Managing Police Personnel Using Scott’s Pillars of Organizations

Personnel choices comprise the most complicated and delicate decisions that a law enforcement administrator must make. From hiring a new officer to promotion time or the unfortunate occurrences when a dismissal is the appropriate option, law enforcement executives are faced with a wide array of choices and consequences. Some administrators have these decisions complicated by a strong civil service board or political pressure, while others might have very limited options if they lead an agency with fewer than 10 officers. Whatever the situation, administrators must not only make the best decision for everyone in the department and the community they serve, but they must be able to justify and, in some cases, defend their decisions under intense scrutiny. This is where an understanding of a conceptual framework aids the police leader in the decision-making process.

From hiring a new officer to promotion time or the unfortunate occurrences when a dismissal is the appropriate option, law enforcement executives are faced with a wide array of choices and consequences.

On such framework that can aid in police personnel decisions was proposed by W. Richard Scott in his model for analyzing institutions presented in his book Institutions and Organizations.1 This conceptual framework can serve as a guide for a deeper understanding of how personnel decisions effect the department and how to frame questions when decisions are made and explained.

Scott describes institutions as comprising “regulative, normative, and cultural cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.” This definition serves as the basis for what Scott calls the “Three Pillars of Institutions” in his analytical framework. Scott believes that these pillars stabilize and provide meaning to institutions through processes that they set in motion. One example is how the normative practices aid in harmony between officers by establishing a code of acceptable behavior and maintaining this code. It is these pillars that serve as motivating factors and hold the organization together.

Each pillar corresponds to a distinct arena of personnel decisions in police agencies. For example, officers are generally hired within the normative pillar. Criteria for employment and scenario questions reflect the norms and values of the department, and candidates are usually selected according to best fit. Disciplinary action is within the regulative pillar. Officers who violate regulations and act outside their authority are subject to specified sanctions. Promotions occur within the cultural cognitive pillar. Officers who take on a role within the department are promoted to reflect their role. While the action in promotion may take place in the regulative pillar, the decision is made in the cultural cognitive pillar. In order to truly understand how the pillars apply to police organizations; however, a clearer understanding of each pillar is required.

Scott’s Pillars

The three pillars of institutions comprise the forces that hold an organization together—how a social organism functions and maintains its sense of homeostasis. The first pillar, regulative, is the least complex to understand and apply to the police profession.

The regulative pillar in a law enforcement organization is composed of the standard operating procedures, rules of criminal procedure, criminal and vehicle codes, police contract, and state statutes that govern police power. This pillar is the codified framework around which a law enforcement organization is built. It is the source of the authority to arrest externally and to provide disciplinary action internally. It is quite literally the regulations that govern the operations and actions of the agency. This dynamic connects most clearly because police are the teeth of the regulative pillar of society in general.

The next pillar is the normative pillar. This is the unwritten rules of how an organization functions. It comprises the norms and values that dictate behavior within the organization. The norms are the guiding principles on how things should be done, and the values are the idealized form of how things ought to be. This pillar includes what is referred to in police work as the “common practices” of behavior and management. While the ideas of roles within the organization stem from this pillar, it is the next pillar that gives them life.

The cultural cognitive pillar is essentially the culture of the organization. The cultural cognitive pillar is the self-actualization of the officers and of the institution as a whole. This pillar is where the organization establishes its identity and reputation. The other pillars may define the “where and what” and the “why and how,” but this pillar defines the “who” of the organization. In this pillar, officers identify themselves according to the normative roles, and they assume these roles, creating and attaching meaning to the roles and other symbols within the organization.

Cycle or Ladder

Much like the discussion over the model for the use-of-force continuum in police work, there is some debate as to whether the pillars are seen as a ladder or a cycle. While the pillars range from basic regulations to how officers see themselves in the organization, the pillars are not exclusive of each other and can be seen as functioning in a cycle. The regulative pillar defines the organization through rules and laws. The normative pillar then guides the behavior and values of the organization. The cultural cognitive pillar then gives rise to the culture of the department and the officer’s role within. The individual within the department can be seen as an entity brought into the group through regulations, such as a motion passing in borough council to approve a new hire. That officer is then shown the norms and values by their training officer and supervisors during his or her formative years in the department. The officer eventually understands the operational side of the agency enough that the officer begins to assimilate into the culture and define his or her own role within the group. In the cultural cognitive stage, that officer may define a role to a degree that the officer is then promoted, which is a codified role definition under the regulative pillar, and the cycle begins anew.

