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Back to Archives | Back to October 2004 Contents 

Multiagency Teams: A Leadership Challenge

By A. R. (Rod) Gehl, M.A., Inspector, Abbotsford Police Department, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada

Research Design

The author’s research was designed to examine the various cultural practices and communications protocols that either assisted in or interfered with the ability of police agencies to form and sustain effective multiagency teams. With the sponsorship of the Justice Institute of British Columbia, approval was granted to meet individually with 10 police officials from across Canada and obtain the data required to perform this research.
This was qualitative research in that it concentrated on the experiences of the police officials and sought to achieve insight through the analysis of common experiences. The officials were experienced police experts representing a cross-section of Canadian policing. Each participant came from a service background rich in knowledge and experience of multiagency teams.
The final list of interviewees for this research included one female and nine male officers. Five work in eastern Canada and five in western Canada.
The interviewed officials reported previous service experience collectively representing all 10 provinces and one territory, and the sample contained four federal, three provincial, and three municipal police officers. Four reported having mixed federal/municipal or federal/provincial service experience.
All of the officials had leadership experiences with multiagency teams and were Canadian police officers serving in leadership roles. They ranged in rank from sergeant to executive officers in the top ranks of their police organizations.
Each official provided examples and perspectives drawn from their personal experiences with multiagency teams. From their perspectives and experiences, numerous common themes emerged. These themes demonstrated common observations of police culture, systems, and communication strategies applicable to multiagency police teams and other aspects of police leadership.
Throughout this article the interviewees are referred to as “police officials.”

ne way of meeting the challenges associated with police information sharing is through the creation of multiagency teams. But the road to multiagency teams can be a rocky one. Individual police agencies working in relative isolation for years can find themselves mixing systems and cultures with other agencies.

Like most organizations and institutions, North American police agencies have cultures that are uniquely their own, shaped by their location, size, and structure. And culture, as one researcher has noted, “is a powerful force to be reckoned with in any organization.”1

Nevertheless,there are at the same time common culturaltrends and characteristics that are pervasive at all levels of policing and in all agencies. These cultural similarities and differences must be given due consideration during the formation of multiagency teams.

Culture “is a system of beliefs and actions that characterize a particular group. Culture is the unique whole: the shared ideas, customs, assumptions, expectations, philosophy, traditions, mores, and values that determines how a group of people will behave.”2 Resistance to changes in culture is not unique to police organizations:

Institutional habits run deep; they are often tied to acceptance of the inevitability of the way things have been done. People, set in their ways,resent efforts to change anything, not only in police work but also ineducation, business, and government.3

Cultures can support both positive and negative dynamics in organizational behavior. For instance the culture of the police fraternity, where police officers across the profession view each other as a family of comrades, can be a powerful element for creating unity. Taken to the extreme, this positive culture can create us-versus-them social dynamics and erect barriers that isolate police from the communities they serve. The ability of police leaders to recognize culture and mediate the negative influences is a key element to the development of effective multiagency teams.

Remarkably, with the multiagency integration challenges that police agencies experience, the successes and failures of working together remain largely invisible to the general public. For example, in the public eye nothing about policing causes much concern until there is a critical failure to collaborate and work together resulting in a tragedy that could otherwise have been prevented. These tragedies often lead to external review and the inevitable corrective sanctions that follow.

All have seen public inquiries engage when it is believed that the police have failed to work together effectively. In such inquiries, the evidence is assessed and the causal links are established to find effective remedies. The recommendations of such inquiries receive far-reaching publicity and often the reputations of individuals and the credibility of their organizations are compromised.

In such cases, it probably appears to the general public that the police really do need to be monitored and that effective change only happens in policing when it is directed from outside. In contrast, very little appreciation or recognition is apparent on the occasions when police meet the challenges and create multiagency teams to overcome crime problems. This happens frequently and is accomplished with high levels of skill and professionalism, yet it can go unnoticed.

In order to make critical decisions regarding the formation of multiagency teams police leaders must consider the dynamics of police culture and the functions of police systems that sometimes drive and often derail effective multiagency collaboration. In the following discussion, a group of 10 police leaders experienced in multiagency teams provide the benefit of their insights.

