Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Moving From One Generation To the Next: The Shift in Law Enforcement Leadership

According to The Police Chief magazine, as well as many industry experts, there is a leadership crisis in the law enforcement industry. With the baby boomer generation entering retirement, law enforcement leadership positions are opening up more and more frequently and oftentimes being filled by officers without any formal training in management and leadership.

Based on two years of research with law enforcement and public safety experts at the University of San Diego, it was determined that many of the skills taught in criminal justice degree programs today were relevant 20 years ago, but have failed to keep up with the evolving industry and world. The law enforcement field is being forced to re-examine the way it operates, interacts with the community and prepares up-and-coming law enforcement leaders.

Leadership Training is Lacking

There is a shift happening. The law enforcement field is moving from one generation of leaders to the next. Unfortunately, many organizations have failed to prepare the next generation adequately. Traditional criminal justice programs and police academies do not teach leadership skills but rather focus on “reducing and solving crime with little training devoted to effective leadership,” according to The Police Chief magazine. Furthermore, law enforcement education has failed to keep up with the rapid advancement in policing technology. The lack of formal training has left departments with ill-equipped leaders who find it difficult to develop and manage a team, not to mention effectively utilize the cutting-edge technology available to officers today.

As Gary Brown, former chief of police and current principle in a California-based public sector recruitment firm said in a Police Chief magazine article:

“If the law enforcement profession is serious about solving the current leadership crisis, and the crisis that looms in the future, agencies must begin targeting recruitment efforts at the most qualified workers today. Locally recruited leadership candidates should be identified early so that they may be afforded the time to be properly prepared for the police leadership positions of the future. Today’s leaders must realize the traditionalist approaches to leadership transition will not prepare law enforcement to attract and retain the millennial generation members who will follow them into the workplace.”

Re-examining the Organizational Structure

It’s not just the law enforcement leadership training that is outdated; it’s many organizations themselves. According to a joint paper written by the National Institute of Justice and the Harvard Kennedy School titled, Police Leadership Challenges in a Changing World, the structure of most police organizations today can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. At that time, a hierarchal authority structure, “clearly distinguished decision-makers from line staff, emphasized adherence to principles of structure over flexibility, and prized uniform operations and interchangeability across staff positions.” In combination with police unions and a parliamentary organizational model, there has been very little room for change and innovation within the policing community.

Today’s generation of up-and-coming leaders have grown up in a modern world, viewing hierarchies as antiquated and an impediment to growth. In a Police Executive Research Forum article, Lou Stephens, Special Agent in charge of the US Secret Service’s Minneapolis Field Office stated:

“They [the new hires] don’t thrive under the type of leadership environment that I was brought up in. We are a very hierarchical organization, and our new agents don’t always like to deal with layers and layers of management. One of my challenges is to identify how I can engage, motivate and get the most out of them.”

The need for organizational structure change and management styles in police departments nationwide is not a secret. In order to recruit the leaders of tomorrow, police departments need to create environments that will attract them and create structures that are conducive to innovation, collaboration and inclusion.

Moving Towards Transparency

Thanks to modern technology, police are able to do their jobs more effectively but there is also a new level of scrutiny being placed upon them. Because of video technology, police officers are being held accountable for their actions like never before. Cameras have ushered in a new era of transparency. From body cameras to cell phone cameras, video technology is everywhere.

The impetus on law enforcement to have well-trained leaders who have the social skills and education to deal appropriately with the larger community is vital, in large part due to the scrutiny departments face if they do otherwise. In a Police Executive Research Forum paper Future Trends in Policing, it was stated, “law enforcement remains a bastion of seniority in many parts of the country, time-in-grade, unfortunately, continues to be a key criteria for promotion, and a key determining factor in perpetuating a culture of mediocrity and entitlement.” By relying on a seniority-based promotion system as opposed to a merit-based system, law enforcement put their departments at great risk. Just like in any organization, culture and procedures trickle down from the top. That means that in the age of transparency and accountability, highly-educated and well-trained leaders are imperative to the success of police departments.

A master’s degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership offers the additional training necessary for the law enforcement professionals of today. By focusing on 21st century issues and providing skills-based education in management, leadership, communication, conflict resolution, budgeting, technology and organizational leadership, a law enforcement and public safety degree is an invaluable tool for field professionals during a time of transition and opportunity.

The University of San Diego offers a Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership that is offered completely online, allowing for collaboration with other law enforcement professionals from agencies around the country. If you are ready to take the next step in your public safety career, contact us to speak with a University of San Diego admissions advisor today.

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