Maslow’s Hierarchy  of Needs

Another model that may be useful in conceptualizing the three pillars of Scott is the better-known theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.2 Maslow believed that all people are motivated by a continuum of factors that build upon each other. The needs are physiological, safety, love or belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Each need must be met before the higher order need can be addressed. When one examines the model of Scott’s institutional pillars through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy, it becomes evident that the pillars all serve to meet one or more of the needs on the hierarchy.

The regulative pillar serves to meet the physiology and safety needs. This pillar establishes the roof over the head of the member and provides security through their contract and laws governing labor practices. In a simple manner of speaking, this pillar allows an individual’s basic needs to be met through the regulative construction of being paid.

The normative pillar meets the love or belonging and esteem needs. The normative pillar is where an individual is able to fall in and follow the group. This pillar provides the individual with the guidance and comfort of being part of a group and is where a person answers the question of how the group sees the individual.

The cultural cognitive pillar meets the self-actualization needs of the individual. In this pillar, officers are no longer concerned with how the group sees them, but rather how they see themselves in the group. In this pillar, a person becomes the group member that the person wants to be and enables himself or herself to effect change within the organization in a way that is not possible when acting within the first two pillars.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs becomes important in framing the motivation of actors within the pillars when applying Scott’s model to the analysis of personnel decisions within a police organization. Understanding an officer’s motives within the pillars is essential for applying the framework to decision-making. This allows the decision maker to consider the impact of his or her decision on the person as well as the group.

The framework of Scott’s pillars lends itself to an understanding of hiring, promotional, and disciplinary practices in a police department. It is through the lens of the pillars that these personnel matters can provide a clear picture of how personnel choices affect an organizatoin and under which lens they are to be considered. By keeping these decisions within the appropriate pillars, a leader can provide stability in times of change.

Applying Scott’s Pillars to Personnel Decisions

Scott’s pillars are readily applicable to personnel decisions in a police agency. Because police officers are required to meet a wide array of specifications and possess a number of competencies unrelated in any other field, it becomes increasingly important for administrators to understand how these functions fit into the organization. By assigning the question to one of the pillars, an administrator can quickly decide what internal system in the department is at issue or where to look for a solution.

Discipline—The Regulative Pillar

The regulative pillar is applicable within the disciplinary and dismissal code. While awards and citations are given for exemplary work, those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and their application might not be codified. The disciplinary code, however, must be specific and must include defined sanctions for violations. In this framework, a formal disciplinary action must be taken. An understanding exists that informal sanctions for violations of department norms may occur, such as the loss of an assignment for not representing the department in a manner that demonstrates the values of the group. These sanctions are not discussed here. All three pillars influence an officer’s decision to violate the code of conduct, but the evaluation of actions and sanctions based on that violation are prescribed within the regulative pillar.

The disciplinary process in a police department is not only laid out in policy, but also heavily influenced by litigation. For a formal sanction to hold up in civil proceedings, the offense must clearly be a violation of the disciplinary code. While certain offenses may be up for debate, matters such as theft, sleeping on duty, intoxication on duty, and the like are clearly defined. Violations of this nature have a sliding scale of discipline in which the administrator is given sanction guidelines based on the nature of the offense. The common practice in police agencies is to adhere to what is known as the Loudermill letter and the Loudermill hearing.3

This process gets its name from a school security guard who was fired after 11 months of employment for failing to disclose a prior felony conviction. He appealed the termination and filed a suit under the 1983 Civil Rights Act claiming that his termination violated his constitutional right to due process. He was not given notice of the charges against him for which he faced disciplinary action and the substantial delay in the appellate process with the administrative review board, which in this case was the civil service commission. This case led to the practice of the Loudermill letter in which an officer is given formal notice of an offense and that disciplinary action is pending. The officer is then able to respond in writing or prepare a response for a hearing. A Loudermill hearing occurs where the offender meets with the administrator and is represented by a member of the bargaining unit or an attorney. This process applies to public sector, tenured employees who have a property right in their employment under U.S. federal case law.4 This highly formalized and specified process is used in conjunction with policy in order to have a prescribed method of disciplinary sanctions.

