Increasing Organizational Leadership Through the Police Promotional Process

By Patrick J. Hughes
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Law enforcement agencies and their design appear to differ from any other type of organization. Although usually compared with the military, police departments have been referred to as having “hyper-bureaucratic military organizational attributes— those of formal rank, formal hierarchy, and a chain of unquestioned and unquestioning command.”1 Only until a few years ago, the term police management, designated only for those holding a title, described what those in the profession believed to constitute leadership. However, more recent years have shown that managers are not necessarily leaders. Rather, those placed into managerial roles should possess leadership skills, behaviors, and knowledge. Employing such a concept could improve officers’ connections with their departments and aid in succession planning when promoting future leaders within the agency.

So, how do officers obtain a police leadership position, and what measures their leadership behaviors and skills? Are the right people placed into these positions, and can these individuals lead larger numbers of officers in the future? For the past few decades, some police research has dealt with such topics as leadership styles of those in positions of authority. Other studies have focused on leadership as it pertains to gaining organizational commitment. Little research, however, has examined the promotional process and how it can impact organizational leadership and commitment. In today’s world, a need exists to research and create changes to both the design of these agencies and the process to promote future leaders.

To this end, the author explores the current assessment process used to promote firstline supervisors and discusses leadership education and its availability and applicability to all officers. He draws a connection between desired leadership styles and how a proper assessment process, coupled with leadership education and training of future first-line supervisors, could enhance the abilities of those in positions of authority to lead the officers in their charge.

Examining the Design

When focusing specifically on organizational design, law enforcement agencies are highly structured with welldefined charts that describe the roles that accompany the position titles set forth. In addition, top-down communication exists inside these agencies. Some arguments have highlighted the need for this design because of the severe situations officers encounter and the great amount of liability that accompanies such incidents. These organizations and their design, however, lack some items that officers would like, such as better communication networks, more participation, improved decision making, and enhanced ethical leadership. Through these requests for change, organizational commitment may increase. Research has indicated that “participative role clarification improved organizational commitment.”2 Inside a militaristic-designed organization, the levels of rank in management and their importance often are oversimplified and many times seen as a mere conduit of communication having no real influence on subordinates. Researchers have argued that “obedience socialization and military command supervision across the hierarchal levels appear to distort the nature of police work.”3 Police organizations face a changing environment at a faster than normal pace and should have a structure flexible enough to handle such situations, as well as flowing communication and leadership firmly embedded in the design. In most police structures, ranks descend from chief to deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, corporal, and patrol officer. These levels exist more in larger metropolitan or county-level agencies mainly due to the number of officers employed. However, in some states, such as Pennsylvania, department size does not allow for such rank design, making the levels of sergeant and patrol

Professor Hughes
Professor Hughes, a former police officer, is the director of criminal justice administration at Central Pennsylvania College in Harrisburg and also instructs at the Harrisburg Area Police Academy.

officer more open to leadership situations. One study noted that the “quasi-military model makes no provision for the situational effects of a leader’s behavior.”4 Other researchers echo this by suggesting, “Although many agencies appear to rely on military arrangements in terms of structure, rank, and hierarchies, this model may not effectively serve police leaders and their respective organizations. Replacing the military model of leadership development with behavioral competency development may be more effectual in leadership and agency performance.”5

Many in the police arena believe that law enforcement agencies differ greatly from organizations in the private sector. However, one study compared the scores of police leaders on the California Personality Inventory with those from the business world and found that “results indicate very similar scores.”6 Is there truly a difference in how leadership is applied between the policing and business worlds? Some in law enforcement will argue that at their basic cores, the two differ in followers, motivation, and desired leadership styles. Many people associate the word entrepreneur with the world of business. One study introduced the concept of entrepreneurial policing with the basis behind such a term being that the leadership concepts in policing do not differ greatly from those of business. It suggested that “entrepreneurial policing is an open style of management linked to, but transcending, individual leadership styles because it can be practiced by everyone within the police service irrespective of rank. This link between the rubrics of entrepreneurship and leadership is vital because for a practical theory of entrepreneurial policing to develop, policing requires the active participation of future generations of police leaders.”7 This concept not only intertwines the business world with policing but also exemplifies that leadership should be seen at all levels within the police organization. To further support this, the study connected entrepreneurship and policing by reporting that it “is action-oriented cognitive human ability, which guides policing as an everyday practice and paradoxically links managerialism and conformity to risktaking behavior.”8

In addition, some studies have reported other perceived leadership styles gathered from sworn personnel.9 For example, researchers examined how these styles affect officer-integrity violations. Findings identified three styles as openness, role model, and strictness, concluding that “all three aspects of leadership...have a significant effect on the frequency with which corruption occurs.”10 Another study revealed that the most effective perceived style admired by officers was transformational leadership.11 Finally, another researcher focused on officers as the “change agents” in police organizations, arguing that “police departments could be well advised to encourage participatory involvement as a vehicle for organizational reform.”12

As seen by this variety of research, many studies have identified styles sought by officers of their supervisors. It appears that through employing these styles, officers may have stronger organizational commitment. By engaging in these styles, supervisors may strengthen the integrity and ethical behavior of the organization. Apparently, strengthening leadership among supervisors, especially first-line ones (e.g., sergeants), would benefit many law enforcement agencies and their followers.

