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Back to Archives | Back to October 2005 Contents 

Law Enforcement-Driven Action Research

By Thurston L. Cosner, Ph.D., Police and Public Safety Psychologist, and Greg M. Loftus, Chief of Rangers, Cleveland Metroparks, Fairview Park, Ohio

n a study comparing highly rated police officers to lower-level performers, high performers were found to be more gregarious, display a more positive outlook on life, exhibit greater interpersonal warmth, and have a quicker reaction style than their lower performing counterparts.1 Although the findings might be useful for selecting new officers, they are of limited value to the sergeant or administrator who is interested in improving performance on the front line. Inasmuch as psychological research may identify important characteristics of police officer candidates, findings are frequently of limited value in providing recommendations for improving performance of existing personnel. Police administrators and supervisors need information that is going to be useful in managing the department. One chief told researchers that he had to deal with present officers. He asked for techniques to make his personnel more gregarious and less deliberative, and observed that this was a nearly impossible task. Another asked if this finding would help his sergeants improve their supervision skills. The answer to their questions was not to be found in the data.

It is little wonder that many police departments are not particularly impressed with the research efforts of social scientists. Few studies produce immediately usable concepts. Police officers are a practical lot. As a rule they do not want to spend time in the abstract, reflective realm. Police want concepts that they can put to use today, not theories that may explain events but offer no immediate practical value.

Police officers are thoroughly trained in the inquiry skills needed for research: observing situations, assessing conditions, developing hypotheses, and taking action to deal with problems. As researchers, the authors have observed substantial research curiosity among police officers about the police culture and social climate studies. Not only have the officers shown an interest in the research process, but their responses to questionnaires suggest an almost universal interest in the development of an achievement culture.

Police Organization Culture
To understand the type of research sought by the police it is necessary to understand the police organizational culture. Research has identified four different types of organizational culture: power, role, achievement, and support.2

Power Culture: Power cultures contain strong and benevolent leaders who reward employees for loyalty. Emphasis is placed on the difference between those who control the resources and those who receive rewards from them. Those who do well in this type of culture obey the chief and the administration. They reap the benefits of unquestioned loyalty to the edicts of the administration. However, there is a disconnect between those who are in power and those who work for them.

Role Culture: The role culture often emerges as a reaction to the power culture. Role cultures emphasize job descriptions and rules for role behaviors. Individual performance is judged against job descriptions and assignment. The individual who does well in the role culture is the individual who knows what his or her prescribed role is and does the job as described.

Achievement Culture: The achievement culture is a work environment in which employees share a commitment to the attainment of departmental goals. In the achievement culture, individuals work as a team to accomplish the mission of the department. Individuals are judged for their ability to work as a team and to make a positive contribution. The individual who does well in the achievement culture is aligned with the goals and mission of the department. There is an intrinsic quality to the culture, and individuals are rewarded by doing a job that fulfills the department's mission.

Support Culture: Support cultures emphasize a cooperative work environment where people are treated as individuals. In the support culture, employees care and are supportive of each other. Individuals have a strong sense of belonging and experience a strong sense of acceptance in this type of culture. The warm, nurturing, and encouraging worker in the support culture is the organization's most prized employee. Emphasis is placed on personal growth, with the assumption that a fully functioning individual will do the best job.

Culture Preference of Police
A major finding from culture studies is that most officers, regardless of rank or department, reveal a strong preference for the achievement work culture. An organization is aligned when it lines people up behind a common vision or purpose, the major feature of the achievement culture. It uses the mission to attract and release the personal energy of its members in the pursuit of common goals. Because members make their contributions freely in response to their commitment to a shared purpose, they willingly give more to the organization, and the whole prospers accordingly. Culture research findings found that officers preferred a culture emphasizing the learning new things to improve the attainment of goals.3

As an aside, it is noted that one of the important personality traits assessed when hiring a new officer is the need for achievement. Because this is the case, the findings regarding the research design preferred by law enforcement is not surprising. Participation in the research endeavor is one way to express an achievement culture preference as well as satisfy an individual's achievement motivation. That there is a lack of attention to the strength of the achievement imperative in the police officer as well as police culture is perhaps one of the major oversights in policing today.

Nearly 100 officers from two departments voluntarily participated in the research for this article. Many asked for feedback of the results. Officers also were interest in conducting research related to their own interests. They were interested in the practical use and application of the studies. These officers wanted to know and understand not only themselves but also their departments. They were curious to learn if performance reviews, training methods, management approaches, police-community relations, and personnel development could be meaningfully studied through research. Although many showed interest at the prospect of doing their own research, they were also frustrated because of work demands. There just doesn't seem to be enough time to do research for today's busy police officer. Their schedules are quite full, and there is little room for additional tasks.

Many situations in police work create frustration, such as dealing with court leniency, improving police-community relations, using the right amount of force, writing effective reports, testifying in court, dealing with inferior or worn-out equipment, and budget problems, to name a few. These sources of frustrations are deficit frustrations, because they involve the salient task demands of police work. Deficit frustrations occur largely as a result of clearly defined work demands in policing. But there is another category of growth frustrations that are largely ignored. Studies have shown that engaging in the research process is a major growth frustration among police officers. Not only does this frustration exist at the level of administrator, it appears to exist at every rank in the departments we studied. Although the need to conduct research is rarely listed as a frustrating condition for police officers, anecdotal findings provide clear evidence for this growth frustration.