This practice clearly falls under the regulative pillar, but how is the conceptual framework applied to the practices? The answer lies in a holistic analysis of the problems within an organization. A police chief or candidate looking at an organization from the outside can use the framework to explain ongoing problems in the organization. If a department has fired a number of employees who later won their jobs back, then it is clear that the issue is not one of behavior under the normative or culture pillars, but a problem in the regulative pillar. The way in which the offender was sanctioned did not comply with state law or departmental policy. If that is the case, then the policies need to be changed, the law better understood, or an executive hired who applies the policies and law correctly. Understanding the pillars is also crucial in bringing disciplinary action against an officer. An officer can commit an egregious breach of normative social protocol within the department, but if the action falls under the normative pillar, then disciplinary action under the regulative pillar is sure to fail when challenged.

Hiring Standards—The Normative Pillar

Hiring a new officer is another crucial personnel decision law enforcement executives make. The pool of applicants can vary greatly depending on economic conditions and turnover rates in the area. The qualifications for an officer fall under the regulative pillar, but the actual hiring decisions are made under guidelines from the normative pillar. The first place this is seen is in the use of interview scenario questions during the interview process.

Police interviews are different than interviews in other jobs. Candidates can be asked about every mistake they have ever made, whether that mistake was in their professional or private lives. Candidates can also be subjected to exercises that use scenario-based questions to examine the interviewee’s critical thinking skills. These questions certainly can have answers that are wrong, but more than one possible way of handling each scenario also exist that would be legal, responsible, and within the department’s policies. It is in the nature of the answer given that the interviewee is judged, based not solely on knowledge of the law, but also their likelihood of conforming to the values and norms that exist in the department.

The phrase for these norms in the world of police work is police discretion. The idea behind police discretion is that officers need to choose the best use of their time. If an officer stopped every violating car and made an arrest for every single infraction, nothing more would ever get accomplished. Officers must be able to sort through the information given to them and make commonsense determinations of the best course of action. The commonsense exhibited by officers or candidates is then judged by the norms and values in the organization for which they are applying. If they generally make decisions that conform to the expectations of the department, then they will move on in the process.

This positioning of hiring standards within the normative pillar is not accidental. Knowing how an officer will fit into a department would be impossible prior to hiring him or her. It would also be fruitless to hire an officer merely because he or she retained the most information from the criminal code taught in the police academy. The normative pillar is where screening candidates belongs. Their actual reactions on the street might differ from their answers during the interview process, which is where the probationary period comes in. If an officer is not conforming to the values of the department, then its best for that officer to be released from service before too much agency time is invested. Once officers become tenured, the regulative pillar is the only way to get them out.

The application of the normative pillar to hiring is fairly straightforward. The ideal answers to questions must reflect the actual values of the department. When officers act one way on the street and another in the boss’s office, a disconnect can occur. The quickest way for a new hire to disrupt the workings of an organization is for that person to come in with expectations that their answers to interview questions are the manner in which their new fellow officers will behave. When the hiring standards do not reflect the values of the officers, then personnel problems arise. Conversely, hiring officers whose answers do not reflect values that need to be excised from the department is valuable. When faced with a department in trouble, the executive can look to the normative pillar for guidance. Looking at hiring as a change not of personnel, but of values is one way to truly change the department’s culture.

Promotions and Department Culture—The Cultural Cognitive Pillar

The third pillar of Scott’s model involves one of the most difficult personnel processes and the one to most likely disrupt an organization. This process is promoting supervisors. Promotions in law enforcement agencies can be anything from smooth transitions backed by a majority of the officers to outright political warfare. The department can break into warring factions, with each group supporting its own candidate. This had led to some outrageous behavior in some agencies, with officers going so far as to file false claims of harassment to eliminate their competition. Promotion time is a good opportunity to check in on the culture within a department, evaluate that culture, and decide whether the next promotion is to support or change the culture.

