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Back to Archives | Back to October 2006 Contents 

Span of Control for Law Enforcement Agencies

By Troy Lane, Assistant Chief, Kansas State University Police Department, Manhattan, Kansas


olice management studies from the 1950s through the 1980s featured the span of control concept. However, as policing started to move organizationally from a tall hierarchy to a more flattened organizational, the span of control concept began to fade from the literature.

Flat business organizations became the model and were possible because inexpensive information technology was widespread and allowed people to manage larger groups. Technology could perform middle managers' jobs-collecting information from workers, compiling it into a report, and presenting it to upper management-thus reducing the need for this level of supervision.

However, despite changing business models for organizations, accountability and supervisory responsibilities still need to be established. The question remains: what is the appropriate span of control?

Defining Span of Control
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in its Incident Command Systems (ICS), describes span of control as the number of individuals or resources that one supervisor can manage effectively during emergency response incidents or special events.1 Robert Bailey describes the term span of control as simply how many people a manager is responsible for communicating to.2

A 2002 published report of the audit in King County, Washington, explained that a low span of control-that is few subordinates per manager or supervisor-leads to a "tall" organization, one with many layers, whereas a high span of control leads to a flat organization. The audit discusses the two main schools of thought in organizational management theory regarding span of control: classical and contemporary. Classical (pre-1950) authors believed that supervisors needed to control their sub-ordinates, and often specified the proper ratio as no more than six subordinates per supervisor.

Contemporary management theory holds that such classical command-and-control organizations are inefficient, and advocate higher spans of control and flatter organizational structures. Although a consensus on the ideal ratio for span of control has not been reached, current authors advocate ratios ranging from 15 to 25 sub-ordinates per supervisor. Several also recommend five organizational layers as the maximum for any large organization.3

Kansas State University Police Department Span of Control
As a reference point in assessing the span of control for sworn police officers, the Kansas State University Police Department (KSUPD) served as a case study. There are 42 positions in the KSUPD, and of those 23 are sworn police positions. Of those 23 sworn positions, seven are considered supervisory or administrative positions. Therefore, is appears that the department's span of control equals 1:3, one supervisor per three employees.

However, the organizational chart reveals that in one case a sergeant is supervising four officers, while in another the sergeant assigned to investigations is supervising no one. In the swing and mid-night shifts, two sergeants supervise five officers. Adjusted for these differences, the actual supervisor to sworn officer ration is 1:2.

After establishing the base for the KSUPD, other departments were surveyed to analyze the span of control among police departments.

Span of Control Survey
A survey was sent electronically to law enforcement personnel, accomplished by disseminating the survey via the following:

  • The FBI National Academy Associates e-mail list4

  • The LEGUN law enforcement fire-arms instructor list5

  • Personal e-mail contacts with friends and acquaintances in the profession

While the author acknowledges that the survey methodology does not meet the rigorous requirements of research, 140 administrators did express their opinions. This article's conclusions were reached based on the opinions expressed in these 140 responses.

The survey asked the following questions:

Question 1 -Please choose the applicable answer for your current agency? (choices were-police department, sheriff's office, governmental law enforcement agency, state law enforcement agency, other)

Question 2 -Please tell me where you fall in the structure of your department? (Choices were-line officer, supervisor, administrator, agency head, other)

Question 3 -What is the total number of sworn personnel in your agency?

Question 4 -What is the total number of sworn supervisory personnel in your agency?

Question 5 -I believe that the amount of supervisors or administrators in my department is (choose one) given the number of total personnel? The choices were-too few, too many, just right.

Question 6 -Referring to question 5, the respondent was asked to explain his or her choice.

Question 7 -Are you aware of any publications or authors who have researched the span of control topic?

Survey Results
Most of the respondents worked for municipal police departments. The next largest group of respondents were from sheriffs' departments. Most respondents identified themselves as administrators in their agencies.

Question 3 addressed the total number of sworn personnel in the department, and there was a great deal of difference in the size of agency each person represented. Responses ranged from agencies with one officer to agencies reporting over 30,000 officers. Likewise, Question 4 responses revealed that the number of supervisory personnel ranged from 1 to 4,480.

Question 5 asked for the respondent's opinion as to the adequacy of the amount of supervisors to line personnel-span of control--in their agency. The respondents were fairly even on their opinion, and nearly 80 percent felt the current ratio was adequate for their department.

Variables Affecting Manageable Span Of Control
Question 6 asked the respondents to explain how they felt about their department's current span of control. This question revealed a problem with how the question was phrased, because it did not distinguish between supervisory personnel with solely administrative duties and the line supervisor responsible for police officers. Such departments may at first appear to have a very low span of control or supervisor-to-officer ratio; however, when just operational supervisors are considered, the span of control becomes more realistic, although still relatively low in law enforcement as compared to a higher ratio in businesses.

