Commander’s Intent: A Framework for Success

By W. Michael Phibbs, M.H.R.
Police Commanders

Today’s communities want police departments to provide services beyond what traditional crime-prevention models anticipated. As a whole, agencies’ response to such expectations continues to evolve from a tactics-based strategy to a more decentralized, holistic mission orientation. This new approach involves long-term community connections and reaches beyond existing crime-prevention strategies.

Many commanders who used to focus on their own day-to-day tactics now develop more multifaceted, broad-based strategic plans involving coordination among multiple internal units and perhaps other agencies. Functioning in such an environment requires understanding the common operating picture, including who needs to accomplish which tasks and how to merge the efforts of entities unaccustomed to working together.


Traditionally the metrics of law enforcement have focused on short-term numerical reductions in crime, rather than lasting gains in prevention, which prove harder to quantify. Agencies have used a “leadership–manager” model where chiefs instruct subordinates and then manage them as they perform tasks. This works well in short-term assignments.

However, to increase effectiveness as they advance in their organizations, leaders must become more strategic and less involved in day-to-day operations. By nature, law enforcement represents a hands-on affair and gravitates toward commanders who have remained tactical and involved. But, if chiefs focus too heavily on tactics, they risk the appearance of micromanaging and distrusting the abilities of lower-level personnel.


Existing policy guides law enforcement officers during more common incidents, such as suspect barricades, homicides, or robberies. The hierarchical decision-making process, long held and centralized, works well in addressing such short-duration events.

However, the time-tested Commander’s Intent (CI) concept can offer a successful guiding structure to help agencies meet modern policing challenges.1 Its forward-thinking, mission-oriented execution differs from traditional narrow-focused policing. It uses a “leader-leader” approach aimed at broader, long-term issues.2 Although it also employs a centralized decision-making process, CI’s strategy-based policing objectives require decentralized leadership and management styles, recognizing that more than one way exists to complete tasks.

Commanders stay focused on strategy. Developing a CI program helps them establish large-scale situational awareness of problems, determine priorities, and define tasks for execution. They effectively analyze a situation, create an overarching plan, and formulate a CI initiative that informs supporting units, officers, and sometimes other agencies of how to reach the desired end state and where everyone fits into the strategy. By staying above the day-to-day action, chiefs more easily can provide overall guidance and support to personnel.

Mike Phibbs
Lieutenant Phibbs serves with the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department.

When implementing CI, agencies assign responsibilities to the lowest possible level—where plans become actions. Lower-level managers learn what to accomplish and how to achieve action items. Within this framework, they decide how their units or taskforces will meet objectives.

Outside of Law Enforcement

U.S. military forces use CI in decision making and planning. The Army has a definition similar to what law enforcement organizations follow.

Commanders Intent is a clear and concise expression of the operation’s purpose and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.3

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has extensive experience employing its version of CI both on small fires with few firefighters and large incidents requiring hundreds of agencies and thousands of personnel. In either case, everyone must know the program’s focus. Personnel must recognize “Leaders Intent as a clear, concise statement about what…people must do to succeed in their assignments.”4 It involves three essential components.

1) Purpose: Why personnel must complete the assignment.

2) Task: What the objective or goal entails.

3) End state: How the result should look.5

Not only does this create decision-making opportunities and increase organizational growth but it encourages personnel to embrace the CI process and increases the likelihood of success. It helps turn already-efficient managers into more effective leaders who work on larger initiatives involving coordinated efforts; obtain needed resources; and generate strategies for crime prevention and relationship building within the community, rather than just focus on daily tasks.

Once they understand CI, subordinate managers can determine the best approach and develop situation-specific options. Properly instituted, CI creates a framework for everyone to operate in and allows individual units to take advantage of opportunities, such as obtaining a follow-up search warrant after an arrest, holding an impromptu meeting with citizens, or organizing other community-engagement opportunities.


The scale of the mission does not impact the way a commander develops a CI strategy. Whether the focus involves an internal, long-term crime-reduction program or a community-relationship initiative using external resources, the process stays the same. After chiefs develop the CI program, they must communicate it and address any questions or concerns. If necessary, they revise the plan. Then, the units and perhaps outside organizations will determine if they can fulfill their portion of the overall program and decide how to do so.


Officers have complained to the chief that they have not received consistent updates on investigations. Also, zone commanders report developing initiatives without support from other divisions. Through a root-cause analysis, the chief finds a hindrance in the internal communication pipeline and creates a CI strategy to resolve the issue.


A lack of interaction among agency divisions negatively impacts the overall effectiveness of the department. This necessitates improving communication between patrol operations, investigative components, and administrative services.


  • Accountability: Patrol officers will outline zone-leading and -lagging objectives and initiatives. Investigative and administrative services personnel must describe how they will assist in meeting them.
  • Investigations: All officers and detectives need to receive training on and use the case-management system. They will add information and track case progress.
  • Intraweb communication system: Personnel must develop an electronic folder system created for internal information sharing where users will access data (e.g., wanted persons, community engagement, and investigations).

End State

Before the end of the calendar year, internal communication will improve significantly between all department members. Officers and detectives will share information—including leads, crime trends and patterns, and case progress—more effectively.

