Law Enforcement Leaders Can Learn from Their Rank-and-File

Frank Tona picBy Sergeant Frank P. Tona
Police Foundation Policing Fellow

Across the United States today, police departments are dealing with increased public scrutiny as a number of highly publicized events have impacted the law enforcement profession. I have read the various reports completed by a multitude of think tanks, working groups, and task forces outlining ways the police can build trust in the communities they serve while performing their jobs in a professional and safe manner.

Absent many of these groups are the perspectives and opinions of current rank-and-file police officers. Many of the contributors are distinguished police commanders, chiefs, and sheriffs focused on finding solutions in their communities while effectively managing their organizations.

I believe many of these agencies have rank-and-file officers who have the knowledge, education, and experience to offer different viewpoints on the issues affecting their communities and profession. The officers, many rank-and-file or mid-level supervisors, not only possess the practical aspects of policing, but also have educational and training backgrounds to qualify their opinions. Unfortunately, police departments are not taking advantage of these types of officers who possess these unique skill sets.

The Police Foundation is intent on finding innovative ways for police agencies to perform their jobs. It has a long-standing reputation as an organization devoted to research, practice, and helping the police do their jobs more effectively.

One component of the foundation involves the Policing Fellowship Program. Individuals chosen for this program are rank-and-file officers who possess the practical experience and education to bring different perspectives to the forefront of foundation initiatives and projects. The applied nature of police work combined with evidence-based research has much value in law enforcement today. Many of the fellows are self-described “pracademics,” a term that describes people who believe in sharing the knowledge obtained from academia while pursuing the practice of policing. Many of these scholar-practitioners have already utilized research to implement new practices within their own their agencies.

With the role of today’s police officer evolving, effective communication and problem-solving is replacing a policy-driven statistical approach to the way policing is being performed. Not only do police departments need to adopt the most efficient crime-fighting model, but they also need to collaborate with the officers in their own agencies to implement it. Police officers in many departments are simply deployed to sectors or beats without any direction or research-based applications in the ways to reduce crime.

Research has clearly shown that when evidence-based practices are employed in crime-fighting strategies, crime has decreased. However, departments have chosen to not allow research to drive their practices. Many reasons exist for this. Common responses to the implementation of these practices include, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” or “It’s too costly.” Regardless of the reasons, departments not only need to embrace research-based practices, but encourage rank-and-file officers who possess the appropriate skills to help implement these ideas.

Police departments should seek out qualified officers within their agency who can offer them the unique perspectives they can bring. Agencies rely on the opinions and experience of command-level officers without allowing the valuable input from rank-and-file employees, some of whom have similar training and skill-sets.

By having their input, agencies can have the best of both worlds. I advocate police leaders to find these officers within their agency and stop relying solely on the opinions of their command staff. By collaborating with rank-and-file officers, police leaders can see their perspectives, while rank-and-file officers can understand the challenges faced by command.

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