Change Management in Law Enforcement

Legislative agendas, shifting policy priorities, and the churn of senior leadership ensure that change is a constant in law enforcement. This is exceptionally true in an era of policing primarily defined by far-reaching reform efforts and a rising crime rate that demands department personnel and leadership are operating at the peak of their capacities.

‘Change management’ is a broad term that encompasses how organizations approach and work through change. Though initially a concept and set of strategies more at home in the corporate world, they offer a blueprint for how agency leaders can cope with policy changes. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to change management, this article looks at concepts and strategies that have been shown to produce positive outcomes in the face of change.

What is Change Management?

In the business world, the primary goal of change management is to successfully implement new processes, products, and business strategies while minimizing adverse outcomes for the organization as a whole. Research paints a stark picture of the need for effective change management strategies, showing that some 70% of change-based initiatives ultimately fail.

The discipline of change management originated in the 1980s, corresponding with a period of substantial shifts in corporate culture. Once on the periphery of academic theory, it became a commonly adopted set of strategies in the 2000s, with managers and executives realizing the need to stay nimble in a dynamic business world.

While different schools of thought practice somewhat different strategies, the Society of Human Resources Managers identifies Harvard Business Professor John Kotter’s methodology as one of the most widely adopted; its key points include:

  • Creating a sense of urgency and building a guiding coalition of employees trusted by their peers.
  • Forming a strategic vision that’s imaginable, feasible, focused, and easily understood and enlisting a “volunteer army” to aid in communicating this vision to their peers.
  • Enabling action by removing barriers – inflexible structures, processes, or a lack of knowledge – and looking for short-term wins that keep the momentum moving forward.
  • Sustaining acceleration by building on short-term success and, when needed, revising smaller goals to realign with the organization’s broader goals. Change is finally instituted by linking the norms of group behavior with the organization’s shared values.

Unique Challenges in Law Enforcement

Corporate strategies offer a sound basis for understanding change management in policing – they’re widely tested across different fields and subject to academic review and rigorous debate. However, law enforcement poses a set of distinct needs and challenges that require a more specialized approach than in the corporate world.

Many corporate strategies emphasize taking the time to “get things right”. In law enforcement when working towards compliance with consent decrees or new reform-oriented legislation, that timeline for change is often set externally. Furthermore, policing as an institution can be resistant to change partly due to the rigid command structure inherent in its traditions. It is well-understood in most departments that change comes from the top down, leaving implementation and, ultimately, success to the lower ranks.

Managing Organizational Stress

Policing is known to be a stressful profession, with as many as 85% of officers reporting high stress levels as a result of their work. These elevated stress levels are considered significant contributors to the rapid rise in resignations and retirements driving the staffing crisis in the profession. They also can have a profound effect on officers’ health, contributing to fatigue, mental health issues, and suicide.

There are two categories of stress officers experience in the profession. The inherent stress of the job is relatively straightforward and encompasses the danger officers face as well as the psychological effects of dealing with crime scenes and victims, for example. Organizational stress is more complex and refers to the stress officers face navigating the administrative side of their work – command structure, salary concerns, internal affairs, and, notably, policy changes. Research has shown organizational stressors have a total effect on stress levels 6.3 times greater than the inherent stressors of the work.

Change Management Strategies

To equip officers for organizational shifts coming as the result of legislative policy changes, consent decrees, and leadership turnover, the fundamentals of corporate change management strategy can be adopted with an emphasis on supporting officers through the changes. As discussed in a recent article in Police Chief Magazine, preparing officers for shifts in policy by emphasizing agency culture and resiliency shows promise for success as an effective change management strategy.

In law enforcement, leaders typically serve an elected mayor and simply do not have all of the change management strategies available in the corporate world. Understanding that “…organizationally based stresses negatively affect police officers and are predictors of depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress symptoms,” the author proposes three main areas of interest for police leaders to build resiliency to change.

  1. Supportive leadership that can “engage in identifying and mitigating organizational and operational stressors.” Leadership that listens and actively responds to their officers is vital to any change management strategy.
  2. Education-based disciplinary programs wherein officers acting outside of policy are not necessarily penalized for relatively minor infractions but instead offered opportunities to participate in training or other alternative programs.
  3. A focus on mental and physical health that seeks to mitigate the effects of change-based stress. The correlation between physical and mental health is well documented, and programs that build physical health are shown to impact overall wellness. Additionally, mental health support staff and peer support programs have demonstrated great success in reducing stress levels and promoting resiliency.

Law enforcement is a constantly changing profession. Whether it is the adoption of new technologies, new policies enacted by elected officials, or the shifts in direction from new leadership – change is indeed a constant in policing, and it will never be “easy.” Law enforcement leaders that take what works from the corporate world and thoughtfully apply it to the unique needs of policing can be setting their agencies on the right path to effective change management.