Cultural Barriers to Multiagency Teams

Discussing aspects of culture that effect police agencies in achieving effective multiagency teams, interviewees identified six significant cultural practices.Cultural practices will be reviewed in their order of significance as determined by the number of interview officials who commented on the particular aspect of culture.

Turf: Turf is an underlying cause of many interagency problems. Turf is identified as organizational thinking anchored in history and organizational memories that are hard to overcome. One police official commented:

Oftentimes there are turf issues going on, old news, old history about some police department not paying the proper respect to another police department years ago. . . . Somebody’s kept a long history, on those kinds of things.Suspicion over bad dealings in the past that the membership is happy to get over it because they work at a personal level with one another, but as an organization it tends to be a little less forgiving. And I don’t know why that is but there seems to be an organizational memory out there that exists beyond the ability of the people at the working level to get over it.

The Bigger-Is-Better Perception: In this cultural dynamic larger agencies are seen to dominate and overpower smaller agencies in their interactions. As such the contributions of smaller agencies to multiagency teams are undervalued. One interviewed official offered this description of the bigger-is-better culture:

It seems to be that if there is any kind of an activity that involves more and more police agencies then the biggest is going to be the best and therefore they shall run the show or, as some people would say, might is right.

Case Ownership: In the cultural dynamics of case ownership, police officers fail to effectively share critical information and resist forming partnerships with other agencies. Observed one of the interviewed officials:

Often in police forces we ride a lot on pride and the idea that we can handle it ourselves. Or if we call out and say we need their help, it makes us look weak. As soon as you get into that you’ve got problems. . . . I think deep down insidethere is an element in every police organization that we can get this on our own, we can do this on our own, and it is not just the organization but it tends to be within the police officers themselves.

Secrecy: The dynamics of secrecy in police culture can negatively affect the formation of multiagency teams by impairing the flow of information that makes the formation of teams possible. According to one interviewed official:

People believe that information is power. . . . And unfortunately the police, or the police culture, is no different. These people believe that we know about this and we’ll look after it ourselves. We don’t need the help of outside agencies . . . and I guess that’s unfortunately the police culture.

Organizational Isolation: The cultural dynamics of organizational isolation exist because police organizations work as independent entities with only limited need for interaction with other agencies. The culture of isolation and related communications problems appear when police are tasked with interagency partnering activities. The need for police agencies to overcome isolation is expressed here:

They police one side of a street and we policed the other side of the street. If you do that in isolation, when there is a crisis, you don’t know the guy’s name and you can’t call him by name; you know, it is Inspector So-and-So. You don’t know anything about him. You don’t know his personality; you don’t know if he is going to cooperate with you.

The resistance to break free from isolation is rooted in long histories of doing it on our own, as this interviewed official pointed out:

We can do our own job and we’ve been doing it for 140 years. And that is human nature being as it is, just police departments wishing to be their own entity is certainly a contributing factor for timely interagency cooperation.

Valuing Individuals above the Team: The paramilitary structuring of police organizations is designed to recognize and reward individual achievement by advancement through the ranks. This cultural norm in police organizations does not support the process of forming teams for interagency partnerships. A senior team commander enlarges on these ideas:

There is also a fear that there will be a loss of recognition through the formation of multiagency teams because police culture traditionally recognizes the individual more readily than the team. There needs to be a change in the way that recognition is given. It should be accrued to the team members for their individual and their collective contributions as opposed to being given the individual in charge.

Systemic Barriers to Multiagency Teams

Identified as both contributing to and resulting from problems with cultural practices and communication protocols; organizational systems emerged as influencing effective multiagency teams. These seven subthemes of organizational systemic issues are reviewed in order of their significance.

Lack of Common Database Systems: It appears that in law enforcement no one can decide on a common database and there is a general inability to search and share information stored electronically. As one official points out, this could lead to a critical situation:

When crimes similar in nature are being investigated simultaneously by two neighboring jurisdictions but they don’t know that the two of them are looking for the same thing. First of all they don’t know that the two crimes are similar and that they’re looking for the same suspect. So this is another issue, at least the sharing of information in electronic format because we are in an electronic age and a wireless age, you know, with regard to information management systems.

