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The Benefits of Law Enforcement Agencies Transforming into Learning Organizations

By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Law enforcement organizations serve their respective communities by preventing and reducing crime and improving the quality of life of its citizens. But the environment in which agencies operate changes: communities grow, crime trends fluctuate, and quality of life issues vary within each community. To ensure sustainability in our fast-paced, dynamic, and globally connected world, it is beneficial for law enforcement organizations to evolve into learning organizations.

Learning organizations strive to develop processes to adapt to external changes and ensure sustainability in the future. Leaders are tasked with fostering an environment of continuous learning, employee growth, and the development of future leaders.

[Related: What Makes an Effective Law Enforcement Leader?]

One of the greatest strengths of a learning organization is its emphasis on empowering individuals.  Learning organizations are designed to encourage employees to share their ideas, participate in the decision-making process, and work as a team; consequently, employees become stakeholders in fulfilling the mission of the organization. Ultimately, learning organizations are comprised of men and women who are committed to the organization, life-long learning, and moving forward in our fast-paced, dynamic, and globally connected world.

Leading the Transition into a Learning Organization

Transitioning a law enforcement agency into a learning organization can be challenging, but these agencies are often well suited to undergo such a shift. This is largely because agencies, and their leadership, are accustomed to operating in an ever-changing environment. Law enforcement leaders must operate among changes to political and social influencers, evolving case law, technological advances, and emerging policing philosophies. These external influences require leaders to make constant adjustments by adding or moving personnel, reorganizing work groups, and implementing new programs and policies. Effective leaders develop strategies for managing change while maintaining the mission of the organization and avoiding unforeseen consequences (Swanson, Territo, & Taylor, 2016).

[Related: Why Transformational Leaders Should Embrace Emotional Intelligence]

Therefore, transitioning into a learning organization, and empowering line officers and other employees to take on greater responsibilities, can actually improve the operation and flexibility of an agency and its ability to adapt to constant change.

Community Policing Fosters a Learning Culture

One way law enforcement organizations can facilitate the development of a learning culture is through the implementation of community-oriented policing. The community-oriented policing (COP) philosophy emerged in the late 1980’s to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community by partnering to solve crime, disorder problems, and quality of life issues.

The COP philosophy requires a decentralized, linear structure that’s focused on knowledge management, teamwork and community partnerships (Ford, 2007). The decentralized and participative management structure of community policing encourages line-supervisors and officers to be involved in conceiving and implementing new programs.

For those agencies that are shifting to a learning environment, police leaders must create a culture and structure that’s similar to that of COPs. The good news is that COP is already practiced at the unit level in many police organizations. However it often does not permeate the entire organization and most police organizations continue to operate under a bureaucratic management style and paramilitary hierarchical structure.

In order to shift to learning organizations, agencies should look to decentralize their structure so that line-officers are empowered to identify problems, share ideas, and develop solutions. Shared power creates a sense of ownership among employees in a police organization.

Three Key Factors for Transitioning to Community Policing

Researcher J. Kevin Ford facilitated the successful change effort from traditional policing to community-oriented policing at the Jackson Police Department in Michigan and documented the process and his insights. The transformation took place over the course of seven years, from 1990 to 1997. In his article, he explained, “The community policing effort was seen as a means to make a transformational change to become a learning organization with the goal of improving the delivery of police services” (p. 321).

Ford’s research revealed three “foundational pillars” that contributed to the success of the transformation. He denoted them as follows (p. 332):

  1. Changing people’s mindsets to view activities as part of a whole system;
  2. Breaking down the command and control mindset by creating a norm of high involvement in the process;
  3. Developing a data oriented, continuous learning orientation so that people at all levels are motivated by improvement of systems and processes rather than by maintain the status quo or focusing on individual performance.

Transforming into a learning organization is a gradual process that benefits both the organization and the community it serves. While it takes time and effort to transition agencies into learning organizations, it is something many already have a foundation for through their COPs program. Building from here is a great start to converting their entire organization and management structure.

learning organizationsAbout the Author: Nicole Cain has been an instructor with American Military University for five years and has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than nine years. She has more than 17 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities to include patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community-oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section’s Felony Intake where she prepares all felony cases for the State Attorney’s Office. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits, and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and conducted interrogations. She attends Southeastern University where she is pursuing her Doctoral degree in Education (Ed.D).


Ford, J. (2007). Building capability throughout a change effort: Leading the transformation of a police agency to community policing. American Journal Community Psychology. 39, 321-334. doi: 10.1007/s10464-007-9115-2

Police Executive Research Forum. (2014). Future Trends in Policing. Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Retrieved from

Swanson, C. R., Territo, L., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). Police administration: Structures, processes, and behavior. Prentice Hall.

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