Managing Police Departments Post-Ferguson

Managing a police department is a tough job, and the legitimacy crisis currently facing American policing has made it even tougher. Today’s police managers — from chiefs and sheriffs to sergeants and watch commanders — risk losing officer morale and productivity in the form of de-policing (withdrawing from their duties), and are beginning to witness recruitment and retention problems.

For example, our own research reveals that after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, some officers have become less motivated, believe policing is more dangerous, and think citizens’ views of the police have deteriorated — phenomena often collectively referred to as the “Ferguson Effect.” These problems largely stem from the very real fear of becoming the next viral video or being fatally ambushed.

But by ensuring organizational justice during management activities, police executives can go a long way toward effectively supervising their agencies through strained times. Organizational justice can be thought of as a leadership philosophy that focuses on three key issues:

  • Managers must ensure procedural fairness when dealing with employees. Decisions must not unfairly favor one employee over another; the reasons for decisions should be clearly explained to relevant parties; and employees should be given a reasonable voice in the decision-making process.
  • Managers must ensure distributive fairness. Organizational outcomes such as promotions, salary increases, and terminations must be fairly distributed throughout the organization. Positive outcomes should not only fall on those with friends in high places. Likewise, negative outcomes should not manifest only among certain groups of people.
  • Lastly, managers must strive for interactional fairness. Employees should be treated with respect and dignity. Supervisors should maintain an honest and open relationship with their subordinates.

In police departments, research shows that organizational justice is associated with numerous beneficial work-related outcomes. For example, our own research shows that officers who believe their supervisors treat them fairly are significantly less likely to report such negative experiences. In other words, organizational justice protects them from the Ferguson Effect.

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