Promotion time is a good opportunity to check in on the culture within a department, evaluate that culture, and decide whether the next promotion is to support or change the culture.

Rank serves to designate leaders within the department. It is also from within the ranks that leaders emerge. This is where the self-actualization element of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes in. People who see themselves as leaders within the department have the potential to be the most influential. They create a niche for themselves and eventually develop followers. It is these officers that are generally considered for promotion. Promotions are often a form of starting over for new supervisors. They were at the cultural cognitive pillar before being brought up in rank, but they land in the regulative once they are officially promoted—their authority is now codified, and they must learn the new aspects of their job.

This concept of the cultural cognitive pillar applies not only to rank promotions, but also to new assignments. Officers will prove themselves and gain the on-the-job knowledge to be assigned to traffic, investigations, or specialized drug units within departments. It is this level of self-actualization that agencies thrive on. When officers begin to self-actualize, they are self-motivated. A self-motivated workforce is less likely to have labor issues and is more productive.

A law enforcement organization thrives or fails based on how patrol supervisors run their shifts. They dictate the culture of their platoons and therefore influence the culture of the department. Sometimes agencies will gain a reputation for being multiple different departments, depending on whose platoon is working.

Often cited as the most important system in a police department, culture is a difficult concept to measure. It “comes from the top down” is often heard in police circles, meaning that the actions of the chief or department head dictate the culture. The promotions and executive discretion in choosing which disciplinary problems to go after all set the tone for the department, which is why the personnel decisions made are so very important.

How to Apply the Framework

This overview of Scott’s pillars of institutions, its connection to Maslow’s hierarchy, and the application of both to personnel decisions has multiple uses. Troubleshooting a department from the outside is one use. Making personnel decisions is another, which leads into using the framework to justify personnel decisions to an executive’s supervisors. The framework can also be used to justify a lack of disciplinary action.

A potential application of this framework when examining personnel decisions is in troubleshooting problem agencies. When framing problems in the pillars, they can be more easily categorized and traced back to the root problem. Problems with officers being fired and getting their jobs back reflect an issue in the regulative pillar. Problems with new hires not meeting the expectations of the department mean that the hiring interview questions are not reflective of the values under the normative pillar. Issues with a shortage of candidates for promotion mean that the officers are not self-actualizing and the culture of the department is not supportive of advancement under the cultural cognitive pillar.

Remembering the pillars is important when considering the best course of action and how to measure the options when dealing with a personnel question. For example, if an officer commits a violation of the values of the department, but not the regulations, then using the regulative pillar options will be ineffective. Basing hiring questions only on regulative measures will give no indication of that candidate’s value system and his or her potential to fit into the department.

Another valuable application is justification of decisions. It is a tangible framework that can be used to explain why a decision was made. For example, the pillars approach can help explain why the officer who violated a departmental value is not facing formal disciplinary action. Using the pillars as a model for personnel decisions allows the executive to show the function of the choice within the system. Keeping the action within the correct pillar limits the options to justifiably appropriate choices.


A gap exists in the law enforcement profession between theory and practice when it comes to management and leadership ideas. Applying Scott’s pillars to the decision-making process when faced with a personnel choice is a boon to a police executive. By viewing the whole law enforcement agency through the lens of these three pillars, an executive can gain insight into how the systems relate and what the motivational factors are for the officers within those pillars and can use the pillars to guide choices.

The use of this conceptual model based on these three pillars to sort out personnel decisions can frame that practice. Sorting through the responsibilities of a law enforcement executive can be daunting. There are so many requirements, certifications, training, and the like that the more clearly identified a task can be, the easier it is to effectively fulfill that task.



1W. Richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations Ideas, Interests, and Identities, 4th ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2014).
2A.H Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no.4 (July 1943): 370–396.
3Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985).
4Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972).