Using military organizational management to transform LE ops

The War on Terror forced the military to abandon traditional hierarchical organizational structures and streamline operations, creating best practices police can adapt

Editor's note: Uniforms and armored vehicles aside, U.S. law enforcement has much it can learn from military-level training and tactics that could transform operations from a leadership, organizational, and officer safety standpoint. This series, "Military methodologies: Organizational and leadership lessons for LE," looks at what lessons law enforcement should take from the military experience.

By Lieutenant W. Michael Phibbs, P1 Contributor

Traditionally, law enforcement agencies relied on paramilitary structures of hierarchal management that utilized top-down leadership. This approach is slow and inflexible and limits our effectiveness to become a public safety system.
Traditionally, law enforcement agencies relied on paramilitary structures of hierarchal management that utilized top-down leadership. This approach is slow and inflexible and limits our effectiveness to become a public safety system. (Photo/

Protecting citizens from crime and apprehending offenders was once the focus of individual agencies working within their own jurisdictions with little collaboration with other entities, but crime knows no geographical boundaries. The issues that cause crime and victimization today are dynamic and cannot be solved by one agency alone. Merely focusing on the problems within a geographical area creates strategic gaps. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the current opioid crisis where drugs are moved and sold from one jurisdiction to another. With the dawn of the computer age and resulting access to information, we can now see more clearly how crime impacts regions. Understanding the interconnectedness of criminal activity both locally and regionally will ultimately decrease delays, gaps and reaction time and allow law enforcement to grow into a more robust public safety system.

Moving away from hierarchical management models

Traditionally, law enforcement agencies relied on paramilitary structures of hierarchal management that utilized top-down leadership. This approach is slow and inflexible and limits our effectiveness to become a public safety system. With rapid changes in crime patterns, police leaders must examine current management philosophies and adapt to new realities. 

The War on Terror presented the military with new challenges that required the transformation of its organizational structures by streamlining operations, reducing communication delays, and improving unit responsiveness and effectiveness. These agile practices could be used to update law enforcement operations for the 21st century. 

Why modern LE operations require a system model approach

Law enforcement must change its paradigms to handle the realities of the complex, interconnected environments within which criminals operate. We must break down silos, advance information sharing and look at our efforts using a system model approach.

Doing so requires we examine our strategies incorporating regional approaches at the macro level while developing agile teams at a micro level. Agencies must pursue the linkages of crime occurring across the locality and within the region. Collectively we must also cultivate a strategic mindset that consciously looks ahead to the potential ramifications of our tactics so we are not blindsided by reactions to our activities.

The role of cross-functional teams

Traditionally, law enforcement’s top-down, command-and-control model reduces flexibility and increases delays in response, especially when more than one unit or other agencies become involved with a case. The bureaucracy creates delays. As a result, the most critical component – front line officers – rarely receive proper guidance through established communications pipelines. Moreover, when another organization becomes involved, as when a crime impacts an outside agency, delays grow exponentially.

As explained by former Navy Seal Chris Fussell in “One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams,” the military and civilian organizations of the 21st century are shifting to hybrid models utilizing networks of cross-functional teams operating within the hierarchies of one or more organizations. This model is positioned to reduce delays, provide authority and expectations, and enable front-line personnel to take action, thereby increasing overall effectiveness in meeting organizational objectives. The pace of decision-making is enhanced as chief officers provide overall direction enabling lower-level supervisors the freedom and authority to operate. Designated action points determine when decisions are required at a specific level, such as who is responsible for critical decisions on barricaded incidents.  Since crime is not constrained by geography, a systems approach can help multiple organizations develop a consolidated plan and allow short-term agile teams to remedy the problem by identifying and resolving the underlying issues.

The systems approach offers multiple ways to attack a problem. It allows an organization to analyze several approaches introducing metrics and the use of maps and diagrams to clarify what is occurring. This enhances the anticipation of problems, helping end-users to determine the best course of action.

Systems theory uses connectors and hubs to share information and link different groups together. Organizations with crime problems that spiral up or down, or are in constant fluctuation, begin to see how best to respond to crime as systems theory reveals an interconnected set of relationships. Seeing interrelationships forces personnel to address the problem and exposes the gaps between desired results and one’s agency actions.

