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Leadership in Police Organizations: The Leading Edge

By Erin McKay, Writer and Editor, Erin McKay Editorial Services, Cortez, Colorado

his truth is undeniable: The world is getting smaller—and more complicated. The high-speed, technological age in which we live has blurred boundaries and has brought into proximity personalities and cultures that in previous generations would not have rubbed shoulders. As with professionals in every line of work, those in law enforcement need an understanding of human psychology and leadership skills to excel in an increasingly diverse world. Fortunately, the Leadership in Police OrganizationsSM (LPO) course, offered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Center for Police Leadership and Training, can help managers disseminate this knowledge and grow a cooperative, capable, and committed workforce that has these proficiencies.

Thus far, the increasingly popular LPO course has touched the lives of thousands of people employed in law enforcement. And, despite the challenging nature of the LPO course, many prospective students want to take it. The LPO course was designed to ensure low-cost, high-quality training that can be delivered at the local level using local resources. Currently, the IACP has worked with more than 300 law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels to teach the LPO course. The program has been certified by several state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) departments, including those in California and Colorado. In addition, many departments have partnered with local academic institutions to review the curriculum so students can earn three hours of either undergraduate- or graduate-level credits. Recently, the program was adopted by the Canadian Police College and the Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Police Service, which are working with IACP to deliver the program throughout Canada. Portions of the course have also been taught to Iraqi and Armenian police.


The LPO course has its origins in work originally created at the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership. This initial curriculum work later was modified by an advisory group under a grant to the IACP by the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office to develop a pilot program and follow with a train-the-trainer program. From 2006 to 2010, this program was fielded in law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Using funds provided through a grant from the Motorola Corporation, the IACP updates the material each year based on feedback from its partner agencies and the student evaluations.

In 2010, a yearlong effort to update the curriculum resulted in the creation of the current curriculum. The LPO course is based on theories and principles that can be, and have already been, applied to real-life situations. It focuses particularly on the way in which beliefs, experiences, and other factors influence one’s behavior and motivations. The centerpiece of the course is the leader thought process—a specific formula or model for analyzing relationship situations and issues. The leader thought process originally was developed at West Point by a working group involving Brigadier General Howard Prince and later Lieutenant Colonel John Halstead, who worked with the IACP and an advisory group to modify the program for the law enforcement community.

Besides teaching people how to lead individuals, the LPO course coaches people on how to lead groups, organizations, and efforts toward change. For any organization or enterprise, group dynamics can be the difference between success and failure. The LPO course attendees study these dynamics to become adept at making groups cohesive and better able to reach organizational goals. This knowledge acquired by participants about themselves and others has enhanced relationships both on and off the job, making a profound, life-changing impact on many course graduates. For these students, the LPO course has proven to be much more than an opportunity to develop personal skills; it has enabled them to inspire and be exemplary followers.

Not Your Father’s Leadership Class

According to Kevin Gilmartin and John (Jack) Harris authorities in the field of law enforcement, management must foster “group processes that allow genuine input to organizational issues” and that result in sincere “buy-in” of organizational goals.1 Furthermore, Gilmartin and Harris have maintained that “the key to any supervisory training program is not the ‘textbook’ theory. It is the ability to apply theory to actual supervisory situations and the development of practical skills.”2 This is precisely what sets the LPO apart from other leadership courses.

Bill Meeks, who has been an LPO instructor for the IACP since 2006 and was a police officer for 29 years, said that the LPO course is the only program he has experienced that transforms individuals, groups, and organizations. The LPO course’s facilitator-led, interactive approach accommodates a variety of learning styles and encourages not only class participation but honest soul-searching. “Students rediscover why they got into this profession in the first place,” Meeks said. “The case studies and the journals help them put it all together, taking the information from theory to applied science.”3 Those who complete the course return to their departments and become guiding coalitions for positive and lasting change.

Another factor that distinguishes the LPO course from other leadership courses is that it seeks to make leaders consciously competent rather than accidentally competent. “When I was successful, I didn’t know why I was,” Meeks said of his early leadership coups.4 Meeks was poised to become a use-of-force consultant upon his retirement from active duty, but his life took a dramatic turn when he went through the LPO course himself in 2005; he was altered by it, and, in turn, he has been changing others through his teaching as a master instructor. He has received dozens of letters from LPO course students that describe these personal and organizational transformations.

