Managing a police agency: 4 keys to getting back to basics

Lots of resources offer advanced strategies and tactics for the law enforcement executive to be more effective, but in reality, focusing on the basics can have tremendous effects

Article updated August 2, 2018

I was never a professional or college athlete and yet I could don about any team uniform and give a spot-on pre-game interview, citing the formula for success in every endeavor.

“We need to get out there and play hard, move the ball, get on the board, play one game at a time, and stay focused. We just need to get back to basics.”

Police leaders need data for a back-to-basics assessment and improvement of their department.
Police leaders need data for a back-to-basics assessment and improvement of their department. (Photo/PoliceOne)

There you have it! Back to basics!

The theme of basics is repeated by coaches everywhere from John Wooden’s lessons on how to wear shoes and socks, to Vince Lombardi's famous “Gentlemen, this is a football ...” speech. 

Taking a back-to-basics (BTB) approach can help police executives assess their organization as well. The BTB perspective can help unclutter a department that has lost its focus and forgotten what its essential functions are or should be.

To establish your performance essentials, start the BTB process with a laser-sharp department mission statement and include the following four core components.

1. Let the numbers talk

A BTB strategy in police organizations must be data-driven. Leaders need accurate measures of things that we may not currently be assessing.

In addition to traditional crime stats, response times, and overtime costs there must be metrics on community expectations and satisfaction levels.

Developing surveys and assessments that measure current activities deeply may likely contradict a leader’s intuitive assumptions.

2. Kill the sacred cows

Sometimes dreams have to die. One product of data will be a picture of your department to compare to your mission statement. If what you do and what you say you do are not congruent, something has to change.

That grant for neighborhood substations may have looked good on paper, but isn’t utilized as expected. Let it go.

Your SWAT team photo looks awesome, but you can get those services from an interagency agreement with the department next door. Let it go.

3. Recalibrate your strengths

Getting refocused on a mission informed by data is going to exercise some new leadership and managerial muscles.

Expect the discomfort and embrace the challenge. So far, most of my career positions have been rebuilding agencies in deep trouble.

That’s sort of my niche. Now that I’ve gotten my current agency up to speed, I can’t continue to manage the department or my personal career passions the way I did when I walked into the mess at first. 

Fresh examination of the department's leadership needs will be a product of the BTB mindset.

4. Examine task-to-skills relationships

A good data set that examines your department’s allocation of resources relative to service demands may reveal a disconnect between what people know and what they are asked to do. 

As a hands-on police leader, I’ve often found myself doing things I’m not that good at. 

For example, after I obtained a training grant for instructional video development, I found myself spending hours editing on software I didn’t understand. I decided to continue to offer content, but leave the production to somebody else. 

There is an opportunity cost for doing things poorly and taking away from exercising one’s strengths. 

Delegation and outsourcing can have high-efficiency rewards.


BTB is the key to simplifying leadership and can be exercised in a macro environment or micro environment. 

On the macro level, BTB can be used for a department-wide assessment leading to a major reorganization of your entire agency. 

On the micro level, BTB is useful for sorting out what’s on your desk or calendar right now. 

Ask yourself: “Does this item, program, position, need to exist in its current form based on our core mission?” 

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