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9 steps to decentralized command inside the blue line

By reexamining how their internal organization functions, agencies can empower personnel, optimize resource allocation, and create a culture of innovation and agility

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Rooted in military doctrine and organizational theory, the principles of decentralized command structure are based on pushing decision-making authority closer to frontline officers.

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By Dr. Ed Buckman

In the ever-evolving law enforcement landscape, agencies are constantly seeking innovative approaches to meet the complex challenges of modern policing. One approach gaining traction is decentralized command, a paradigm shift from traditional hierarchical structures toward distributed decision-making and empowerment at various organizational levels.

Decentralized command outside the organization

Rooted in military doctrine and organizational theory, the principles of decentralized command structure are based on pushing decision-making authority closer to frontline officers. This concept is rooted in the notion that in a complex and swiftly evolving environment, it is impractical for a sole leader to shoulder all decision-making responsibilities. Rather, the leader should empower and entrust subordinates who are closest to the situation with authority and decision-making capabilities, provided they possess the requisite knowledge and information to make well-informed choices.

Law enforcement already has a framework of decentralized command in nearly all external situations. Leaders set clear missions and values for the organization while entrusting subordinate teams and individual officers with the autonomy to make real-time decisions aligned with the overarching mission. For example, a new officer is working third shift and makes a traffic stop on someone with a warrant. The officer knows what to do, and outside some possible process questions, makes the physical arrest and takes the person to jail. Generally speaking, the officer would not need to call and ask for permission to make the arrest or even notify anyone he was doing his job. A more serious situation is an active shooter. An officer gets a call that there is an active shooter at a movie theater. The officer knows they must go directly to threats, eliminate bad people and save lives. All the elements of a functioning decentralized command structure are met: trust, communication, mission and vision, and agency to the organization. These elements are established in the academy and then reinforced throughout training.

So, the question arises as to why some law enforcement organizations prohibit decentralized command inside the organization in areas such as discipline, budgeting, policy review and training. These areas shape the organization’s internal culture, so why not allow those it affects the most to have more than just input on decision-making?

Let’s look at how we can apply a decentralized command framework to inner departmental operations.

Decentralized command inside the organization

Introducing decentralized command within an organization requires both top-down movement and bottom-up change. The lower-level employees on the traditional hierarchical chart must have specific elements for the department to function, such as initiative, communication, accountability and agency.

Here are nine steps to accomplishing decentralized command within your organization:

1. Initiative

If the patrol officers in a department want more authority to make decisions, they must be willing to put in the time to address the needs they would like fixed. There is a saying, “Do not just look for problems. Look for solutions.” If, at each level, individuals seek to fix problems instead of sending them up to the next level, then the power shift has already begun. Research has found that companies that adopt business excellence models have typically done so by using initiatives to achieve the desired results. [1]

2. Communication

Communication from top to bottom must be a priority for a decentralized command structure to work. Sending and receiving information allows informed decision-making to occur. In some traditional police organizations, communication must take these long paths up and back down the chain, with each level taking time to pass the information. When the communication is received by the individuals, the information is likely stale or less valuable. New communication standards must be implemented where asking questions and giving feedback are required.

3. Accountability

Accountability ensures that individuals within the organization take ownership of their actions and decisions. It fosters trust among team members and between employees and management. Clear accountability structures clarify employees’ roles, responsibilities and performance expectations. Also, a culture of high accountability facilitates learning and improvement while enhancing decision-making. Lastly, accountability promotes ethical behavior and helps deter unethical behavior by establishing clear standards of conduct and penalties for violations. When employees know they will be held accountable for their actions, they are less likely to engage in unethical or dishonest behavior.

4. Agency

Team orientation suggests employees feel accountable to one another for work that needs group collaboration. In a dynamic work environment, law enforcement teams need cooperation from within and with other teams inside the organization. The aim is to improve the work output and enable employees to achieve their objectives. [1]

5. Situationally aligned leadership

In situationally aligned leadership, individuals with the right skills, experience and abilities for situations are realized and emerge as leaders within their team. Many older law enforcement leaders may look at this situational leader and think of loss of control, anarchy, or disorganized chaos. However, strategically aligned leadership is already ingrained in police culture in the external operation of the organization.

In a department of 400 officers, a single night can include several separate incidents: the death of a child, a barricaded suspect and a severe traffic crash. All three of these incidents require different expertise and skill sets. The upper echelon may be notified, but they are likely not giving orders to handle the specific logistics of any of the three scenes. Teams with a shared leadership structure involve networks with status equivalence rather than influence focused typically on a single, often hierarchical, leader. Several meta-analysis studies provide reliable evidence that shared leadership systems are positively associated with overall team and organizational performance. [2]

6. Process redesign

Redesign your processes to facilitate decentralized decision-making. A new process may involve redefining roles and responsibilities, establishing clear guidelines and implementing agile methodologies. Take for example, a decision being made to assign new employees take home vehicles. In a decentralized environment the department could establish a group of officers to address the goal. The group would be given the parameters of logistics, finances and policy. These individuals have a vested interest in the issue, thus adding motivation to solve it. A chief should be looking up and out for the organization. Jocko Willink advocates for leaders to have a comprehensive understanding of both the higher-level strategic goals of the organization (“looking up”) and the external environment in which the organization operates (“looking out”). [3] This perspective enables leaders to make informed decisions and lead their teams effectively toward mission success.