The data suggests that the opinion of a functional span of control has much to do with several key elements related to the organization. Functional span of control is very subjective, as there was a great deal of opinion as to what was too little, too much, or just the right amount of control in law enforcement units. However, most of the discrepancies had logical explanations.

In widely dispersed departments, such as rural sheriffs' departments and state highway patrols, each officer may patrol a considerably large geographic area. Many respondents from these departments felt that given the fact that a single agency might be responsible for covering such large areas, a manageable span of control should be smaller than a relatively smaller geographical jurisdiction. Expecting a sergeant to respond to the needs of several officers spread out over a thousand square miles may be unrealistic.

Respondents from large populated areas also reported a need for a higher span of control. They felt the coverage of certain densely populated geographical areas required a smaller ratio of supervisors to officers. The same held true for officers who patrolled areas of known deviant behavior with high violence and crime rates. In addition, certain days and times have more or less activity in any given jurisdiction. It is common to have more supervision during established days and times when police activity is historically more prevalent.

Another opinion supporting varying spans of control was that of assignment. For instance, specialized units such as intelligence, vice, training, and SWAT support smaller span of control, due to the intense specialization of these units. These units require much closer supervision or personnel with appropriate experience who may also have supervisory rank.

Many respondents stated that their departments operate with an on-duty supervisor at all times. While this is routine in law enforcement, it does affect smaller departments' span of control. For instance, if a small department has three shifts, each with four officers assigned, and one sergeant for each shift, the span of control for that department is 1:4, one supervisor to four officers.

However, if this department wants a senior supervisor on each shift, each day of the week, then it needs two sergeants per shift. This department's ratio has now changed to 1:2. Adding personnel in non-line supervisory or administrative positions, and it is very likely that many days the number of supervisory personnel at work will outnumber the officers working on the street. Respondents-mostly in smaller agencies-voiced this concern.

This concern probably accounts for the higher ratios of supervisor to officer in larger departments. Larger departments tend to have a wider span of control than smaller departments.

The largest span of control-from a very large agency-was 1:15. Though others stated there are limited times and days when their ratio might be higher because of several factors, they reported the normal day-to-day average. Overall, when considering the entirety of the report, it was found that of the 140 agencies reporting, the average span of control for all departments was 1:7.

This is in line with what Las Vegas Police Captain Stavros S. Anthony reported in The Structural Dimensions of Community Oriented Police Departments, where he reported that while traditional police departments in the United States had an average span of control of one supervisor to 8.4 officers, those departments that were clearly focused on community policing philosophy had a lower ratio of 7.7 officers per supervisor.6

Some departments have gone so far as to set forth written policy that addresses the issue of span of control. For instance, the Garden Grove, California, police department states squad sergeants' administrative span of control should not normally exceed eight persons. Those sergeants who have adjunct administrative assignments over specialized units such as K-9 may have a larger administrative span of control not normally to exceed 12 persons.7

High Span Of Control
High spans of control means that there is much less time for any one supervisor to evenly disperse his or her time with subordinates. A common statistic is that 90 percent of a supervisor's efforts are spent on 10 percent of personnel. Thus, supervisors with high numbers of subordinates are likely to have less time to devote to other assigned personnel.

In busy or crisis times, a supervisor's resources are even more taxed, and only problems of immediate importance can be addressed, often in order of perceived precedence. This ratio would explain the ICS theory that mandates a span of control of no more than one supervisor to five reporting elements.

Today, the overwhelmingly trend in government and business is for higher span of control ratios. Advocates list the following advantages:

  • Improve communications by eliminating multiple levels of management

  • Arrange more harmonious pay and compensation by eliminating various pay grades and job duplications

  • Reduce operating costs by eliminating multiple layers of management

  • Reduce operating costs by eliminating support staff and space needed for management positions

  • Eliminate the confusion of accountability that may exist with multiple layers of management

To budget-conscious jurisdictions, the possible financial saving with little perceived increased risk is attractive.

Low Span Of Control
A lower span of control creates other effects. An agency executive might have a hard time explaining payroll expenditures for an inordinate amount of supervisors or administrators. As Robert Bailey stated in his report, Span of No Control, it is better to have a span of control that is too wide than to have too many layers of management. Too many companies spend an inordinate amount of payroll dollars at the top of the management pyramid and are too quick to cut payroll at the bottom of the pyramid-the people on the firing line who are serving the customers. Though Bailey's research was related to business, it easily translates to most professional fields.

Bailey suggests that an almost equally important idea is that every management layer adds another communication hurdle. The more layers of management in any organization, the more likely the breakdowns in communication. Just as any other communication passed through multiple filters, often the message that is received at the lower levels is drastically different from the one originally sent. This cycle is repeated as information is passed back up through the channels.

