Bridging the Gap in Law Enforcement Strategy
By Joseph F. Garbato, M.S.S.
“A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength.”
— Proverbs 24:51
In November 2021, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin published an article by the author titled “History Can Inform Contemporary Law Enforcement Strategy,” in which he assessed that today’s strategy is insufficient to meet modern challenges.2
Recently, the author conducted a study of U.S. law enforcement organizational strategy that highlighted potential vulnerabilities. This follow-up article will reveal the purpose, methodology, and results of the study; explain the importance of its findings; and offer recommendations for the law enforcement community.
Based on his experience in law enforcement, the author has questions about the community’s ability to create, articulate, and implement effective strategy at the organizational level. Law enforcement must develop a theory of success separate from corporate vernacular, metrics, and influence — better suited for a mission to protect and serve rather than generate profit.
Supervisory Special Agent Garbato, FBI chair and graduate of the Marine Corps University, is a retired U.S. Army reserve captain.
Analysis focused on the organizational strategies of 279 randomly selected agencies, including a mixture of those at the local, county, state, tribal, and federal level. The study’s driving force lies in the current domestic context of the United States, where law enforcement feels under siege and communities feel betrayed, with hope that research and education can reveal solutions.
This research was based only on open-source data. To this point, if a law enforcement strategy, in part or in whole, is not shared with the public, this leads to questions about transparency and, therefore, trust. Any strategy, however well-crafted, is vulnerable if it lacks sufficient transparency.
The Marine Corps War College Strategy Primer3 establishes the strategic components evaluated. It offers an effective strategic model and a clear, concise, and complete explanation. While its applicability is broad, to include law enforcement, this model is genius in its simplicity. Strategic components offered by the book can be grouped into three categories.
- Organizational context includes an agency’s community climate; guiding policy4; and mission, vision, and values. This category establishes the organization’s operational and philosophical environment and its overarching strategy.
- Theory of success5 encompasses an agency’s comprehensive plan, consisting of established ends (goals), ways (intermediate objectives) to achieve these ends, and means (necessary resources). For a strategy to be successful, it must include a unifying idea6 that harnesses human capital, more creatively described as a central idea that motivates individuals to pull in the same direction.
- Strategic evaluation answers a critical question up front: Why will this strategy work? It includes a detailed risk evaluation; results of an applied strategic validation tool; and an assessment of overall transparency.
Within the categories, each component is evaluated and awarded 1 to 4 points, based upon assessment of significance. There are three critical individual components: “guiding policy,” “unifying idea,” and “overall transparency,” each worthy of 4 points. The highest score per category is 10, with a grand total of 30 points overall, as shown in Figure 1.
A closer examination of Figure 1 reveals that the maximum number of points an agency can earn is 26 without bonus points awarded for transparency.
Figure 2 outlines how an agency’s overall rating is determined. Ratings are grouped into two separate categories: “effective” and “ineffective” — the result of the assessment detailed in Figure 1. Bonus points are awarded for agency transparency, beginning with 1 point for strategies determined to be “marginally effective,” 2 for “moderately effective,” and so on. An agency that earns the maximum of 26 points receives 4 bonus points, achieving the grand total of 30.
Based on the rubric, organizational strategies were categorized as either “effective” (rated “moderately effective,” “effective,” or “highly effective”) or “ineffective” (rated as “nonexistent,” “ineffective,” or “marginally effective”). As a community, only 7.2% of the evaluated strategies were rated as “effective,” with 92.8% “ineffective.” A mere 1% met the threshold for “highly effective”; in stark contrast, an alarming 61% were “nonexistent.”
A closer look inside the numbers reveals 16% of the organizational strategies for large agencies — headed by major city chiefs, sheriffs, and federal equivalents — were rated as “effective.” Only 4.3% of midsized departments achieved this mark. Unsurprisingly, 1.9% of small agencies — those with fewer than 50 sworn officers — had an organizational strategy deemed “effective.”
This analysis suggests there is significant room for improvement across the community in strategy development and/or transparency.
Importance of Findings
Why does this all matter? The national context continues to evolve. In the current climate, law enforcement is increasingly criticized because of use of force concerns attributed to bias and racism.7 A resulting political conflict, which has become violent throughout the United States, gives relevance to the assertions of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military strategist. Clausewitz established war as a continuation of politics by other means, thus, making it an instrument subservient to policy and “absolute war” as war without political purpose.8
“The study’s driving force lies in the current domestic context of the United States, where law enforcement feels under siege and communities feel betrayed, with hope that research and education can reveal solutions.”
In this sense, it is comforting knowing the current context will not divulge into the latter. However, war does reveal itself in many forms, to include a “state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism” or a “struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end.”9 The law enforcement community, which falls under the executive branch of government (e.g., federal, state, county, local) meets these struggles every day. Through this lens, it has an obligation to the communities it serves to adapt sensibly.
Although this obligation should be sufficient reason itself, more significantly, adapting sensibly is a matter of national security. Traditionally, the instruments of power (IOPs) wielded to protect U.S. national security were confined to historical tools, to include diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) methods.10 The war on terror led to an expansion of this model, which currently includes financial, intelligence, and law enforcement tools (DIME-FIL).11
Consisting of approximately 18,000 federal, state, county, tribal, and local agencies that employ about 660,000 sworn officers,12 the U.S. law enforcement community is a massive IOP with tremendous capability and influence. Yet, data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicates this IOP uses great restraint. The most recent BJS report indicated that only 2% of persons 16 or older who had at least one contact with police experienced force or threats of force.13
“[A]dapting sensibly is a matter of national security.”
