Organizational challenges facing law enforcement in 2020

People, policy, training, supervision and discipline remained key issues this year


The law enforcement profession faced many risks in 2020. From the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis to the spotlight on police use of force, successful agencies remained ahead of the curve by embracing the five pillars of organizational success:

  • People
  • Policy
  • Training
  • Supervision
  • Discipline

“In order to be successful, you must first get and keep good PEOPLE, derive and maintain good POLICY, make sure there is adequate TRAINING regarding the policies, have appropriate SUPERVISION of workers to make sure policies are being followed and take appropriate DISCIPLINE when there is a deviation from established policy,” writes risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham.

Police leaders nationwide faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, which led to some chiefs resigning or retiring early, like Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.
Police leaders nationwide faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, which led to some chiefs resigning or retiring early, like Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Let’s take a few moments to analyze the challenges of 2020 through the five pillars and identify the lessons police leaders can learn from this year's events and apply in 2021.

Pillar 1: People

Why we must maintain hiring standards

By Lynn Cottier

The biggest issue in law enforcement in 2020, which will certainly continue into 2021, was a multi-faceted one: Recruitment and retention of qualified law enforcement personnel at all levels.

In large cities like Chicago, New York, Seattle and San Francisco, we saw police officers leave in numbers well above the norm. A total of 23 San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers left the department in the first six months of 2020 and another 31 retired. By comparison, 26 officers resigned in all of 2019 and only 12 officers resigned in 2018.

Many of those SFPD officers are taking jobs in other areas, from small rural communities to other large cities; others moved to agencies in states like Idaho, Texas, and Arizona. Officers who are leaving mention a lack of support from local governing bodies, personal safety and lack of respect as reasons for their departures, among others.

Police chiefs are also being invited to move on, resigning, or even retiring early, like Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. She resigned when the council voted to reduce her department by as many as 100, also reducing her salary and that of her command staff.

But while retirements and other exits have increased at the command level, taking with them decades of experience and decision-making acumen, there will always be seasoned command staff ready to step into a greater organizational leadership role. While a shake-up at the top is disruptive to any agency, perhaps a greater risk lies at the line level, where everyday actions can easily result in massive liability if underqualified new hires are allowed to enter the force.

Across the country, agencies are struggling to fill empty entry-level law enforcement positions. Despite high unemployment, agencies report fewer people applying for open positions, perhaps due to recently elevated negative perceptions of law enforcement as a whole.

To exacerbate the problem, the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down some police academies, further delaying the deployment of recruits from prior applicant pools. Just like the large cities noted above, smaller cities and counties are also experiencing retention and applicant problems, often exacerbated by lower salaries in rural areas.

While looking to fill vacancies, it is critical we maintain the same high bar for hiring standards. Sometimes a smaller pool of applicants brings marginal candidates who may not have otherwise even considered applying. The risk is that such candidates may bring with them poor work habits, marginal decision-making and the wrong motivation to serve in law enforcement.

When faced with dwindling applicant pools and vacant positions, hard choices may be necessary. As difficult as it may be, one option is to reassign members currently tasked to discretionary specialty units, temporarily moving those personnel back to patrol positions. Agencies may need to reevaluate where non-sworn personnel can fill in the gaps and act as a force multiplier, where such assignment is feasible and where there is some discretion as to assigned duties.

What we in law enforcement can never afford to do is lower our standards for those entering the profession. Quality training, a good moral compass, good physical and mental fitness, and a clean background check have always been prerequisites and remain so even in these trying times.

Pillar 2: Policy

How to prepare for the unpredictable

By Kerry Gallegos

If you’re like me, there were a few times during 2020 when you shockingly uttered the words, “Wow! I did not see that coming!” Those are not the words you want to be saying if you are a risk manager. But the reality is that there are predictable and unpredictable events in the world. The predictable or unpredictable nature of each type of event influences how we develop the policies that guide us in doing the right things the right way in public safety.

Let’s take a look at predictable events. Great public safety risk managers look at past disasters, mistakes and legal trends in the industry to recognize those things that may cause trouble. They then estimate each event’s likelihood and potential severity, and prioritize them in an order that reflects the impact of each event on the organization and the community. The risk manager then mobilizes to control the given risks through measures such as policy and training.

Using the recognize, prioritize, mobilize method, we can look at some of the policy-impacting events of 2020 to help us get an idea of what risks we might need to plan for in 2021.