If police organizations need more flexibility and incorporate leadership at all ranks, what, then, should change, and who should participate in that change? Moreover, Does the current promotional process truly select candidates with these styles, and, if not, how can that process be improved to do so?

Analyzing Promotions and Assessment

“Police organizations face a changing environment at a faster than normal pace and should have a structure flexible enough to handle such situations...”

These processes can differ from department to department given the resources and number of employees. Many larger agencies usually employ a procedure involving written and oral examinations, performance evaluations, psychological and physical tests, and drug screening created and disseminated by a consulting department.13

Agencies can expand and contract on these steps if they so choose. However, this can prove costly for smaller ones that often must rely on years of service and performance evaluations to promote their officers. With all of this in mind, the question remains, Is the current promotional process truly choosing candidates with the wanted leadership styles, and, if not, what improvements can be made?

One of the most difficult tasks in the promotional process is creating standardized testing, a system employed in such areas as collegiate admissions, government civil service, psychological measurement, and high school academic proficiency. As a means of bringing fairness and equality to all who take them, the exams seek to measure, through written words, a person’s skill or personality. Prior to the test, candidates should complete a job-task analysis, which offers performance dimensions needed for a certain position. While such testing has served its purpose, recent research has shown some flaws.14 For example, researchers administered the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) to promotional candidates in Texas attending leadership training. They gave both a preand posttest, advising “results indicate that the CPI-260 can be utilized to assess change through training and that, in this case, the training seemed effective at helping the law enforcement executives develop their leadership skills, awareness, and abilities.”15 In the current processes, many candidates never attend, nor are given the opportunity to do so, any leadership training prior to testing. Some attributing factors may be cost, shift coverage, availability of training, or simply not viewing it as needed.

Assessment centers also have made their place in standardized testing and often exist in the government and public sectors. “Over 62 percent of the respondents in a recent survey of police and fire chiefs reported that they use assessment centers, especially for promotion.”16 Further findings showed that centers “are inappropriate for selection procedures which purport to measure traits or constructs, such as intelligence, aptitude, personality, common sense, judgment, leadership.”17 This study suggested an alternative to the written assessment. It used the term task-specific centers, defining this concept as “exercises (work samples) and not performance dimensions.”18 Given the various differences among organizations, each could design its own task-specific assessment using the officers, administrators, and subject-matter experts. This would suggest better participation by officers at all levels. One downside to this concept is that “assessors...are not determining how much leadership or judgment a subject has; they are attempting to measure how well the subject handles a specific job-related situation.”19 Interestingly, the study did not say that leadership may not exist in the behavior while completing the task. Some situational leadership skills could emerge during the performance of the work. “It would be appropriate, however, to have an exercise where the subject was designated group leader and there was an issue to address.”20 Then, it could be asked if this assessment measures behavior. The answer is yes. The study included a component termed behavior observation in the assessment process. When discussing the assessment of future leaders, leadership is observable, thus a behavior. “Checklists can include a short 8-15 list of items considered important...a method for recording the subject’s actions.”21 Revisiting the desired leadership styles of officers, it is suggested this checklist be designed specifically for those behaviors sought by the officers to be led. This would ensure the right person is chosen to lead. Another researcher said it correctly, “Leadership is a behavioral quality which has to be demonstrated in everyday contexts.”22 That is the concept that supports using behavior observations in task-specific center assessments.

“Many in the police arena believe that law enforcement agencies differ greatly from organizations in the private sector.”

By further investing time into creating a better testing process to observe leadership behavior, law enforcement agencies would improve their organizational design. Ultimately, they would provide those being led with their chosen leader. It also would be a positive step into planning for the future for many agencies because law enforcement organizations often do not consider the concept of succession planning.

Planning for the Future

The final question to investigate is, How do police organizations plan and train future leaders of their departments? Many do not invest time or money into sending officers to leadership training. This could be at a federal, state, or local level. On a federal level, the FBI maintains the Leadership Development Institute.23 Some states also may have some type of leadership seminars or classes. For example, Pennsylvania, through the Penn State Justice and Safety Institute, offers nine leadership development courses.24 Of these, seven require the officer to hold the rank of lieutenant or higher, one requires the officer to be in the promotional process or promoted, and one has nothing noted about who may attend. This concept in offering leadership training does not appear to be in line with that of succession planning. Instead of supplying training to those choosing or aspiring to be leaders, the training occurs after the officer is selected from a list of eligible candidates. Educating in this manner appears to “place the cart before the horse.” After all, officers seek certain styles from those who lead them, but these styles do not appear to be measured through the current written assessment process. One researcher suggested, “The quality of police leadership could be improved by more effective methods to identify officers in the middle rankings posts who had the potential to become chief officers.”25 He advised that succession planning can increase overall police leadership that can be accomplished through training the right people. His research sought to “modernize the police workforce, enhancing training and career progression to improve leadership and management skills at all levels of the service.”26

