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Leading Change in Law Enforcement

By Dr. Chuck Russo, program director of Criminal Justice at American Military University

Change does not typically go over well in law enforcement organizations. Perhaps one reason is that the vast majority of administrations do not tolerate failure.

In business, a certain degree of risk-taking and failure are tolerated. Failure can be somewhat of a badge of honor—at least an individual took the risk to succeed in ways no one else would. However, in our paramilitary organizations, if an officer fails while trying, that officer is often reprimanded or punished for his or her failed actions. This action by leaders often stifles innovation and deters others from trying new things.

However, change is necessary in all organizations and law enforcement leaders must do a better job of helping their officers accept and prosper during change. Ultimately, it’s important for leaders to realize that change is hard for everyone and many people will require guidance and reassurance throughout the process.

Why Change Is So Hard
In general, people like to operate in their comfort zones and for many individuals, the way things are is just fine. These individuals know the rules, they know what they can and cannot do, and they can survive and succeed in such an environment.

When something new is introduced it often upsets this delicate balance. All of a sudden, the rules and possibly the players have changed. This situation causes many people pain, discomfort, uncertainty, uneasiness, and, often, additional work. As a result, many people resist change.

Change can also disrupt the balance of power in an organization. Those in authority positions got there because of their proven knowledge and skills in the current system, which may have taken years to build. With power comes control. If power is redistributed, so is the control associated with it including control over personnel, budgets, and resources.

[Related article: Putting Experience to Work: The Value of a Formal Mentoring Program]

Change can also cause resentment and impede the support that new leaders need to be successful. Individuals who feel they earned their position want others to pay the same price they did. And, when others step into positions of power without “earning it,” others in the system often do not support them.

Ways to Accept and Promote Change

Communicate Change
It is important for administrators to clearly communicate why change is necessary. Often, agencies fail to tell those who are impacted by the change why it’s happening.

Take, for example, the introduction of new technology. The administration may have all the best intentions for bringing in a new piece of hardware or technology but, if the reasons are not communicated, the people impacted by the new tool will make up their own reasons. Often times, these two reasons do not match up, which can cause conflict, resentment, and impede the acceptance and use of this technology.

Realize You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
For all of us, there are things we don’t even know that we don’t know. For example, consider someone who spends his or her whole career at one agency where they rise to a position of authority. If that person has not received outside education or exposure to other agencies during their rise to the top, they may have a very close-minded view.

A person’s limited experience often leads to limited solutions to problems. When seeking a solution, he or she will review what was done in the past and maybe seek out responses from similar nearby agencies. All this means that very little change will occur.

By not knowing the resources out there and not having the ability to analyze and question, those individuals are limiting their options. Chances are whatever caused the issue to rise to the forefront will remain after the “solution” is applied.

To be a strong leader, one must realize there are things they do not know and seek guidance from others. Leaders must also take the time to explain changes to others and communicate why such change is important for the agency.

Chuck RussoAbout the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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