For example, the first part of 2020 saw legislative and best practice changes around the use of force, transparency of law enforcement operations, anti-discrimination and medical marijuana use.

The COVID-19 pandemic tested policies related to communicable diseases, emergency management planning and staffing, working remotely, and personal protective equipment issuance and use.

During the last half of the year, police reform movements caused an explosion of use of force policy revamps, especially related to carotid restraints, de-escalation, and the duty to intervene in and report suspected excessive force.

[WATCH: Michigan police reform: Taking the initiative & doing it right]

So, what do 2020 trends tell us about what might happen in the public safety policy world in 2021?

I believe we will see a continuing focus on law enforcement accountability with legal and best practice changes on monitoring and evaluating the use of force, firearms discharges, and officer conduct and performance history. I also think we will see some duties, such as non-violent mental health calls for service, re-assigned from law enforcement agencies to non-law enforcement resources, and the development of interoperability policies to go along with those reassignments.

We will probably see the continued refinement of remote workplace policies, especially in content relating to information security.

Finally, an increasing emphasis on officer wellness programs will continue into the new year and likely result in new or updated policy content related to stress management, suicide prevention and ongoing support for officers involved in critical incidents.            

But what can we do about the unpredictable events that await us in 2021? We predicted that law enforcement might encounter a pandemic someday, but the magnitude and impact of COVID-19 were unpredictable before becoming a reality. And we knew that there was increased attention on law enforcement’s use of force, but the influence of police reform movements that resulted in the enactment of new use of force laws at unprecedented speeds was unpredictable. So, what can agencies do to control the unpredictable risks that impact policy?

One way to prepare for unpredictable events is for law enforcement and government executives to develop a policy advisory team that is up to speed on agency policies and operations, making them pre-positioned to act when faced with unpredictable events. The team should include administrative decision-makers, agency legal counsel, relevant subject matter experts and agency-community liaisons.

In addition to advising agency executives on proposed policy actions brought about by both predictable and unpredictable events, the team may also be able to provide information to citizens and lawmakers about the agency’s current policies and practices, and address concerns they may have, especially during times of heightened public emotion. Remember, predictable is preventable. So, we should prevent what we can predict and have agile systems that help us respond quickly to what we cannot.

Pillar 3: Training

How technology can help meet training demands

By David Belmonte

2020 added a whole new level of training challenges within law enforcement. COVID-19 resulted in many in-person training sessions and training conferences being postponed or canceled altogether. The FBI National Academy was closed for numerous scheduled sessions, as were many other advanced leadership schools. At the same time, police reform and social issues were demanding additional law enforcement training to take place.

Increased media coverage of police use of force incidents and the related litigation caused state legislators and local governments to take a closer look at what law enforcement officers were being trained on, and how that training was being conducted. 

Topics such as de-escalation, peer intervention, mental illness, airborne pathogens and crowd control education all became part of many requirements, while traditional training classes were still required. Firearms training, legal updates, ethics and field training programs continued but typically as in-house training, adding to the demands of an already strained staffing demand and budgets.

While training may not have been conducted in traditional classrooms or academies due to COVID-19, law enforcement adapted, and technology played a major role in meeting training demands under difficult circumstances. Websites such as Lexipol’s Coronavirus Learning and Policy Center offered online course content to provide training remotely and timely from a variety of experts. Many organizations conducted virtual seminars, or even entire conferences, that allowed for participants to continue to interact with instructors and subject matter experts, and even view recorded seminars on their own timetable. Zoom or Microsoft Teams became a routine way to conduct remote training and maintain the required social distancing during a pandemic.

The demand for more training is expected to continue to increase in 2021, while budgets will continue to be strained with demands for reallocation of police budgets and economic impacts from COVID-19. Technology will continue to be the answer for increasing training while holding costs down. Look for more online training, virtual classes and conferences, and web-based training sessions to become more prevalent to meet the demands of police reform and legislative requirements. 

While technology can aid in the presentation of training and education, the demand on staffing to participate in the increased training schedules will have an impact on how administrations can provide optimum police coverage while still assigning personnel to training. Budgets are not likely to allow for increases in staffing, so creative scheduling will be required to meet training mandates and provide full services.