7. Implement collaborative tools

Invest in technology and tools that support collaboration and communication among teams. This could include project management software, communication platforms and knowledge-sharing tools. In General Stanley McChrystal’s book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World,” he describes an incident where a conference call initially started with 100 people but quickly escalated to over 7,000 participants due to the urgent and rapidly evolving nature of the situation. In the book, McChrystal explains how this call expedited passing information from around the world. [4] In the standard framework of a department, there are executive meetings several times per week; why not allow everyone from patrol officers and first-line supervisors to join these meetings via video conference?

8. Celebrate successes and learn from failures

The U.S. Army coined the process of after-action reviews. Each project or process should be scrutinized and noted where successes and missteps were made. Praise milestones and achievements along the way to reinforce the importance of decentralized leadership. One of the more complex elements in instituting a decentralized leadership culture is encouraging a culture where it is okay to experiment and learn from failures. The feeling of safety will form around mutual trust from the top down and bottom up.

9. Institute feedback mechanisms

Recognize that transitioning to decentralized leadership is an ongoing process. Continuously ask for feedback from officers, first-line supervisors and middle managers, and be willing to iterate and adapt your approach as needed. In “Call Sign Chaos,” General James Mattis wrote that command and feedback are essential mechanisms of effective leadership in the military. [5] Command creates the framework for action, while feedback provides the necessary information for leaders to adapt and make informed decisions, ultimately contributing to mission success and organizational effectiveness and performance.

Practical applications of decentralized command in law enforcement

Let’s review some practical applications of decentralized command in law enforcement, demonstrating how it empowers specialized task forces and problem-solving teams to effectively tackle a range of internal and external challenges.

Specialized task forces/Problem-solving teams

  • Create specialized task forces focused on inner departmental issues such as shift preference, promotional process and policy review or external issues such as gang violence, traffic violations and community engagement.
  • Assign leadership roles within these task forces to officers with relevant expertise and experience.
  • Focus on cross-departmental collaboration and information-sharing to address multifaceted challenges.
  • Empower task force leaders to adapt strategies and tactics based on real-time intelligence and feedback from differing department areas.
  • Provide these teams with the authority to develop and implement innovative solutions tailored to their unique challenges.
  • Encourage collaboration, creativity and information-sharing among team members to identify root causes and develop sustainable strategies for addressing problems.

Reorganize the organizational chart

A new look at the standard law enforcement organizational chart, which looks like a ladder or pyramid, could provide new insight into improving communication. Moving from a ladder chart to a lattice concept allows more fluid communication and decentralized authority.

A lattice organization has the following attributes: [6]

  • Person-to-person communication: Contrary to a ladder chart, information within a lattice system travels directly to those who require or have information.
  • Objectives set by those who must make things happen. In a police department, these objectives could be set by a third shift officer who has identified a specific homeless problem in their district.
  • Commitment: Within a top-down hierarchy department, a higher-ranking officer can issue orders; however, it is impossible to order someone else to be committed. Within a lattice organization, there has to be self-commitment, which is fostered by intrinsic motivation, autonomy, and a positive working environment.

Training and development

  • Invest in leadership development programs that equip officers at all levels with the skills and competencies needed to lead in a decentralized environment.
  • Provide ongoing training in decision-making, conflict resolution and community engagement.
  • Foster a continuous learning and improvement culture where officers are encouraged to take initiative and innovate.

Some of these novel ideas may seem counterculture to the “do as I say” paradigm many law enforcement departments are used to; however, when we look at other leading industries and the academic literature, it seems like this transformation could be very valuable to the law enforcement industry.

Conclusion

Traditional law enforcement agencies conduct organizational operations on a binary scope. On the one hand, most actions are conducted externally with fluid, decentralized command. The lowest level employees make life-and-death decisions absent higher powers telling them what to do or how to do it. They are empowered to act on behalf of the organization with little or no guidance. On the other side of the spectrum, regarding inner department workings, budgeting, finance and strategic planning, 90% of the decisions are made by 5%-10% of the staff. Applying a shared leadership culture in law enforcement can add agility to the planning and success of strategic objectives and organizational performance within police departments.

References

1. Lasrado F, Kassem R. (2021.) Let’s get everyone involved! The effects of transformational leadership and organizational culture on organizational excellence. Int J Qual Reliab Manag, 38(1):169-194.

2. Norman MD, Silvey PE, Koehler MT, Joe KC. (2021.) Engineering decentralized enterprises: emergent mission accomplishment without centralized command and control. In: Conference of the Computational Social Science Society of the Americas. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 124-151.

3. Willink J, Babin L. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

4. McChrystal SA, Collins T, Silverman D, Fussell C. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York, NY: Portfolio Penguin, 2015.

5. Mattis J, West B. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. New York, NY: Random House, 2019.

6. Gronning T. Working Without a Boss: Lattice Organization With Direct Person-to-Person Communication at WL Gore & Associates, Inc. SAGE Publications: SAGE Business Cases Originals, 2016.

Additional resources

Altamimi H, Liu Q, Jimenez B. (2023.) Not too much, not too little: Centralization, decentralization, and organizational change. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 33(1):170-185.

Xu N, Ghahremani H, Lemoine GJ, Tesluk PE. (2022.) Emergence of shared leadership networks in teams: An adaptive process perspective. The Leadership Quarterly, 33(6): 101588.

About the author

Ed Buckman is the current Chief of Police at the Graysville (Tenn.) Police Department. He started his law enforcement career in 2011 at the Chattanooga Police Department. He served on the Chattanooga SWAT team for 10 years and rose to the position of team leader and was assigned to the Organized Crime Unit as an investigator. He achieved a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership in 2023 from Liberty University. Ed is also the founder and CEO of Justified Coffee Company, whose mission is to support military veterans, police and other first responders. In his free time Ed has also created and published a children’s book.

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