Police supervision is the act of supervising, directing, or overseeing the day-to-day work activities of police officers. In most law enforcement agencies the majority of the policing services provided to the public are provided by uniformed patrol officers and detectives. These officers and detectives make up the lowest level of their departments’ hierarchical structure and are supervised by a chain of command consisting of multiple layers of supervisory officers. The chain of command structure of most police agencies is similar to that found in military units, where each employee in the chain usually answers to only one immediate supervisor. Requests and other sorts of communication within the organization usually flow up and down through each level of the supervisory hierarchy, and rarely is a level of command bypassed.

Although rank designations for supervisory positions vary from agency to agency, the immediate supervisor of patrol officers or detectives is often a sergeant. (Some agencies also utilize a rank called corporal or officer in charge, which are basically officers who temporarily assume the role of the sergeant if a sergeant is unavailable at the time.) Sergeants in turn are usually supervised by a lieutenant, and lieutenants are supervised by a captain. The larger the police organization, the more ranks or levels of command that will exist, with some larger organizations having the ranks of major, lieutenant colonel, commander, or colonel. At the head of the police organization is a single police executive, often referred to as a chief or director in state and municipal police organizations or a sheriff in county law enforcement agencies.

Difficulties in Supervising Officers

Supervision of the activities of police officers is often very difficult for three primary reasons. First is the fact that uniformed officers usually patrol alone or in pairs, are mobile, and are dispersed across a wide geographic area. For example, in large-city police departments a sergeant may be responsible for simultaneously supervising up to twelve patrol officers, each patrolling independently, dispersed across an area of a dozen square miles. In sheriff departments or state police agencies sergeants may supervise fewer officers; however, these officers may be dispersed across even larger geographic areas, such as one or more counties. When not handling calls, uniformed officers are usually free to patrol randomly in an effort to detect criminal activity and be a visible deterrent to crime. Therefore, it can be difficult for a sergeant to locate subordinate officers and directly observe their behavior when they are not handling a call for service.

Likewise, detectives spend the majority of their time out of the office conducting follow-up interviews with victims and witnesses. Contacting these witnesses may require travel to a number of different areas within the jurisdiction within one workday or even require travel outside the agency’s jurisdiction. Therefore, a detective sergeant supervises a unit of detectives who are constantly coming and going from the office at various times and traveling various distances. Rarely is the detective supervisor able to be present with subordinates while they follow up on investigative leads.

A second reason it is difficult to directly supervise police officers is that they are afforded a high degree of decision-making discretion. Although police officers are guided in their decisions by the law and a host of departmental rules, regulations, and procedures, these guides can never cover every situation that an officer may potentially encounter in the normal course of police duties. When encountering suspicious circumstances, police officers must decide whether they should investigate, whether a law has been broken, whether there is enough evidence to support a search or an arrest, and whether it is in the best interest of those involved to make an arrest.

Every individual situation encountered in policing is unique, and therefore police officers must be able to exercise some discretion in deciding what constitutes a violation of the law and how and when laws should be enforced. Therefore, not only is it difficult for police supervisors to be present in the field to directly observe and supervise their officers on the job, even the rules and regulations set forth by the supervisors must often be open to some degree of interpretation by the officers who are expected to obey them. Unless supervisors were present at the scene of a call and witnessed the circumstances encountered by the officer, it is sometimes difficult for them to determine if the officer’s actions were appropriate.

The third reason that it is difficult to directly supervise the conduct of police officers is the amount of administrative work police supervisors are often required to perform. Although specific duties vary across departments, it is not uncommon for police sergeants and lieutenants to be expected to schedule their officers’ shift and beat assignments, review all of their officers’ written reports for clarity and accuracy, attend meetings with upper management or other government agencies, attend meetings with community groups, approve officer use of overtime compensation, answer telephones at the police station, process citizen complaints about officer conduct, compile and monitor crime statistics for their districts, write personnel evaluations, and issue disciplinary reports.

These extensive and time-consuming administrative activities can severely limit the time a supervisor has available to go out into the field to directly monitor or supervise officers. Supervisors have even less time available to sculpt officer work behaviors and improve individual officer performance through training, coaching, or mentoring. Therefore, most police supervisors attempt to control officer behavior through indirect methods.

Methods of Supervising Officers

The most formal methods of officer behavior control used by police supervisors (especially high-ranking supervisors) are written rules, regulations, and directives. Most police organizations have extensive operations manuals containing regulations and directives to guide officer conduct in a number of situations. The reliance on written rules and regulations for supervising police officers has several weaknesses. First, it is impossible for rules and regulations to be created that would govern every situation that police officers will encounter, requiring officers to sometimes use entirely their own judgment or attempt to interpret and follow the spirit rather than the letter of the rules. Second, rules can be enforced only when rule violations are detected. Within the police subculture there usually exist two separate subcultures for officers and management. As part of the patrol officer subculture’s code of silence, few officers will report rule violations by their fellow officers to management. Also, as noted above, direct supervision in the field that may catch rule violating behavior is difficult to achieve.

Nevertheless, social science research has demonstrated that the use of rules and regulations can be relatively effective at controlling some types of officer behaviors. For example, research has documented a consistent pattern of significant reductions in the number of police shootings of citizens experienced by police departments after these departments instituted written rules limiting the circumstances under which officers may fire their weapons (Fyfe 1979). The creation of stricter use-of-force regulations within the department usually resulted in officers exercising more restraint in their use of force. Similar results have also been found with the implementation of formal department rules governing nonlethal uses of force, involvement in vehicle pursuits, and arrest decisions in domestic violence situations.

