example, the number of departments that have gang units); formal programs; and official policies. However, there are many important characteristics of police organizations that cannot be measured this way, such as leadership, supervision, discipline, integrity, job satisfaction, commitment, stress, and so forth. Moreover, it can be argued that it is these very organizational conditions that have the greatest impact on the quality of service that police officers and agencies deliver to their communities.
In 2008, the National Institute of Justice funded the National Police Research Platform (hereinafter Platform) to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting in-depth research across multiple police organizations.2 It is the purpose of the platform to expand on information gained from internal law enforcement surveys by taking a multi-pronged approach that collects information from external stakeholders, longitudinally over a period of time, and qualitatively to better our understanding of the characteristics of police organizations. During Phase 1, two key research initiatives were (1) online surveys administered to over 15,000 sworn and civilian personnel in 29 law enforcement agencies (LEO surveys), and (2) police-community interaction surveys (either online or by automated telephone calls) with individuals in three jurisdictions who had recent contact with police (PCI surveys).
Phase 2 is beginning in 2013. A representative sample of 100 law enforcement agencies has been invited to participate. Both employee surveys and police-community interaction surveys will be completed in all 100 jurisdictions.
One major product of the Platform is direct and timely feedback to participating agencies. From the employee surveys, for example, an agency can learn the level of job satisfaction reported by its employees (sworn and civilian) and how that compares to other agencies of similar size. From the public-contact surveys, an agency receives feedback on whether crime victims and persons stopped for traffic violations feel they were treated fairly and respectfully. Here are a few specific examples of how the research helped Phase 1 agencies:
- In Oak Park, Illinois, the employee surveys identified issues associated with stress and burnout. Chief Rick Tanksley then engaged the whole department in an extended conversation that led to a revised shift schedule and increased emphasis on employee wellness.3
- In another city, employee surveys revealed dissatisfaction with in-service training. This helped the department’s command staff recognize a core management function that had slipped out of focus in the midst of other major initiatives, one that was immediately addressed through reassignment of personnel.
- In a third city, the chief had received anecdotal input that complainants who came to police stations were not getting good service. Public-contact surveys in that city revealed that the anecdotal information was not accurate and the public reported being served well at local police district stations. The surveys also revealed that overall public satisfaction was substantially higher than either the chief or other
members of the agency realized.
We are cautious about generalizing from Phase 1 data since the 29 participating law enforcement agencies were not randomly selected and may not be representative of U.S. policing in general.4 But two interesting findings with potential implications follow.
- Employee perceptions of discipline vary greatly across different police agencies. In smaller agencies, 58 percent of employees felt the disciplinary process was fair, while only 21 percent of employees from larger agencies saw the system as fair. The negative views of discipline in larger agencies may be due to a perceived lack of alternative informal mechanisms to address problem behaviors. In larger agencies, for example, only 31 percent felt that “For minor mistakes, the department helps officers with coaching and counseling,” while 73 percent felt this
was true in smaller agencies.
- There is a dramatic difference among agencies in officers’ attitudes toward first-line supervisors. In one agency, 89 percent of officers rated their supervisors as “good to excellent.” In another, only 44 percent of officers gave their sergeants a high rating. According to their subordinates, supervisors with high ratings are significantly more likely to express a clear vision, closely monitor performance, use effective face-to-face communication, and show fairness when evaluating performance.
The Platform will have two major advantages in Phase 2: (1) a larger and nationally representative sample of agencies and (2) enhanced ability to link characteristics of the police organization and community (such as department size and jurisdiction demographics) with outcomes (such as public satisfaction). These advantages will permit more confident generalizations about police organizations and will provide more actionable evidence about how to improve police agency performance. The Platform represents a significant paradigm shift in the way organizational performance in policing is measured. By providing timely, accurate, and comparable information about the functioning of an agency from both internal (employees) and external (community) perspectives, police leaders will be able to more effectively identify and address issues and concerns and improve the overall quality and level of police services.
The Research in Brief column in the Police Chief magazine will continue to highlight results and outcomes of the National Police Research Platform in the future. To receive additional information or contact the principal investigators of this study, please visit http://www.nationalpoliceresearch.org. ♦
1The periodic Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics surveys exemplify this approach. See http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=248 (accessed June 11, 2013).
2See Dennis P. Rosenbaum et al., National Police Research Platform: Phase I Summary Report, Grant Number 2008-DN-BX-0005, (2012). The research reported here was conducted with the support of National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Findings and conclusions of the research reported here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
3Dennis Rosenbaum et al., “Translating Research into Practice: Oak Park, IL, and the National Police Research Platform,” Translational Criminology (Spring 2013): 11-13, (accessed June 11, 2013).
4More complete results from the National Police Research Platform are available at http://www.nationalpoliceresearch.org. Direct enquiries should be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please cite as:
Dennis Rosenbaum et al., "The National Police Research Platform: Improving the Science of Police Administration," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 80 (July 2013): 12–13.