Taking a systems approach to fighting crime

Many agencies still choose to take a linear approach to crime – the “A-B-C” approach – even in instances where the crime is asymmetric with complex causes.  Applying a systems approach leads you to consider all possible causes of crime, and question the effectiveness of your police tactics, strategies and overall responsiveness, and examine the effectiveness of resource utilization. It should expose bottlenecks in communication or performance. Through strategic management and feedback loops, gaps can be examined and innovative solutions developed.  Instead of merely stopping one problem and being surprised as others arise, second and third order consequences of actions can be anticipated, and proactive steps incorporated.

Here is a simple example of a feedback loop: Your unit developed a plan that anticipated a 2 percent drop in crime, but the result was a 5 percent drop in crime. You exceeded your expectation, but didn’t hit your goal of 2 percent. Did you deploy more resources than necessary? Could the extra resources be used in another area?  Did you stop the problem early and were able to redeploy the resources? If not, then why not? If you made an arrest, did you prepare for the possible vacuum in the area and follow up to ensure new people didn’t come in to fill the void?  A systems approach allows you to make more analytical analysis of the problem, your efforts and a deeper understanding of the results beyond just the numbers.

The importance of communication and information-sharing

Multi-directional communication is critical to public safety. Organizations must effectively communicate up, down and diagonally within an organization and jurisdiction and organization lines. This is critical for real-time information sharing to occur. In many cases, information from command never reaches the people who need the information the most – the officers. Similarly, detectives may be guarded about sharing information with other detectives or street officers. Likewise, street officers often possess information invaluable to other units. Information can inadvertently be delayed when passing information between organizations. Electronic communication systems can link multiple agencies together to share information, but agencies may guard the access to the information.

In “One Mission,” Fussell describes the implementation of the Operations and Intelligence conference calls to share information and align teams and objectives. In formal ICS operations this could be utilized in the Tactics Meeting or Police Operations Development Meeting with crime analysis units who are critical to providing timely information that allows street officers, detectives and supervisors to see a broader picture and quickly connect the dots.  These meeting should be used for sharing information and development of strategic operations and alignment of resources. It is not a Compstat, Target Review, or Focus Meeting, which has a separate function.

The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department utilizes conference calls three days a week to share information between units within the Investigative Services Bureau, where patrol commanders can listen in on the calls.

In central Virginia, there is a conference call between law enforcement and fire departments every morning at 08:00 hours. During this call, critical issues impacting the region are quickly discussed. The situational awareness gained during these quick conversations is invaluable to building a public safety system that functions within a common operating picture.  

Empowering front-line teams to make decisions

Having a seat at the table is critical for front-line teams and units as they seek to understand the larger implications of what is occurring around them. However, front-line leaders must be trained to understand information and develop action plans based on the data received. In “Turn Your Ship  Around,” former commander of the USS Santa Fe, L. David Marquet writes, “If all you need your people to do is follow orders, it isn’t important that they understand what you are trying to accomplish." When front-line leaders are competent and provided with authority and responsibility, they can proactively influence what happens rather than just react. When front-line leaders see the linkages involving issues with geographical areas, they can formulate their plans to impact the larger problem. Allowing people at all levels to have both the authority and responsibility to act are hallmarks of the “Leader-Leader method,” implemented by Marquet on the USS Santa Fe.  

In my opinion, this method has seen greater success than the leader-follower method found in many organizations.  At the conclusion of the morning briefings, leaders at all levels should be able to say, “I intend to take “X” action to help impact the “Y” problem.” We should provide opportunities for those closest to the problem to develop their solutions to problems. It is desirable to see deliberate actions deployed within organizational boundaries so that all levels feel empowered and engagement is increased. Instead of telling subordinate leaders what to do, let’s allow them to analyze the information, create their action plan and then discuss the actions they intend to take. An open forum allows subordinate leaders an opportunity to see the larger picture and develop decision-making abilities one level up.     

Agile and cross-functional teams are a hallmark of a new workforce paradigm. In law enforcement, we use task forces to tackle crime problems. However, these task forces are usually segmented from specific groups within an agency or multiple agencies.  Cross-functional teams significantly increase creativity and problem-solving.

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About the author
Lieutenant W. Michael Phibbs has 25 years of experience in law enforcement. He holds a Master’s degree and PHR certification in human resources. He has conducted research and published articles on topics that include performance management, employee engagement and organizational branding. He is a member of the Central Virginia Type Three All Hazards Incident Management Team and is qualified as an Operations Section Chief and an Air Operations Branch Director. He has worked in those roles in national, regional, state and local events and disasters. 

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