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Transforming Underperforming Smaller Police Agencies into High-Performance Organizations

By Paul Schultz, Chief, Canon City, Colorado, Police Department

any IACP members represent the nearly 18,000 state, local, and tribal agencies in the United States who serve populations of 50,000 or fewer with fewer than 25 sworn officers. These agencies are led by dedicated police executives and their officers who want nothing more than to adequately protect and serve. However, during the recent economic downturn, smaller communities have been hit hardest with economic challenges that compromise that goal and a devastating rise in suburban and rural crime rates. These challenges impact hiring, retention of good officers, purchase of technology and needed equipment, and the programs that bring officers close to the community and schools, such as through school resource officers and crisis intervention reams. Agency personnel are stretched in many cases beyond the breaking point, making retention of quality personnel increasingly challenging.

Today, many smaller police departments are in need of being re-energized due to these challenges. These agencies are often well meaning with an excellent staff but may have had a leadership challenge in the form of a police chief not being successful or a series of issues that have caused morale to plummet. This article will address how to be a successful change agent, not only addressing how to revitalize a troubled smaller agency but also highlighting several programs that have proven to be successful in transforming underperforming smaller agencies into highperformance organizations.

Commonalities in Underperforming Smaller Agencies

Having served as the new executive who was hired to turn around an agency that is not performing at an adequate level, I have identified several similarities and indicators of underperformance that have been consistent across agencies, regardless of state.

  • Low morale is one of the first indicators of a low-performing department. When poor morale takes over the organization, an attitude of malaise is evident at every level in the department. Often, even high-performing employees are seen just going through the motions without any enthusiasm or hope that things will improve.

  • As a new chief in an underperforming agency, I first assess morale, and esprit de corps. When there is an evident lack of pride in one’s workmanship, staff and executives alike can view below average work as acceptable. Turning this dynamic around into pride in one’s agency, colleagues, executives, and community permeates each and every step the new executive considers and takes.

  • A lack of accountability, or just doing the minimum or less than the minimum with no consequences, is often the product of low morale and a lack of esprit de corps. If managers do not hold staff accountable, when performance evaluations are meaningless or mistakes are accepted without review, liability to safety, professional standards, and agency and community’s reputation are severely impacted.

  • Ineffective or inadequate training is a symptom of a failing agency. When a well-designed training program does not exist and there is no cohesive training program that coordinates recruit training and in-service training, everyone is at risk of legal liability and personal safety. Often in these cases, supervisors do not have adequate training or there is a lack of advanced leadership training that reduces the agency’s bench strength, should there be turnover in the department.

In addition to the above indicators, other signs of underperformance include the following:

  • Technology is at a basic level and often outdated.
  • Crime analysis is either very basic or does not exist.
  • Internal affairs policies are overly harsh and not transparent.
  • Employees are fearful of the former chief and are overly concerned with the chief’s successor.
  • There is a disconnect between the department and the political leaders in the community.
  • Community policing is just a term—and is not truly embraced.
  • A lack of professional accomplishments for individual agency members and for the agency itself exists.
  • A lackluster recruitment program with a reduced applicant pool is used.
  • A poor or nonexistent relationship exists with the media.

Assessing the Department

How do you know if your department is underperforming, or, if you are the new chief, how do you ascertain the current state of the department?

There are several formal and informal methods to determine the state of the agency. Employee meetings, internal surveys, and small group meetings are the usual method. Meeting with formal and informal agency leaders for input is critical as well. Meeting with political and community leaders will also provide a snapshot of how the agency is perceived. Recent newspaper articles can be insightful as well. Also, having discussions with the employee association, union representatives, or both will be revealing. Meetings with your law enforcement peers can be helpful. A new chief who does not establish and maintain positive peer relationships is clearly headed in the wrong direction.

One of the best ways to assess what is really happening or has happened in the organization falls into two categories. One is to have individual meetings with every department employee and take careful notes. Do you see common themes emerging? Do you see common frustrations and common suggestions for improvement?

The other is observation. When you walk the halls of your department do you see happy, cheerful, engaged employees who are willing to talk with the chief of police? Or do you see employees whispering, acting fearful, and being distant? These are signs that should not be disregarded.

Making Positive Changes that Will Last and Transform the Agency

After your assessment is completed the making of a realistic improvement plan is critical. The entire supervisory staff as well as employees at every level in the organization should have input in the new direction the department is taking. After the discussion, there should be a written plan that is disseminated to every department employee. A clear expectation should be communicated to all employees that the department is now going to be the best it can be or perhaps the best in the region or the state. Now is the time to set a goal for which everyone can strive. Setting the tone that average is no longer the standard and that “Excellence through Teamwork” is the new standard is very appropriate.

Positive leadership is essential at all times but is critical at the beginning of your administration and in the transformation of your agency into a high-performance organization. Being visible (in uniform) throughout the agency and the community, leading by example, being fair and reasonable, and demonstrating a strong work ethic are all hallmarks of a positive leader. Advising all employees that there is now a clean personnel slate for everyone allows all employees a new starting point and will work toward transforming even the most recalcitrant department members into realizing that they have a new opportunity to succeed. The message that all are welcome aboard the new journey but only their best work will be allowed is important. Advising employees that they will have a voice in the future of the organization will prevent the attitude of not being allowed to be involved from festering. A shared leadership approach with monthly employee representatives and management meetings allows for more input and the prevention of problems before they occur. These meetings are also a way to ensure positive morale within the department—employees should have a say on how the agency is run.