Paramilitary Structuring:Police agencies have evolved as paramilitary, rank-structured organizations. These structures are hierarchical with a focus on singular leadership and autonomy. Communication within these structures, in the traditional sense, is formal and linear. Modern police agencies obviously will vary in their adherence to the paramilitary structure. However, this heritage is the underpinning structure for many of the previously identified cultures in police organizations.

One of the problems the interviewed officials identified was that the higher-ranking officers who are no longer working operationally do not have effective communication with their counterparts in neighboring agencies. Other problems identified in the paramilitary model were the assignment of duties to the multiagency team leader by way of rank or posted assignment.

Politics and Regionalization:In cases where there is competition for a police jurisdiction taking place and the possibility of job loss exists, the negative implications for cooperation and communication are inevitable. These were described as difficult dynamics to overcome during a regionalization effort. Time and patience to get over this implication and the history of such events were seen as necessary to effective team building in postregionalization scenarios.

Organized Labor Issues:Interviewees pointed to situations where multiagency teams come together and the disparity in rank structure and in wages and benefits between the partnering agencies cause problems. The need to openly recognize these inequalities and build systems for balancing and creating equity were described as critical to having an environment of both real and perceived fairness.

Lack of Common Case Management System: During the interviews, the police officials identified the need for common major case management systems and training as necessary in achieving maximum team function and common understandings of how investigative activities will be managed and recorded.

Resource Issues: The officials expressed the general opinion that funding and resources play a major role in the decision-making process to form multiagency teams. Decisions are made on a cost-benefit basis and on the basis of how much can actually be done within the resource limitations. The assessment of how much of a particular crime problem belongs to any one agency can be an impossible equation. As one official observes:

Money is the main driving issue behind unhealthy cultural behavior. Agencies lack funds to support teams and there is a fear that if resources are shared it could impact service provided to the community and create sub-issues in relation to regionalization. If agencies ask for help it could look like they can’t do the job for their community.

Policy Differences: The police officials pointed to the lack of a uniform policy manual used by all departments. It was noted that individualized and different departmental policies by the team’s member agencies was a problem in the formation of multiagency teams because conflicting policy sometimes becomes a barrier to the progress of the investigation. A compromise was proposed:

When assigned officers come into a multiagency group they have their department’s rulebook, and it is absolutely impossible for each department’s rules to be the same. But certainly the principle behind each rule is the same and you can be respectful of the principle and thus respectful to all of the departments’ policies.

Overcoming Cultural and Systemic Barriers

The major barriers to effective multiagency teams have been identified as rooted in cultural and systemic barriers. The next step in this research was to find the process for overcoming these barriers for there is no question that multiagency teams are essential to the future of policing.

Communication Protocols

When considering the first major barrier, communication, the police officials provided the communication strategies that they personally used and found critical in overcoming the challenges encountered because of cultural and systemic issues. Under the theme of communication protocols three subthemes emerged identifying types of communication significant to the formation of effective multi-agency teams. These subthemes represent the following situational types of communications.

1. Communications that drive timely decision making to form a multiagency team
2. Communications that ensure the multiagency team can function as an independent investigative unit
3. Communications that satisfy the need of contributing organizations to be kept informed at the appropriate levels

Under each of the subthemes, the police officials described communications protocols that contribute to positive outcomes. These protocols will be listed in order of significance.

Protocol 1: Communications That Drive Timely Decision Making to Form Teams

Having Clear Simple Rules for Partnering: The police officials in this research believe that there is a need to have a system established in anticipation of events. Being prepared and knowing in advance what the partnering rules are assures a more effective and timely response at the time of crisis.

Making Genuine Efforts to Communicate: The ability of police agencies to make timely decisions to form multiagency teams depends on the extent to which they are able to communicate. Duplicitous practices of speaking cooperation and not acting in accordance with stated commitments were described among destructive activities sometimes witnessed. The road to true cooperation was described as sometimes requiring a quantum leap of faith as a gesture of forgiving past perceptions of bad relationships.

Having Established Operational Relationships: According to the police officials, the existence of established relationships between operational personnel is important to the communications that drive the timely decision to form multiagency teams. The officials saw established operational relationships as being important to achieve a base of trust and collegiality thus making the move into a multiagency team a process founded on existing good faith.