Pillar 4: Supervision

Agency morale is dictated by attitude

By Rex Scism

If 2020 taught us anything, it showed the importance of patience and perseverance, coupled with the power of attitude. This year created myriad challenges for law enforcement agencies, such as changes in enforcement protocols and agency operations due to COVID-19, unique training approaches and an intense focus on emerging social issues. Any one of these challenges by itself can involve a significant paradigm shift.

As if those challenges were not enough, this is also a transitional period for many agencies across the county. As incumbent personnel reaches retirement eligibility, seasoned veterans are departing agencies, taking invaluable institutional knowledge and wisdom with them. The success of any law enforcement agency is grounded in the effectiveness of not only the personnel working a beat but first-line leadership as well.

As newly promoted and hired personnel fill the gaps left behind by departing members, it is more important than ever that we leverage our succession planning capabilities. Every good supervisor knows the importance of training his or her replacement. It is equally important for the agency to emphasize internal training and mentorship programs that work toward this goal. But we cannot forget about another often overlooked and equally important aspect of successful law enforcement operations – attitude.

[WATCH: Gordon Graham on how to lead by example]

Perhaps Charles Swindoll summarized it best in his depiction of the word when he said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” Given the pervasive level of negativity seen throughout 2020, how do law enforcement leaders maintain employee morale during these unprecedented times? The answer is simple – keep attitudes in check. This should come as no surprise since law enforcement professionals serve the public with distinction and discipline, showing compassion and displaying appropriate attitudes for each situation. By simply continuing this practice around the office, home, and among our peers, we can have a direct impact on not only ourselves but everyone around us.

Today’s workforce is largely dominated by members from Generations Y and Z. Current research shows us that these generations already face an uphill battle maintaining positive attitudes due to increased levels of skepticism and anxiety. Now more than ever, incumbent personnel and leadership should set the example by maintaining positive attitudes, even during challenging times.

Remain engaged and encourage newly hired or promoted personnel so they build the confidence they need to succeed. Also, remember that our attitudes are contagious – positivity breeds positivity. We are all in control of our own attitudes; however, agency leadership shoulders the biggest burden when it comes to setting the proper example. Agency morale is largely affected by prevailing attitudes among the membership. Be a strong role model, stand with confidence and be the person who holds the glass half-full.

These are challenging times; however, law enforcement professionals always persevere and rise above any occasion while providing critical services to our communities.   

Pillar 5: Discipline

We must police ourselves

By Kerry Gallegos

One of the main concerns expressed by police reform supporters in 2020 was that the police do not do enough to hold themselves accountable to do the right things in the right way. Most law enforcement officers are doing an outstanding job at following their agency's policies and serving their communities honorably, and they will continue to do so in 2021 and beyond. But some public safety employees do not follow policy, and many of their teammates and supervisors know who they are, and sometimes nobody does anything about it. One thing 2020 has shown us in the area of discipline is that if we do not police ourselves, someone from the outside will come in and do it for us.

2021 will likely present more questions about whether public safety agencies are disciplining personnel who violate organizational policies. And that's okay because policy violations happen in the real world, and discipline is something that every organization should be doing to help members understand what shortcomings they need to address to achieve successful careers. Considering the increased curiosity and scrutiny around the topic, we should refresh our memories on some of the more critical details of discipline.

Remember that discipline is a function of policy and not a function of outcomes. Just because things turned out okay after someone violated policy does not mean the violator should not be held accountable for their misdeed. It is everyone's job to follow policy and report violations they observe. And it is the supervisors' job to enforce policy.

[WATCH: Duty to intercede: Conceptual, cultural and legal aspects]

Some may think that a commitment to accountability creates an environment where organizational leadership is "out to get" the line-level officer. But sound organizational policies guide officers toward the professional conduct the organization expects of them. And every member of the organization should follow the policies because they are themselves committed to professionalism. As Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder points out, organizations rent the behavior they expect of their personnel through the compensation they provide them.

For discipline to be effective, it needs to be timely. Delaying discipline delays professionalism, and officers should be made aware of and held accountable for policy violations soon after they occur to give them the chance to correct their behavior and to better protect the organization from liability. Finally, through litigation and settlements, human resources risks can become some of the most expensive risks an organization faces, so supervisors and managers should consult with their human resources department before taking disciplinary action when possible.

Tell us: How does your organization use the five pillars of success to guide strategy and operations? What lessons did you identify from 2020 that you will take into the New Year? Email editor@police1.com

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