Working with multiple agencies to create long-term mission-oriented strategies requires a different mind-set. Even in these instances, CI development follows the same procedures. The only differences lie in the number of people bringing their own priorities and the scope of the desired end state. Effective CI statements clarify expectations and help determine the feasibility of a working relationship with outside organizations.

During the planning process, commanders can set trigger points (TPs), also called management-action points (MAPs), to indicate met goals or the need for additional resources. In efforts involving other agencies, TPs gauge when one organization serves a supporting role and another takes the lead. By reexamining the constraints of the traditional command-and-control philosophy and allowing self-directed teams to focus on completing their portion of a plan, managers at the lowest-possible level can make decisions and develop their own TPs.


Police and fire chiefs and the director of emergency medical services (EMS) examine root causes for crime in the community, new national strategies for fire and EMS components, and duplication of efforts. Together, they develop a comprehensive CI strategy to improve efficiency of all government services by improving communication, scaling up effectiveness in overlapping areas, and working together on initiatives.


All government agencies will pursue initiatives to improve public safety and services.


  • Police, fire, and EMS personnel must work together to enhance community-policing programs and risk-reduction efforts.
  • Public safety organizations will collaborate with public schools to develop interactive programs that build trust with at-risk kids.
  • Representatives from the police, EMS, and social services and the local district attorney must improve communication and provide alerts of alleged cases of child and elder abuse, streamline investigations, and collaborate on final adjudication of incidents.

End State

Within six months, all government agencies will establish liaisons and actively participate in initiatives.

Such decentralization involves challenges in coordinating supporting efforts, and ineffective communication can hamper personnel from understanding how their assignments impact their unit’s long-term strategy. When leaders fail to plan or communicate direction, an unnecessary loss of coordination “occurs when team members expend energies in different directions or fail to synchronize their work on time-critical tasks.”6 Subordinates at least two organizational levels down from the commander who developed the CI program must understand it.

For instance, what happens when agencies integrate community policing with fire agencies’ risk-reduction programs or develop strategic faith-leader relationships within communities? Do personnel understand the rationales and end goals? Will they know what their supervisors want them to accomplish, rather than what these managers normally expect them to do?

Commanders intervene as necessary to keep subordinate units on task. They use critical thinking to analyze root causes of problems and then apply creative skills to synthesize potential solutions. In many cases, chiefs contact internal and external partners to develop centralized task forces and initiatives. Together, they create one complete CI program, agreeing on the purpose, tasks, and endpoints, and delegate responsibilities to lower-level managers who complete the objectives.

Team Responsibilities

Honest feedback and questions help legitimize the CI plan. Briefings and follow-up conversations allow for discussions regarding overall work priorities. Upon hearing the strategy, internal and external managers must ask for any needed clarification of the statement. They simply may want to ensure that their units—working within a set of boundaries—have the approval to take action without asking for permission.

Such authority may result in units adjusting their schedules or hiring a crime-prevention specialist if needed. CI benefits organizational development by allowing leaders to assess the capabilities of their own teams.

  • How well do personnel comprehend work priorities and the flexibility they have to accomplish goals?
  • Does the unit have the necessary resources?
  • Can it accomplish the tasks?

Based on these assessments, teams must notify their commanders if they do not understand their assignments or feel they can accomplish the tasks. Effective chiefs will have employees willing to ask questions. They also must encourage outside personnel to share their concerns.

Resource Management

Because an effective plan becomes worthless without the necessary components, proper resource management comprises an integral part of a CI program’s development. When creating a plan, agencies must envision the end state and what they need to complete tasks. During this process, commanders may realize they require outside sources and then coordinate operations among other agencies in addition to internal units. While developing the CI strategy, chiefs must review what they have available and answer five critical questions.

1) What components are obtainable?

2) What can they do?

3) What additional resources exist?

4) When will they become available?

5) What will the agency do in the meantime?


Community expectations for law enforcement continue to evolve, and agencies need to ensure they focus on long-term, overarching strategies. To meet the modern demands on services, police departments may have to work closely with other law enforcement and public safety organizations. This new paradigm requires commanders to become less tactical and more strategic in their planning.

Commanders Intent can provide the successful framework in which stakeholders can pursue main objectives. Using CI will allow police organizations to become more flexible in responding to crime and developing community relationships.

For additional information Lieutenant Phibbs can be contacted at


Since ancient times, iterations of Commander’s Intent (CI) have helped guide military operations. Today, leaders (e.g., commanders, chiefs, executives, and administrators) in business and other organizations also use the concept. For specific resources on CI, including its history, see Lawrence G. Shattuck, “Communicating Intent and Imparting Presence,” Military Review, March/April 2000, 66-72, accessed August 1, 2016, milreview/shattuck.pdf; J.L. Silva, “Auftragstaktik,” Infantry, September/October 1989, 6-9; and U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, Commander’s Intent: Its Evolution in the U.S. Army, J.S. Patterson, AY 94-95, Fort Leavenworth, KS, May 19, 1995, accessed August 1, 2016,

L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012).

U.S. Army, ADP 5-0: The Operations Process, Army Doctrine Pub. No. 5-0, May 2012, accessed July 29, 2016,

National Wildfire Coordinating Group, Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, PMS 494-2, January 2007, accessed July 29, 2016,


Frank J. Landy and Jeffrey M. Conte, Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1st ed. (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2004).