Having Established Management Liaison between Agencies: The officials express a clear need for liaison between police managers to facilitate the formation of effective multiagency teams. They believed that there could be a general lack of liaison between the managers of police agencies. This liaison between managers was not seen as a process that just happens on its own. It requires structure and genuine intent to participate to overcome organizational differences. Agreeing to the mutual need for this commitment and following up with a commitment to ongoing liaison were seen as critical to this protocol.

Protocol 2. Communications That Ensure That Multiagency Teams Can Function

Effective Leadership: The officials also recognized and expressed the need for multiagency teams to find the correct fit for a team leader. The wrong choice and assignment in this area was seen as fatal to the success of any multiagency team.

Inclusive Communications: Several of the interviewed officials identified the protocol of inclusive communications as necessary to ensure the effective function of a multiagency team. This protocol was seen as important to establish
trust and full participation at the team level and also for trust and understanding at the organizational level.

Mixing Partnering Assignments: Mixing of partnering assignments is a process of putting investigators from different agencies together to work as partners on the multiagency team. The mixing of partnering assignments was described as being an inclusive means of building trust and relationships for integrating the members of various agencies into a multiagency team.

Clear Memorandums of Understanding: A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the document signed by participating agencies to describe and agree to how a multiagency team will be formed, how it will be tasked, how it will be funded, and who it will report to. Although this research recognized the need for the MOU interviewed police officials expressed a certain amount of resistance to the need for the MOU to be overly formalized. The need for MOUs was seen as a necessary business practice that used to excess could diminish trust between organizations.

Protocol 3. Communications That Satisfy the Needs of the Contributing Organizations

Sharing Credit Equally: This practice has been identified as an issue significant to satisfying the needs of the agencies participating in the multiagency team process. There was general agreement between the police officials that credit and recognition should always be shared equally both at the team level and in recognition of organizational participation.

Establishing Clear Reporting Protocols: To satisfy the needs of police organizations contributing resources to a multiagency team officials pointed out that there is a need for clearly established reporting protocols. A participating organization should never be excluded from this formalized reporting loop and should never feel that it has lost contact with the members being contributed to the team. In this reporting practice no one agency should receive preference for the timely accurate reporting of activities and events.

Making Multiagency Teams Work

The observations contributed by the police leaders has demonstrated that forming multiagency teams is a process of collaboration and effective communications at both an individual and an organizational level. At an organizational level the dynamics of culture and negative systemic influences are points of serious consideration not just for those assigned to lead multiagency teams but also for senior decision makers who provide the underlying organizational support. Understanding the systems and organizational culture is critical in understanding the dynamics that will influence multiagency teams.

At an individual level, and directly related to team leadership, are the strategies for overcoming negative systems, developing and maintaining positive working relationships, and building multiagency environments that are open, transparent, and inclusive of all participants. Genuine partnership is a key strategy to success.

A final observation: all of the interviewed police officials displayed several common leadership strengths that were significant to their successes with multiagency teams. The strengths commonly observed by the researcher were big-picture thinking, effective communications, and intentionality in action.

As big-picture thinkers, these leaders demonstrated the ability to step back from the immediate problem or issue and look for the underlying causes. Sometimes those causes were systems, sometimes culture, and sometimes individual behavior. Part of this problem-analysis ability is clearly a product of what is commonly recognized as experience; however, the ability to call upon experience and apply it to a positive outcome is truly a strength of effective leadership.

Effective communications was demonstrated by the ability of leaders to simplify complexity and articulate a clear picture of problems and the related issues. Significantly the strategies identified often related to establishing better lines of communication.

Intentionality in action was evident with these leaders in their ability to apply deliberate strategies and generate positive outcomes. In other words, these leaders intentionally applied a problem-solving approach to the issues that confronted them in relation to achieving effective multiagency teams.

The leadership challenge to create effective multiagency teams will no doubt continue to be a concern for police agencies. This research has defined some of the traditional challenges and several effective strategies that can assist leaders and decision makers in their efforts to improve the multiagency team-building process.

1B. L. Garmire, ed., Local Government Police Management (1982), 215.
2J. O’Toole, Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership, paperback ed. (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 71–72.
3E. J. Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (London: University Press of America, 1989), 88.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 10, October 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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