Another issue in succession planning might be that not enough individuals want to take part. This could be for various reasons, such as satisfaction with the current assignment, monetary loss, lack of support or motivation, poor test-taking ability, or a disconnect with current administration values. In one study, officers perceived their promotional process as “not picking the best police officers” and “the testing and selection method.”27 Whatever the reason, this does not suggest a lack of those who can lead given the right tools. Sometimes, as stated in another study, officers have the “perception that promotions are not based on merit and reflect a hidden administrative agenda.”28 However, in the same study, “black test takers indicated leadership as a prominent concern.”29 While this is a positive sign of those focusing on leadership, this notion needs to be permeated throughout the organization. Proper succession planning can make this possible with researchers agreeing on “the importance of creating a seamless continuity in leadership development and succession planning.”30 By law enforcement changing the admission and availability of currently offered leadership training simultaneously with the current promotional processes, police organizations can begin to assure that they chose the right leaders.


Research has shown that the current design of police organizations does not support change easily. However, research also has demonstrated that officers want improvements in how their future leaders are chosen and the styles these superiors should exhibit. Making leadership training available to those aspiring to become leaders and changing written assessments to those that measure task behavior could help bring about these desired advances. Further research could focus on leadership training and how to build it into an organization’s succession planning, thereby improving the overall leadership throughout.

In this day and age of increasingly complex challenges for the law enforcement profession, such changes seem warranted. Concerning policing in the 21st century, one researcher aptly stated, “Our job now is to go out and garner learning from wherever it exists and increase the richness of our leadership culture.... Police leadership is not essentially different from all other forms of leadership.”31


1 H. Toch, “Police Officers as Change Agents in Police Reform,” Policing and Society 18, no. 1 (2008): 60-71.
2 J.M. Jermier and L.J. Berkes, “Leader Behavior in a Police Command Bureaucracy: A Closer Look at the Quasi-Military Model,” Administrative Science Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1979): 1-23.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 H.A. Miller, R.J. Watkins, and D. Webb, “The Use of Psychological Testing to Evaluate Law Enforcement Leadership Competencies and Development,” Police Practice and Research 10, no. 1 (2009): 49-60.
6 Ibid.
7 R. Smith, “Entrepreneurship, Police Leadership, and the Investigation of Crime in Changing Times,” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 5 (2009): 209-225, (accessed May 28, 2009).
8 Ibid.
9 L. Huberts, M. Kaptein, and K. Lasthuizen, “A Study of the Impact of Three Leadership Styles on Integrity Violations Committed by Police Officers,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 30, no. 4 (2007): 587-607; S.A. Murphy, “The Role of Emotions and Transformational Leadership on Police Culture: An Autoethnographic Account,” International Journal of Police Science and Management 10, no. 2 (2007): 165-178; Jermier and Berkes; and Toch.
10 Huberts et al.
11 Murphy.
12 Toch.
13 For example, Pennsylvania departments can administer this exam process for various fees. As of October 15, 2008, self-scoring exams would cost $15 per test; those scored by the association, $24.50 per test; administrator’s guide, $10 per guide; study guide, $4 per guide; examiner’s manual, $10 per manual; and proctors, $200. See, Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police, (accessed on June 25, 2009).
14 P.E. Lowry, “The Assessment Center Process: New Directions,” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 12, no. 5 (1997): 53-62; and Miller, Watkins, and Webb.
15 Miller, Watkins, and Webb.
16 Lowry.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Smith.
23 For additional information, access
24 For additional information, see Penn State Justice and Safety Institute, (accessed July 1, 2009).
25 M. Rowe, “Following the Leader: Frontline Narratives on Police Leadership,” Policing 29, no. 4 (2006): 757-767.
26 Ibid.
27 S.A. Murphy, “Executive Development and Succession Planning: Qualitative Evidence,” International Journal of Police Science and Management 8, no. 4 (2006): 253-265.
28 T.S. Whetstone, “Copping Out: Why Police Officers Decline to Participate in the Sergeant’s Promotional Process,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 25, no. 2 (2001): 147-159.
29 Ibid.
30 Murphy.
31 J.D. Ginger, review of Police Leadership in the Twenty-First Century: Philosophy, Doctrine, and Developments, by R. Adlam and P. Villiers, eds., International Journal of Police Science and Management 6, no. 2 (2003): 112-114.

“When discussing the assessment of future leaders, leadership is observable, thus a behavior.”