Specific Changes to Develop a High-Performance Organization

A realization in the department that community policing will be the agency method of policing is essential. Also important is that the concept of community policing will be reevaluated with new models being explored. Among these new community policing concepts should be the idea of reintroducing foot patrol and reconnecting with the community. Foot patrol has been well received virtually everywhere it has been instituted. Assigning graduates of the field training officer (FTO) program to a two-week foot patrol assignment is but one way to increase foot patrol in your community.

Low-cost crime analysis using college interns and commercially available crime analysis software is one way to improve the capabilities of the department. Using college interns is free, effective, and immediately sets up a partnership opportunity between the department and the college. This can be valuable later on as a recruiting strategy. The utilization of crime analysis to develop a directed patrol program will also assist in reducing the crime rate, which is certainly one way to measure organizational effectiveness.

A focus on crime prevention is another way to reduce crime and improve how the organization is perceived in the community. This may mean acquiring a new position or reassigning a department member to this function but the dividends will be seen for years.

A thorough assessment of technology needs to occur. If the acquisition of technology has been weak, then this effort needs to be immediately improved. Technology as a force multiplier is a well-known theory. If money for technology is difficult to obtain then grants, being a test and evaluation site, and sharing of technology with other departments should be explored. Having the right technological tools will set your agency apart from others.

Training is often referred to as the road to success. A law enforcement agency in the 21st century must be well trained. A complete training program should be developed that professionally addresses recruit training, FTO training, in-service training, supervisory training, and leadership training. There are many free and reduced-cost law enforcement training programs available. What is often lacking is a concerted effort to take advantage of these trainings and a well-thought-out plan of what is needed. One goal that should be achievable is to have the entire supervisory staff receive the latest leadership training within a three-year timeframe. Another realistic goal is to make your department a regional training center. This will increase your agency’s reputation for professionalism.

The ability to obtain grants is certainly a way to improve and maximize resources. Oftentimes an underperforming agency will be weak in the area of grant acquisition and grant management. A well-defined, active grant program can make a tremendous difference in a small law enforcement agency.

Recruitment of qualified personnel is absolutely critical to future success. Hiring the right people is certainly a key to success. Where to recruit, what traits a successful recruit will have, and how to retain the recruit are all challenges for any law enforcement agency. However, significant thought should be given to fit and retention. Will this recruit fit into what my vision is of the future of this law enforcement agency and will recruits stay? Continual turnover in personnel is a major problem for most small agencies. Hiring the person with the highest test scores who only stays with your department two years may not be the best choice.

Practical improvements to your existing FTO program is another way to further develop your personnel and prime them to lead your agency towards a successful transformation. In whatever FTO model you are currently using, do you have the ability to provide training to new recruits in public speaking, effective problem solving, how to effectively deal with difficult people, and ethics? The mastery of these everyday skills by all employees is critical to the success of your department.

The effective management of the media is an area that must be addressed. The chief’s ability to work effectively with the media is crucial. A mutually respectful and mutually beneficial relationship should be developed between the media and the department. This will allow each side to get their message out to the public.

Professional relationships need to be developed and maintained with local political leaders. Their requests for information should be a priority for the chief. Keeping political leaders informed of both negative events and, equally important, positive events is essential. No one likes surprises—especially not politicians. They must be kept informed in a timely manner. If these relationships are positive, they will often be your agency’s best cheerleaders.

Build a lasting legacy for your agency. Develop your personnel, create a succession plan, and leave the agency in a better state than it was when you took it over are all keys to building a lasting legacy and transforming an agency into a high-performance organization. All leaders have a finite amount of time to build and transform their departments into state-of-the-art agencies, which they then must turn over to the next chief. During this time, are you planning for the future, are you acquiring the building blocks to success, and are you maximizing the potential of your people? Hopefully, you are setting your people up to succeed and not to fail, and, when they do fail, do you study the failure so it will not occur again, or are you quick to punish? An overly harsh or secretive internal affairs system promotes only distrust not accountability and inhibits long-term positive change.

Hopefully, you are working well with your peer agencies and at the same time are attempting to distinguish yourself from your peers through innovative community programs and employee development. I am a believer in attempting to obtain recognition for your agency through accreditation, department awards, and community recognition. Celebrating and acknowledging success is a definitive way to enhance the public perception of your agency. Leading the way with innovation, research, and publication of your results enhances the agency’s standing both in the community and in the greater law enforcement field.

Demanding only the best that employees can offer ensures that there will always be a high level of pride from all members of the department, and this esprit de corps sets the stage for future successes. Being a demanding boss is not a bad thing; it’s a smart thing. Chiefs of police have the option to accept mediocrity or to transform their departments into high-performance organizations. Becoming a high-performance organization takes time, effort, skill, and collaboration, but it is certainly attainable and definitely worthwhile. Don’t we owe this to our employees, our communities, and our profession?  ♦

Paul D. Schultz is chief of police of the Canon City, Colorado, Police Department. He previously served as chief of police in La Vista, Nebraska, and in Lafayette, Colorado. He has also served as the director of Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training. He has 40 years of law enforcement experience with 18 years as a chief of police. Chief Schultz has a master’s degree in Administration of Justice from the University of Colorado at Denver. He is a graduate of the FBI LEEDS program and the FBI LEEDA program, as well as the Police Executive Forum’s Senior Management Institute for Police and the New England Institute for Law Enforcement. He currently teaches criminal justice courses at Regis University and at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. He can be reached at 719-276-5611 or at

Please cite as:

Paul Schultz, "Transforming Underperforming Smaller Police Agencies into High-Performance Organizations," The Police Chief 80 (April 2013): 28–33.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 4, April 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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