One six-year patrol officer wrote that “LPO has changed my view of not only my colleagues and supervisor, but the department as a whole.”5 A lieutenant described how the concepts learned in the LPO course had enabled him to resolve a conflict between two of his officers that “nearly came to blows.”6 This person took the time to apply LPO course principles and wrote that “it was almost magical when they got to the root cause and realized how something so simple caused so much drama. I swear you could actually see their eyes click with the sudden understanding! The method works! It works, and I’m ready to defy anybody who thinks it is nothing more than touchy-feely hocus pocus.”7

“I witnessed officers’ hearts open up as they saw and heard . . . genuine competence, character, and a willingness to breach the gap we identified,” wrote a communications supervisor. “Many of us are now willing to give [the] chief the trust we had unknowingly withheld from him for so long. That trust, and our ability to ‘lead up,’ will hopefully bring us to levels of success that surpass even the chief’s expectations.” Another graduate confided, “I must admit the amount of material came fast and furious, leaving much of it as a blur in my memory. Having said that, I now find myself utilizing the ‘blur’ more often than I thought possible.” 8 Another officer reported that “[the] LPO [course] has changed my view of not only my colleagues and supervisors, but the department as a whole,”9 while another student shared, “I wanted to attend the LPO since I first learned the instruction was being offered across the department, but I had to wait until it was my turn, whenever that was to be. The wait was worth it a thousand times over.”10

Variety Is Essential

Managers have found that sending a vertical slice of sworn and nonsworn employees of different ranks to an LPO course is especially constructive. Thirty-four people attended the Colorado State Patrol’s (CSP’s) first LPO course offered in August, September, and October 2010 in Golden, Colorado, at the patrol academy. The participants constituted a cross section of civilians, communications professionals, administrative support personnel, a number of majors and captains, and one lieutenant colonel. According to Master Sergeant Gary Eyer, who is an LPO course instructor and coordinator, CSP Chief James M. Wolfinbarger decided to send all of his patrol members to LPO training after the agency conducted its first class. “The organization’s goal is to have all CSP employees complete the LPO course, and we are on track to attain that goal in November of 2016. Because everyone—at all levels—is attending the LPO course, we have many different perspectives and can apply these concepts across the organization.”11

Eyer said that the leader thought process is being used at the organizational, the group, and the individual levels. “In fact, someone used the term ‘root cause’ just this morning. We are starting to use LPO terminology and processes as we handle issues that come up.” The CSP has also made some minor but important shifts in the LPO curriculum. “A good change we’ve made is to fold the diversity lesson (formerly lesson 21) into lesson 3 (individual differences),” Eyer said. “This will get people thinking about personal bias earlier in the course. We all have filters and perceptional shortcuts, but we need to be aware of them and open to change.”12

In Wisconsin, the state department of justice has been an integral part of expanding the program beyond the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Police Department, where Chief Edward Flynn first brought the program to the state. Sharon Miemietz, a career development consultant with the Training and Standards Bureau of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, explained that the bureau provides a grant that covers the lion’s share of the cost of the LPO course: the instructors and the textbook (agencies pick up a nominal tuition fee and any travel and lodging expenses). “Host agencies apply for a specialized training grant and use our funds to bring in the LPO course to a region and make it cost effective,” she said.13 The host agency gets to choose who will fill the majority of the slots (typically 10) in a 36-person LPO course, and sergeants and lieutenants are usually the first to attend. Employees from elsewhere in the region fill the rest of the slots, from patrol officers to the chief, as well as some civilians.

Miemietz said that her organization first offered the LPO course during the summer of 2008. It took place at the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy in west-central Wisconsin at Fort McCoy military base, and agencies throughout the state were invited to send participants. The program has grown from two courses per year to five, with 15 to 20 different law enforcement agencies represented at each. “We have concentrated on regionalizing the training awards in order to spread the LPO course across Wisconsin in a uniform fashion. It is a huge benefit to all agencies large and small,” Miemietz said. “Leadership is something you have to learn how to do.”14 According to state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, “The motto of the Department of Justice is ‘we exist to assist.’ Using our training dollars to bring high-quality leadership training to police personnel throughout the state is just one way the Department fulfills its mission and my commitment to assisting local law enforcement.”15

Inclusion of the Elements of the LPO Course in Recruit Training

In the Milwaukee Police Department, about 625 people have completed the LPO course to date. They have represented all levels of the organization, from assistant chief to patrol officer. “We also include civilian management and civilian employees in the training,” Detective Jim Olson said. “I consider them to be a vital component of the organization, and their inclusion is a tremendous asset to the learning environment. One of the biggest effects of the LPO course has been the personal and professional development of the people who work here. Everyone gains a deeper understanding of human behavior and an appreciation of each other’s differences.”16

Olson was in the very first LPO class held in Milwaukee in the fall of 2008. IACP instructors led this first class and the next four sessions. The following January, he was one of 11 Milwaukee Police Department employees trained to be LPO course facilitators in an IACP Faculty Development workshop. As the LPO coordinator, Olson organizes five courses per year and is currently on his 19th session. New recruits also get some exposure to the LPO course by way of a 12-hour class that covers the leader thought process, organizational culture, and the individual system.