Police Research
The aforementioned observations parallel the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) roundtable's findings, which were reported at the 2004 annual IACP conference in Los Angeles. In a document from that conference titled Leadership Tools for Law Enforcement Research Center Projects, it was noted that, contrary to conventional wisdom, law enforcement agencies are actually quite open to the research process. The problems that have been associated with police research, according to the document, have been related to the current exclusionary style of conducting research by academics who are more interested in publications than in providing useful information for departments. The emphasis on publications in the absence of practical accountability has led to police distrust for research. The solution to this problem is the development of a research model that includes those who are affected by the results. Research is a partnership and its best application and realization of meaningful results begins when the user is directly involved in the process.

Included in the same document were 49 recommendations made by experts regarding the need for improved police-researcher coordination. A summary of these recommendations includes the following:

  • Law enforcement agencies should partner with skilled researchers to carefully design research.

  • Law enforcement agencies should train their leaders in evaluating potential research to ensure their ability to identify suitable research partners and to recognize relevant research topics.

  • Law enforcement agencies and research departments should fund educational fellowships that will enable individual officers to take a leave from their agency to design and execute a research project, and they should encourage and fund officers in their pursuit of academic degrees.

  • Agencies should establish regular forums through which their own research interests and priorities are communicated.

  • Law enforcement leaders and researchers should dedicate substantial time to turning a general understanding of the other's distinctive culture into a deeply personal familiarity through a series of concrete involvements.

  • Law enforcement agencies should be willing to initiate research partnerships on regional, national, and local levels.

  • Law enforcement leaders should partner with researchers to perform long-term (multiyear) research projects so that the research may offer results that are robust and lead to sound policy implications.

  • Action research is the most preferred model for conducting research in law enforcement
  • .

The committee also pointed out that some research has been of considerable value: "Over the last thirty years, these interests-merged into law enforcement/researcher partnerships- have produced vastly improved policing practices in vital areas of criminal justice. Not only are law enforcement leaders overcoming the distrust that resulted from decades of interactions with researchers who only sought to expose agency corruption, but also they are discovering researchers' own commitment to the development of best policing practices. In the last ten years, several high profile research partnerships have succeeded in aiding law enforcement agencies identify their most pressing policy questions and discover workable solutions."4

Action Research
It is the opinion of the IACP team that the best model for police-researcher alliance is an action research approach, an approach to research first employed by Lewin in the 1940s.5 Action research emphasizes full participation in the research endeavor by everyone who is directly affected by the process and results. It is a participatory model of research designed by those who are most likely to be affected by the findings, allowing everyone the opportunity to participate in the process. Because police officers participate in the design and conduct the research, they are likely to make good use of the results. The following are some characteristics of action research:6

  • Is conducted by a team encompassing a professional action researcher and members of a community (in this case the police community) seeking to improve their situation

  • Rests on the belief and experience that all people accumulate, organize, and use complex knowledge constantly in everyday life

  • Develops information that provides both practical and theoretical knowledge

  • Is an alliance between the researcher and the clients or subjects

  • Democratizes the relationship between the professional researcher and the participants

  • Is a change process where people and the system are affected as a result of the research process

  • Results in findings that are more likely to be used because the studies and ideas are generated and studied by the participants

  • Enhances organizational effectiveness and efficiency by building involvement in the achievement culture

  • Leads to greater use and application by the departments

  • Is an inquiry process and is not just concerned with results

Cooperating with academic institutions makes a number of benefits available to law enforcement agencies. The expertise and guidance of academic researchers, schooled in the research process, would help guide individuals who display an interest. For example, police officers participating in the research process could be awarded academic credits, which could be used to pursue degrees or to receive certification for their learning. Eventually, those who conduct the research should become leaders of department research teams, as the model gains acceptance by rank-and-file personnel in the department.

In summing up the need for partnering the research process, the IACP committee had this to say: "Effective partnerships between leaders and academic researchers are critical to discovering and implementing best policing practices. Robust research projects performed within law enforcement agencies with the direct involvement of law enforcement leaders lead to sound and substantive policy. These partnerships are mutually satisfactory: researchers are intensely interested in pursuing such projects, while law enforcement leaders are just as interested in turning the results into enhanced policing practices."7

It is incumbent on police departments to take the initiative in this practice. This is the right time for action and the development of an action research model to address the growth frustrations of the changing police cultural landscape. It is an idea whose time has come. Let's not miss this opportunity. By taking a proactive stand in the research process, police departments will not only have a greater role in defining areas that directly benefit departmental effectiveness and efficiency, but it will provide individuals in departments the opportunity to satisfy a long-neglected frustration: a frustration that arises from having others tell the police who they are, and what they should be doing. Once this is accomplished, officers will discover that the greatest influence comes from having a say in what is said about the police. ■

11 T. L. Cosner, D. Maine, and W. Baumgart, "Personality Characteristics of High vs. Average Performing Police Officers," unpublished study (Euclid, Ohio: 1966).
2 T. L. Cosner, T. Brickman, and R. Payne, "Exploring the Police Work Environment," conference paper, International Public Management Association Assessment Council's annual meeting (Baltimore: 2003); T. L. Cosner, R. Payne, and T. Brickman, "Exploring the Implicit Police Work Environment," conference paper, International Public Management Association Assessment Council's annual meeting (Seattle: June 2004).
3 Cosner, Payne, and Brickman, "Exploring the Implicit Police Work Environment."
4 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Unresolved Problems & Powerful Potentials: Improving Partnerships Between Law Enforcement Leaders and University Based Researchers (August 2004), 3
5 K. Lewin, "Action Research and Minority Problems," Journal of Social Issues 2 (1946): 34-46.
6 T. L. Cosner, "Developing and Maintaining a Police Psychology Program," conference paper, Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologys annual meeting (New Orleans: 2000); D. J. Greenwood and M. Levin, Introduction to Action Research (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998).
7 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Unresolved Problems & Powerful Potentials, 3.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 10, October 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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