Organizational Structure Defined and Described

Police organizations, from the smallest to the largest, all have a social structure, composed of the social relationships among their members. These social relationships accomplish a number of tasks, from socializing new members to accomplishing the goals of the organization. Most importantly, organizational structure serves as the ”apparatus through which organizations accomplish . . . the division of labor and the coordination of work” (Maguire 2003, 11). These structures allow police agencies to accomplish a range of goals, first by dividing workers into different work groups and specialties (called complexity), and second by facilitating the management and control of these workers (called control) (Maguire 2003; Wilson 2003).

Organizational complexity has three dimensions: vertical, functional, and geographic (Maguire 2003). Vertically, police agencies differ in the height of their hierarchy (chain of command) and the nature and shape of that hierarchy. For example, it is possible for an agency with a tall chain of command to still grant decision-making discretion to its line-level officers (King 2005). Furthermore, some agencies may have a large number of midlevel supervisors, which in effect causes the pyramid of their hierarchy to bulge in the middle.

Functionally, police agencies may divide their tasks among specialized units (such as a community policing unit or a traffic enforcement unit). Some agencies are very specialized, while others are not. Less specialized agencies will rely upon an undifferentiated group of generalist officers to accomplish organizational goals.

Finally, some police agencies are more spread out in terms of geography and territory. For example, some police organizations have many precinct stations, substations, and patrol beats, while other agencies rely upon one or a handful of precinct stations, and a limited number of patrol beats.

Increasing organizational complexity allows police agencies to better tailor their response to specific goals. For instance, an agency may opt to create a police substation in a depressed neighborhood and staff that substation with community police officers. Such a response permits this agency to address a specific problem in one community with a geographically targeted and functionally specialized response. It should be obvious, however, that this response also increases the complexity of that organization. To be effective, more complex organizations must also exert greater control over their workers.

Organizational control involves ”the formal administrative apparatuses that an organization institutes in order to achieve coordination and control among its workers and its work” (Maguire 2003,16). Control consists of three dimensions; administration, formalization, and centralization of decision making. Administration refers to the resources and personnel an agency devotes to organizational maintenance and the day-to-day operation of the organization. Administration includes workers assigned to upper management and support functions (such as clerical workers, maintenance workers, and trainers). These workers and resources assist the organization in better coordinating and controlling its employees. Formalization refers to formal, codified, organizational rules and guidelines. Examples of formalization are standard operations procedures topics (SOPs), employee manuals, and other written rules. Formalization assists in the control of workers by communicating the appropriate methods for achieving organizational goals. Centralization of decision making refers to the degree to which the authority to make decisions is concentrated in a relatively small number of workers (usually upper management) or is spread throughout the organization. Some police agencies are centralized, and thus important decisions are made by upper managers or supervisors; other agencies are decentralized, empowering line officers to make important decisions on their own.

Explaining the Structure of Police Organizations

Scholars have long sought to explain why different police organizations adopt different organizational structures (that is, different degrees of complexity and control). Generally, these police scholars have turned to two organizational theories: structural contingency theory and institutional theory.

Structural contingency theory posits that organizations alter their structures to best adapt to their rational/technical environments and thus improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness (Donaldson 1996). The rational/technical environment for police agencies differs from one agency to the next. Environments are usually composed of the population the agency serves (including the specific demands that population might put on the agency, such as an upper class suburb as compared to a less affluent inner-city neighborhood), the political system that oversees that police agency (such as city government or county government), and the degree and type of crime. Contingency theory posits that organizations must adapt their structures in order to appropriately respond to their specific environments (Zhao 1996). If a police agency adapts properly, it will be effective and efficient. If an agency fails to respond appropriately, however, it will be ineffective and inefficient. Since an agency’s environment may be constantly changing, police organizations must be capable of change as well. Of course, some agencies enjoy the predictability of a relatively stable environment and thus need not change much or often.

Organizational institutional theory (often called institutional theory) contends that organizations change in response to their institutional (or symbolic) environment, but not due to their rational/ technical environment (Meyer and Rowan 1977). This institutional environment is composed of powerful external constituents (called sovereigns), such as politicians, the media, community groups, and other police agencies. These powerful sovereigns create expectations about how ”good” police agencies are structured and how they behave, and organizations in turn attempt to meet these expectations in order to receive legitimacy from their institutional environment.

Appropriate organizational structure (that is, the form of a ”good” police agency) is not related to efficiency or effectiveness, but rather due to what the institutional environment deems to be appropriate, correct, or acceptable (Crank and Langworthy 1992; Mastrofski, Ritti, and Hoffmaster 1987). Police agencies that adapt and emulate the appropriate organizational forms dictated by their institutional environments are rewarded with greater legitimacy (and are often viewed as being better organizations). Police agencies that do not change risk being labeled as nonconforming and are sometimes labeled as bad organizations. Simply, institutional theory contends the police agencies change their structure in order to receive legitimacy from sovereigns, not to increase their efficiency or effectiveness.

Evidence Supporting These Theories of Police Organizations

Recent years have seen an increasing interest in empirically testing contingency and institutional theory with police agencies. To summarize this body of literature briefly, the results have been mixed, with neither theory gaining a supremacy on the landscape of theoretical explanation. It appears that contingency theory explains well some structural attributes, while institutional theory explains well other elements of police organizational structure.

Briefly, there is some evidence that police agencies alter their structures in order to cope with changes in their environments. Zhao’s (1996) research indicated that police agencies located in more diverse communities were more likely to adopt community policing in response. Other researchers (Langworthy 1986; Maguire 2003) have also found significant relationships between an agency’s environment and its structure.

Researchers exploring the relationship between police agencies and institutional environments have also discovered intriguing relationships. Katz’s (2001) examination of the creation of a specialized antigang unit in one police agency (an example of increased agency complexity) supported institutional theory. Katz (2001) concluded that the gang unit was formed due to external pressure from powerful groups (but not due to a specific gang problem). Further, once formed, the gang unit mostly engaged in activities designed to grant it organizational legitimacy. Similarly, Mastrofski, Ritti, and Hoffmaster (1987) found that officers in smaller police agencies were more likely than officers in larger agencies to predict that they would behave in accord with perceived norms of proper police behavior. This finding also supports the contention made by institutional theorists that smaller agencies strive to bolster their legitimacy by emulating the structures and behaviors of larger and more legitimate agencies.

In sum, then, there is evidence that each of these theories applies to certain aspects of police agencies. In part, this finding indicates that police executives and their overseers (such as local politicians) can exercise some degree of control over the structures of their police agencies. However, some elements of structure are more amenable to change than are others (for example, see Maguire 2003, 225-27) and reformers should be careful about what reforms they undertake.

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