Milwaukee Police Department LPO course graduates have created an intranet blog that provides a forum for discussing organizational issues. Among other things, the blog allows management to seek input from varying levels of the department when contemplating changes. This two-way communication has already identified and corrected problems using LPO concepts. “For example, someone asked, ‘Why are we assigning high-growth needs people to work at the jail? That’s a low-growth needs job,’” Olson said. “Now that volunteers are chosen for this duty, the people who are there want to be there, so turnover is lower and group structure is more effective.”17

Pennsylvania State Police employees attended that agency’s first LPO course in September 2007 at the police academy in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Since then, the entire three-week course has been held seven times, graduating 132 agency personnel and 12 municipal police officers. According to Lieutenant Christopher Paris, assistant department disciplinary officer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the organization conducts an LPO class one week per month over the span of three months, typically in the spring and the fall when students’ absence from their regular duties will have the least impact on operational functions. Thus far, captains, lieutenants, and sergeants have attended the course, representing the best level at which to start putting LPO theories into practice. “We try very hard to make the group as heterogeneous as possible from across all the organizational segments so that the class benefits from many perspectives,” Paris said.18

Relationship Revelations

Paris attended the first LPO course in Hershey and now is a national instructor for the IACP (the organization currently has an in-house cadre of 10 LPO instructors). He said the course has been well received, in part because of the science behind the program. By the time they finish the course, students understand that good leaders are not just born that way and that leadership skills can be cultivated.

In response to requests from fire chiefs in the western part of the United States, the IACP worked with a group of police and fire personnel to create the Leadership in Public Safety OrganizationsSM (LPSO) program, which modified the original LPO course material to include examples and case studies for the fire community. Using the LPSO program, firefighters and police in an area can share the expense of offering a class while training jointly with police and fire instructors. Dave Bierwiler, chief of the Medford, Oregon, Fire Department, attended the first LPSO course in the spring of 2010 at Glendale, Arizona. Bierwiler was so impressed with what he learned that he brought the course back to Medford, where it was offered in December 2011 and in January and February of this year. More than 20 students—chiefs, deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs, captains, engineers, and support staff—completed this training, which turned out to be a team-building exercise. According to Bierwiler, the mix of law enforcement and firefighting professionals “absolutely enriched” the class. The conversation the course prompted between the two specialties was particularly beneficial; each group learned how the other group operates and why. The outcome was mutual understanding and respect. “We can all speak a common language now,” Bierwiler said, “and we are implementing it.”19

Bierwiler believes that LPO psychological and behavioral concepts are applicable to people in any line of work and said that the Medford Fire Department is already using the principles to address real-life issues. For example, “On Friday we were in a discussion, and one of the chief officers commented that we needed to identify areas of interest [an important step in the leader thought process].” 20 A few graduates were so impressed with the course that they convinced Southern Oregon University to incorporate the LPSO program into one of its criminal justice classes, for which students earn eight undergraduate credits upon completion.

Sustainability and Affordability

In her 2010 article for The Police Chief, Cecelia Rosser, director of IACP Center for Police Leadership and Training (CPLT), wrote that the IACP is striving to make the LPO course increasingly affordable and works with agencies to help them develop their own course facilitators.21 Once the local instructors have completed the program, IACP master instructors mentor them through the delivery of the program locally. After mentoring is complete, the local instructors sustain the program and deliver it in their areas. Approximately 90 percent of the agencies continue the program by participating in a faculty development workshop to train their own instructors to continue delivering the program locally, according to IACP Training Director Cecelia Rosser.

The IACP also maintains a SharePoint website on which all of the course materials, PowerPoints, videos, and lesson plans are loaded for the local instructors to access. In addition, using funding provided by the Motorola Foundation, the IACP hosts an annual partners’ meeting for all the departments using the LPO course. At this meeting, best practices are exchanged and new materials for the coming year are introduced to the program coordinators for all the agencies. Furthermore, the IACP is developing new courses that build on the LPO course materials and focus on the unique challenges of leading in a multicultural community.

Simply put, the LPO course gives individuals and organizations a definite advantage. Assessments made before and after this course have shown a measurable increase in leadership fitness.

For more information on the LPO program, please visit or contact CPLT staff members Jennifer Porter at or 703-836-6767, extension 366; or Kay Martinez at or 703-836-6767, extension 261. ♦


1Kevin M. Gilmartin and John (Jack) J. Harris, “Malcontent Cops: An Intervention Strategy,” in Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families (Tucson, Ariz.: E-S Press, 2002), (accessed June 12, 2012).
3Bill Meeks, phone interview, May 24, 2012; and email, June 1, 2012.
5Bill Meeks, email, May 25, 2012.
11Gary Eyer, phone interview, March 28, 2012; and email, March 28, 2012.
13Sharon Miemietz, phone interview, April 6, 2012; and email, April 25, 2012.
16Jim Olson, phone interview, April 11, 2012; and email, April 25, 2012.
18Christopher Paris, phone interview, March 27, 2012; and email, April 2, 3012.
19Dave Bierwiler, phone interview, March 30, 2012; and email, April 2, 2012.
21Cecelia Rosser, “Developing Leaders through Leadership in Police OrganizationsSM (LPO),” The Police Chief 77 (May 2010): 38–44, (accessed June 12, 2012).

Please cite as:

Erin McKay, "Leadership in Police Organizations: The Leading Edge," The Police Chief 79 (August 2012): 78–82.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 8, August 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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