However, most of the evidence suggesting the effectiveness of written rules and regulations deals with what are often termed ”high-visibility” decisions by police officers. These are decisions that are unlikely to go undetected by management and are subject to review by the courts or a supervisor. For example, the discharge of a firearm at a citizen would be extremely difficult to keep from being detected by a supervisor due to the noise, danger, and community reaction involved. Because of the seriousness of the use of lethal force, these officer decisions are usually investigated and reviewed by police supervisors and the local prosecutor. Therefore, uses of deadly force proscribed as inappropriate by department regulations are highly likely to be uncovered and disciplined during the departmental investigation of the shooting. However, it is unlikely that department rules and regulations governing behaviors that are less likely to be subject to detection—such as sleeping on duty—are as effective at controlling officer behavior.

Another common method police supervisors use to control officer behavior is through a transactional leadership style, where the supervisors use a system of simple rewards to promote the behaviors they desire and punishments to discourage undesirable officer behaviors. Police sergeants and lieutenants often use their authority over officer beat assignments, transfer requests, day off requests, overtime compensation, partner assignments, and performance evaluations to manipulate officer behavior. Officers come to learn that when their behavior conforms to their supervisors’ expectations, they are granted requests in these areas more frequently. When their behaviors fail to meet their supervisors’ expectations, officers find it much harder to receive special assignments, extra days off, or assignments that provide overtime pay.

If the behavior of an officer consistently violates the supervisor’s expectations over time or involves a serious breach of department rules and regulations, the officer may also receive more formalized discipline, such as a letter of reprimand, suspension without pay, or termination of employment. This type of behavioral control can be accomplished without direct supervision in the field, explaining why it is employed so often in modern policing.

As with formal rules and regulations, systems of rewards and punishments are usually most effective with activities that will be reviewed or outcomes that can be measured, such as the number of tickets issued, citizen complaints received, or arrests made. Research by Stephen Mastrofski and his associates has illustrated the effectiveness of rewards in controlling officer behavior (Mastrofski, Ritti, and Snipes 1994). Their research revealed that when officers are directed by their supervisors to aggressively arrest drunk drivers and the officers perceive that such arrests will result in various rewards from within the police organization, officers are more likely to comply with these requests and produce high levels of drunk driver arrests. It was also found that in situations where police supervisors discouraged officers from making drunk driver arrests and such arrests were not perceived to result in any special rewards, most officers refrained from making such arrests.

Similar results have been found in the study of officer involvement in problem-oriented policing, where officers who were directed by their supervisors to engage in community problem solving and perceived that they would be rewarded for this activity did so more frequently than other officers. Therefore, with activities that can be objectively measured, rewards and punishments can be an effective police management strategy.

As mentioned earlier, direct supervision of officers in the field is frequently difficult in policing, yet research has revealed that when it can be accomplished, it has a significant influence on officer behavior. Research has found that when supervisors are able to be in the field, responding to calls with their subordinates, observing their behavior on traffic stops, and attempting to locate officers while they go about their patrol duties, officers frequently respond by conforming most of their behaviors to the expectations made clear by their supervisors (Engel 2000).

When officers receive higher levels of direct supervision in the field, they tend to make more arrests, engage in more proactive investigative activity, engage in more community problem solving, and spend less time on personal activities not officially permitted by the department while they are on duty. Research also suggests that this occurs primarily because officers are aware they are more likely to be caught and disciplined for disobeying rules if the supervisor is frequently present in the field and that many patrol officers voluntarily conform their behavior to match the expectations of these supervisors out of respect for the supervisor’s willingness to engage in patrol officer work and assist them at calls (Van Maanen 1983). Nevertheless, the direct supervision of officers in the field is very difficult to achieve in most police departments due to the number of administrative duties sergeants and lieutenants have also been assigned.

Issues in Police Supervision

In spite of the fact that police officers have a great degree of autonomy and freedom to use discretion, police supervisors have traditionally been reluctant to delegate any additional authority to patrol officers. However, one of the key elements of community policing strategies involves empowering individual patrol officers to develop creative solutions to recurring problems of crime and disorder.

Nevertheless, due to concerns about civil liability issues, police supervisors are often reluctant to let officers implement new plans or operations on their own. As a result of the decisions in federal court cases such as Monell v. New York City and City of Canton v. Harris, police supervisors can often be held civilly liable for the negative consequences that can result from the actions of their subordinates. Therefore, police supervisors can become understandably nervous when their officers attempt to act proac-tively by implementing unique and untried tactics rather than simply maintaining the status quo of reactively responding to calls. This reluctance to delegate operational authority continues to be a frequent obstacle to the implementation of community policing programs.

Another problematic issue in police supervision is the lack of training police supervisors receive. In most police departments officers do not receive any leadership or supervisory training until they are promoted to the rank of sergeant. Even after being promoted, new sergeants usually do not receive formal training in how to be a supervisor for a number of months or even years. In some small departments with tight budgets, supervisors may never receive formal supervisory training.

This general lack of training is often the result of the cost of training and the fact that when a supervisor is away at training, the department is shorthanded. Some police executives also hold the opinion that officers selected for promotion already have the natural talents and abilities to be good leaders and therefore do not need training. This lack of training also poses problems for the implementation of community policing since many supervisors are unfamiliar with how to supervise officers effectively while also empowering them to develop unique responses to crime and disorder.

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