The King County, Washington, audit report concluded that current management literature advocates higher spans of control and flatter structures because they increase organizations' efficiency and productivity by reducing problems such as the following:

  • Information distortion

  • Slow, ineffective decision making and action

  • Increased functional walls and turf games

  • Greater emphasis on controlling the bureaucracy rather than on customer service

  • Higher costs due to the number of managers and management support staff

  • Less responsibility assumed by subordinates for the quality of their work

A similar report was generated by the State Auditors Office of Texas, which reported that span of control has a direct bearing on the length of an organization's line of communication, and the way an organization delegates tasks to units and sub units. Many organizations have shifted from manual and clerical workers to knowledge-based structures composed largely of people who direct and control their own performance through information obtained from peers, customers, and, on occasion, higher management. Empowered employees, larger spans of control, and flatter organizational structures may indicate more efficient and effective organizations.

On the other hand, low span of control and multiple layers within an organization may indicate possible inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Span of control is only one component of organizations, and considering an agency as a whole before changing organizational structure is necessary.8

Information generated from the front lines in classically hierarchical law enforcement agency is often blocked, slowed down, or skewed by a system that favors multiple layers of bureaucracy and introduces the additional problem of personal interest.

Often those at the operational end of an organizational chain gradually stop offering valuable input because they never see their ideas implemented or even acknowledged. When ideas are put to use, they often fail because the necessary part of the information or idea was lost among the multiple layers of decision-makers involved in the process, who might even have changed the message.

Another problem is operational efficiency. Many responses to this survey reported spans of control in low numbers. If an agency has a span-of-control ratio of 1:3, or one supervisor to three officers, does this mean that roughly one third of those departments' personnel are committed to management activities, and only two-thirds serve their community? The reality-at least in smaller departments-is that the supervisor usually answers calls for service as well as supervises the other officers.

Small departments often have limited ways to reward their officers. For example, some departments cannot reward or even compensate good officers by paying more than any average officer. Each officer-regardless of job performance-is given the same pay raise each year. One way to reward officers is to enhance the possibility of promotion. If the span of control is 1:3, there is a much greater chance of being promoted than if the span of control is 1:15.

The Future Organization
The survey results reveals that many law enforcement agencies prefer lower spans of control and multiple layers of management. However, the growing trend in business management and some governments is moving to flatter organizational structures and higher spans of control. Those who support this movement cite better communications, increased fiscal and personnel responsibility, greater flexibility, and increased delegation by supervisors. Employees favor these conditions because they receive less detailed and micromanaged supervision and more responsibility, and feel they are more trusted by their superiors.

For many reasons, law enforcement departments take many different approaches to the subject of span of control. The survey's findings would tend to suggest that smaller departments have lower spans of control. This can often be explained by a small agency's wanting to have a supervisor available at all times. Other times it is an agency's way of retaining quality officers, by being able to offer job enhancement and title recognition.

In any event, span of control is a subject that each department must consider. Law enforcement executives must consider the positives and negatives of their own department's span of control, and its effect on their organization. ■


1Management Span of Control: Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS100) (Federal Emergency Management Agency. Washington, D.C.): (http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/nimsOther.asp), accessed August 17, 2006.
2 Robert L. Bailey, Span of No Control, March 1, 2005: (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/)
mi_qa3615/is_200503/ai_n13511307, accessed January 24, 2006.
Harriet Richardson, Nancy McDaniel, and Beckett Thomsen, Span of Control: Report No. 94-1 (King County Auditor. King County, WA: June 24, 2002): http://www.metrokc.gov/auditor/1994/span.htm, accessed February 1, 2006.
4 FBI National Academy Associates e-mail list, (FBI National Academy Associates. Quantico, Virginia): January 26, 2006; (http://www.fbinaa.org), accessed January 26, 2006.
5 Greg Block, Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor's Mailing List, (LEGun Instructors), January 26, 2006: (http://www.firearminstruction.com/legun.html), accessed January 26, 2006.
6 Stavros S. Anthony, The Structural Dimensions of Community Oriented Police Departments Las Vegas, Nevada), January 31, 2006. Dissertation abstract. (http://www.calea.org/newweb/newsletter/No73/structural_dimensions_of_communi.htm), accessed January 31, 2006.
7 Garden Grove, California, Police Department, Garden Grove Police Department Operations Manual, November 24, 2004: (http://ci.garden-grove.ca.us/internet/pd_web/ch04.pdf#search='span%20of%20control%20for%20police'), accessed February 1, 2006.
8 Texas State Auditors Office, Management to Staff Ratios (Austin, TX): September 24, 2003. (http://www.hr.state.tx.us/systems/fte/BackgroundandInitiatives.html), accessed February 1, 2006.


Selected Annotated Bibliography on the Concept of Span of Control


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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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