Yet, one egregious incident involving despicable, criminal actions by a handful of officers can tarnish the profession and negatively impact the United States’ influence across the globe in a matter of minutes.14 Each subsequent incident of this type further erodes the nation’s faith, trust, and confidence, domestically and abroad.15 One can even argue it undermines the American experiment and the future of democracy.16
Law enforcement agencies have three courses of action to consider related to strategy, education, and transparency.
First, agencies should develop thoughtful organizational strategies, complete with an organizational context; a theory of success, including a unifying idea; and a thorough strategic evaluation. An adaptive, mindful strategy is imperative for all agencies, large and small. Such a strategy sets an overarching goal, binds subordinate strategies, broadly reduces organizational risk, and maximizes the likelihood of reaching established ends because leadership can anticipate the need for adaptation before it is too late.
Although there are many ways to proceed, law enforcement executives should maintain three specific roles: 1) identify and empower a design team of individuals with the requisite skill sets to develop strategy; 2) provide overall guidance to the team, to include the desired end state; and 3) judge proposed strategies.
Chief executives should ensure the design team is armed with the organization’s guiding policy and a unifying idea. Because diversity is critical, the team should possess a mixture of backgrounds; experience; knowledge; personalities, based on an assessment tool; and perspectives. Further, it needs a process-oriented leader.17 If executed correctly, the process should take time for development to identify potential ways to meet desired ends, address assumptions and drivers, evaluate risk, and account for means. Executives should allow this freedom.
Design teams should provide executives with options (alternative plans), but no plan should be presented before going through a stringent validation process. This process evaluates the strategy’s suitability (test of ends and ways), desirability (test of ends and means), acceptability (test of ways), feasibility (test of means), and sustainability (test of time and means).18
Second, agencies should educate the workforce. This will require strategies to be crafted so all employees can fully understand the desired ends, ways, and available means in context, as well as the unifying idea. Acceptable and unacceptable risks should be clearly delineated. The simpler the strategy the better. A concerted effort must be made to ensure every employee understands and commits to the plan.
Third, agencies should embrace transparency. They should share approved strategies with the public so people may better understand the organizational and strategic context from a law enforcement perspective. Communities have the right to know what the organization intends to accomplish, why, and how. The public also deserves to know the expectations for agency employees, to include a use of force policy.
Simply publishing strategies, policies, and expectations is insufficient. To enhance community impact — that is, to build, restore, or maintain faith, trust, and confidence — these documents should be made readily available in a user-friendly manner. They should be in the form of strategic narratives and exist in a variety of formats to build the trust and acceptance needed to acquire the necessary resources for implementation.
This assessment is offered for the benefit of the U.S. law enforcement community with the purest of intentions and should not be interpreted as either an attack on or indictment of its purpose or practices. The path toward restoring faith, trust, and confidence in this most noble of professions is through acknowledgement, collaboration, education, persistence, relationships, and understanding.
“The path toward restoring faith, trust, and confidence in this most noble of professions is through acknowledgement, collaboration, education, persistence, relationships, and understanding.”
Supervisory Special Agent Garbato can be reached at email@example.com.
1 Prov. 24:5 (KJV).
2 Joe Garbato, “History Can Inform Contemporary Law Enforcement Strategy,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 8, 2021, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/history-can-inform-contemporary-law-enforcement-strategy.
3 The Marine Corps War College Strategy Primer (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2021), https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/MCWAR%20Strategy%20Primer_web.pdf.
4 Frank G. Hoffman, “The Missing Element in Crafting National Strategy: A Theory of Success,” Joint Force Quarterly 97, no. 2 (March 2020): 55-64, https://inss.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/2142863/the-missing-element-in-crafting-national-strategy-a-theory-of-success/.
7 Laurence Ralph, “To Protect and to Serve: Global Lessons in Police Reform,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 5 (September/October 2020), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-07-30/police-reform-global-lessons.
8 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976).
9 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “war,” accessed October 4, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/war.
10 Cesar Augusto Rodriguez, Timothy Charles Walton, and Hyong Chu, “Putting the ‘FIL’ into ‘DIME’: Growing Joint Understanding of the Instruments of Power,” Joint Force Quarterly 97, no. 2 (2020): 121-128, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2106566/putting-the-fil-into-dime-growing-joint-understanding-of-the-instruments-of-pow/.
12 Erin Duffin, “Number of Full-Time Law Enforcement Officers in the United States from 2004 to 2021,” Statista, October 11, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/191694/number-of-law-enforcement-officers-in-the-us/.
13 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2018 — Statistical Tables,” Erika Harrell and Elizabeth Davis, NCJ 255730, December 2020, Table 3, https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/cbpp18st.pdf.
14 Brenda Gayle Plummer, “Civil Rights Has Always Been a Global Movement: How Allies Abroad Help the Fight Against Racism at Home,” Foreign Affairs, June 19, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-19/civil-rights-has-always-been-global-movement.
15 Richard Haass, “Foreign Policy by Example: Crisis at Home Makes the United States Vulnerable Abroad,” Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-05/protests-pandemic-world-watching.
16 Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman, “The Fragile Republic: American Democracy Has Never Faced So Many Threats All at Once,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 5 (September/October 2020), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-08-07/democracy-fragile-republic.
17 For additional information, see Jennifer Herrity, “8 Top Personality Tests Used in Psychology (and by Employers),” Indeed, updated October 27, 2022, https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/types-of-personality-test.
18 The Marine Corps War College Strategy Primer.