Theories of police administration have been largely derived from the more general fields of organization theory, public administration, and business administration. Police administration text topics and training programs have changed over the years, sometimes in response to new developments in the practice of police administration, and sometimes in response to new ideas and concepts from research and literature. Today, several approaches can be identified that differ primarily in the emphasis they give to particular components of police administration and factors affecting police organizations.

The Classical Approach

The classical approach to police administration dominated text topics and training into the 1960s; it was and is closely associated with the professional model of policing and probably still has more influence over practice than any other. This approach is best illustrated by the pioneering text topics Police Administration (first edition by O. W. Wilson, 1950) and Municipal Police Administration (1938, edited under the general direction of the International City Management Association; now re-titled Local Government Police Management). The classical approach emphasizes structure and management: organizational principles (unity of command, chain of command, delegation of authority), management functions (planning, directing, controlling), and functional components of policing (patrol administration, traffic supervision, jail management).

The classical approach remains popular and influential today for several reasons. It provides the most straightforward approach to holding police officers accountable. It is at the heart of the law enforcement agency accreditation program now in its third decade of operation. It is the primary means of risk management for minimizing a police agency’s civil liability exposure. It has been encouraged by developments in administrative law that require more and more documentation in support of disciplinary actions. It is consistent with the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS) that are being federally mandated for response to major homeland security crises, and it provides an appearance, at least, of close control over police power and discretion that is comforting to citizens and police administrators alike.

The Human Relations Approach

The human relations approach was developed as an alternative to the classical approach when research and experience demonstrated that the performance of people in organizations was significantly affected by attitudes, feelings, beliefs, peer pressure, and organizational culture—not just structure, principles, and functions. The human relations approach came to dominate police administration text topics and training, although its impact on actual police management is harder to gauge.

The underlying rationale is that the performance of a police organization is almost entirely a function of people productivity and that police management is almost entirely people management. The approach focuses on morale, communications, motivation, group dynamics, and leadership. Most of the police administration text topics published since 1970 place substantial emphasis on the human relations approach.

In recent decades, police agencies have shown considerable interest in a variety of popular management techniques affiliated with the human relations approach, including situational leadership, effective habits of leaders, quality circles, principles of excellence, management by values, and total quality management. The rise of community policing also gave a push to the human relations approach to police administration. Community policing tends to advocate extending police officer discretion, encouraging officers to work closely with the public, and expecting officers to implement creative solutions to community problems. Some police executives have argued that police management must establish better human relations in its dealings with its own employees before it can reasonably expect those employees to treat the public with increased care and respect, let alone innovation and creativity.

The Strategic Management Approach

The strategic management approach to police administration emphasizes objectives, tasks, and resources. Police administration is conceived primarily as a rational adaptation of means to ends, of planning and designing tasks that will lead to the achievement of organizational objectives. Police evaluation research, exemplified by the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, the RAND study of criminal investigation, and the PERF study of police response time, focused on police operational tasks and their effectiveness and gave rise to such programs as ”Managing Patrol Operations,” ”Managing Criminal Investigations,” and ”Differential Police Response Strategies.” More recently, community policing, problem-oriented policing, COMPSTAT, and intelligence-led policing have emerged as leading new police strategies.

The strategic management approach gained considerable stature during the last two decades as resource constraints forced police administrators to focus more and more on the efficiency and effectiveness of police programs and strategies. The ”Perspectives on Policing” series prepared at Harvard University and distributed by the National Institute of Justice was influential in popularizing this approach, as were the topics Beyond 911: A New Era for Policing (Sparrow et al. 1990) and Beyond Command and Control: The Strategic Management of Police Departments (Moore and Stephens 1991). The heightened concern over efficiency and effectiveness has greatly elevated the roles of policy analysis, program evaluation, and other analytical aspects of police administration. Most recently, the ”Measuring What Matters” program has focused attention on the importance of specifying and then measuring the most important services and outcomes of police agencies. The topic Recognizing Value in Policing: The Challenge of Measuring Police Performance (Moore et al. 2002) represents this approach.

The Institutional Approach

The institutional approach to police administration emphasizes the external environment of police organizations, policy making, and decision making more than internal management duties. The two topics that best illustrate this approach are Herman Goldstein’s Policing a Free Society (1977) and the anthology Police Leadership in America (Geller 1985). These topics consider the police administrator’s external relations with political leaders, city managers, the media, labor unions, and community groups. They also emphasize such matters as defining the police function, developing alternatives to formal legal processing, and structuring police discretion, all of which are extremely important in the big picture of executing government policy, but are likely to be overlooked when the focus is exclusively on the internal management of the police department.

One contemporary issue that illustrates the value of the institutional approach is racial profiling. The classical approach might respond to racial profiling with a rule prohibiting discrimination and increased supervision to discourage it. The human relations approach might tend to rely on sensitivity or diversity training for officers to change their attitudes and beliefs. The strategic management approach might analyze tactics and strategies in order to identify one, perhaps community policing, that would produce fewer complaints and more nuanced police service. The institutional approach would tend to focus on policies and training that guide officer decision making about how to choose vehicles and pedestrians to stop and how to decide when to search people and cars. These are discretionary decisions made by individual officers day in and day out, and in many police departments they are not guided to any significant degree by clear policies, training, or other guidelines. As a result, in many departments, stops and searches are carried out by individual officers based on inconsistent criteria, resulting in under-policing, overpolicing, and/or patterns of discrimination. The institutional approach recognizes the importance of the cumulative impact of these individual decisions and specifically tries to structure discretion in order to achieve more consistency and less discrimination.


The theoretical and practical emphases of police administration have evolved over the years. Initial reform efforts stressed professional administration, structure, and control based on the classical approach to administration. In the 1960s, increasing attention was paid to improving police performance through inspired leadership and paying attention to employee needs—the human relations approach. In recent years increased emphasis has been placed on improving the effectiveness of police tactics and strategies and on the police agency’s relations with its external environment— the strategic management and institutional approaches. More attention is still needed on the institutional approach’s focus on structuring discretion. Also needed are text topics and training programs that effectively integrate all of these approaches into a more comprehensive treatment of the theory and practice of police administration.

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