Leading the Modern Police Force

A Veteran Officer’s View

By Joseph Pangaro, C.P.M.
Back of Officeras Head with Blurred Crowd in Background

What does it mean to lead a police force? That seems like a simple question. In the world of law enforcement, we have some rock-solid principles and some bedrock purposes. If we combine them with our goal of protecting residents and serving those who need our help, the outcome should be easy to predict. Our officers would go out into the streets and do what is necessary to get the job done. If it were only that easy.

The modern police force is extremely different from those of days gone by. That is not to say that our current mission has changed dramatically. People are people, and the needs of society change slowly over long periods of time. The basic functions of police work are static. Predators always will look for any opportunity to take advantage of the innocent. Human nature being what it is, we know that a percentage of our population always will attempt to rob and rape. Unethical people will lie and cheat the elderly out of their retirement funds if the opportunity presents itself. Children will continue as targets for pedophiles. Our homes and property will remain fair game for burglars. The scourge of drug abuse will drive normally law-abiding people to acts of criminality. I could fill many pages with the types of crimes that always have been and always will be with us. That is the human condition and the world in which we, as law enforcement professionals, operate.

Exploring the changing requirements and responsibilities associated with leading the men and women of the modern era of police work forms the focus of this article. For me, the changes in the world of law enforcement are not in the workpeople who do the work.

Understanding the Differences

Police work is a people business. Most of us who have been in the profession for any period of time know this. Arrests, tickets, raids, and investigations all are elements of the job, but the real work is human relationships—people to people, person to person.

Any officer at any rank serving anywhere in the United States can attest that the people coming into the profession today differ significantly from those in the past. Although not a negative factor, it is something that we must understand and manage for the betterment of all involved.

Today’s recruits grew up in a world that viewed the idea of simply doing what they were told without question as not a valid option. Many were taught to question authority at every level. If told what to do, they wanted to know why they should do it that way. If given an explanation, they would ask if a better way to do it existed. These young people have received the generational categorization of the millennials.1

Lieutenant Joseph Pangaro
Lieutenant Pangaro serves as a supervisor and training officer with a police department in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

I have found that many in this group have different motivations than those of us in previous generations. I loved overtime; it helped me provide for my family as I moved through the various pay scales and ranks. I loved being at work and doing the work. Today, I see a trend with younger people who do not view money as the greatest motivator but, instead, appear more concerned with their time off and other available lifestyle benefits. They are diligent workers and have tremendous skill sets to offer, but they see things differently.

Demanding that they act and appreciate what past generations saw as important is a futile exercise. They must be seen and valued for what they have to offer, and their needs and concerns must be figured into the equation. As leaders, it is our responsibility to do this.

Examining the Options

To understand the people we now will lead, we must look at our organizations and ourselves much closer. As a practical matter, law enforcement agencies are quasi-military organizations with ranks, rules, regulations, policies, and written directives that set the internal boundaries in our departments and the basic parameters of how to deal with the public. Technology moves at lightning speed, enabling us to file papers and create new policies and directives in record time. Unfortunately, what gets lost in the shuffle is our people, especially the young members of the modern police force.

How we deal with our people often lags behind all of the other changes that have occurred in the profession. In many instances, we cling to old ways and practices that do nothing to move us forward and lead our people in the most appropriate way. It is time for those of us in leadership positions to do a top-down review of how we run our organizations, starting with our own actions, styles, and practices. Just because “that’s the way we have always done it” does not mean we have to continue with those models. We must ask ourselves if we are functioning in the best way possible, regardless of our own personal preferences and desires. If we are not, then we should change the way we operate. We must look forward at what could be, compare it with the lessons from the past, and develop improvements based on the combined experiences of all involved. In short, as leaders, we must evolve.

My years of experience—both in law enforcement and, more important, in my life as a member of society—have revealed what I believe are some important lessons in regard to leading effectively. I start with the basic premise of leadership: the goals and, most of all, the responsibilities of being a leader.

Does being in charge make a person a leader? Obviously, the chief executive of any organization, by virtue of the position, is a leader. The better question is, Does simply being “in charge” make someone an effective leader? The answer is clearly no. All of us can think of individuals in leadership positions who give orders, make rules, issue edicts, and demand everyone’s obedience, but they do nothing to better their people or their organizations. This type of leader harkens to a different time. In police work, most of us can conjure up stories of old-time chiefs who ruled with an iron hand or stayed locked away in the office. We rarely saw them; when we did, they seemed an almost mythical figure. Fortunately, such leaders have mostly disappeared from the scene at this point, but they were the model for many of us in earlier generations. I am suggesting that we learn from the past, take what was good from it, and then move on. It is time for a paradigm shift in leadership practices.

So, if simply being in charge does not make someone an effective leader, what does? I believe that being a good leader requires changing the way we view the art of leading. There always will be a time for the autocratic leader. On many occasions, our business demands immediate, forceful, and decisive action on the part of those in charge. We must be able to give direct orders and have them followed without hesitation. Sometimes, lives depend on this. That being said, however, I do not believe that such situations represent the best examples of where leadership takes place. Effective leadership is more than that, more than just driving the tank into battle.

Making the Choice

With all of this in mind, an important question is, What can help the leaders of tomorrow be the best they can? In this context, I suggest that we can begin by adopting four basic concepts.

First of all, being an effective leader is a choice. As with anything else we want to do and do well, we must make choices. We must replace “because I said so” with “what is best for my people, not necessarily good for me.” This is where the hard work takes place. Many people have spent the majority of their careers pursuing a leadership position. When they get there, they lose perspective on what their main goal and focus must be: their people, not their own career track.

Next, we must own the principle of “servant leadership.”2 The more we advance in the chain of command, the more we owe to those in the positions below. Doing what needs to be done to make their jobs easier is the key obligation of this principle. We must work tirelessly to assist them in anyway we can, such as providing guidance, counseling, and positive critiques; listening, not just hearing them; and appreciating them and working for their career goals, not just our own. Selflessness is incumbent to this type of thinking. The choice here involves foregoing the belief that because we have obtained a leadership position, whatever we think has to be right and everyone should do what we want simply because we are in charge. This can kill morale and displays poor leadership qualities. People do not follow poor leaders; they tolerate them. As leaders, our goal should be to make our people better, not to have them merely tolerate us. We must take an active role in their work lives and always be available. We teach best by allowing others to try using their own skills. If more than one way exists and the immediate outcome is not critical, we should let our people choose their own path to the objective. The experience they gain in the effort and the trust and confidence they receive from us can provide the greatest reward.

Third, loyalty is a two-way street, but it starts with the leader. Effective leaders must be the first to show unconditional loyalty to their people by standing up for them in every instance and looking out for their needs, both personal and professional. In the old paradigm, leaders demanded loyalty. In return, they doled out privileges to the loyal. These leaders received loyalty only on the basis of better assignments, promotions, and other material benefits. The depth of that loyalty was shallow indeed and nonexistent when the treasury ran out. On the other hand, loyalty based on how leaders look out for their subordinates is almost bottomless and constantly refilled. When our people believe that we are there for them and the organization and not solely for our own needs, they respond in kind, which creates credibility.

Finally, succession planning should be paramount for all leaders. Instead of concerning themselves with their legacies and achievements, effective leaders prepare their people to take over for them. As a leader, I feel no greater satisfaction than to have my people take what I have to teach and rise to their potential. My goal does not end there; my mission is to assist my people in eclipsing my record. My legacy is not borne on my achievements but on the achievements of those I have taught. It is through their success that my journey as a leader is completed and my career justified. I want them to surpass me.


Servant leadership principles require sacrifice on the leader’s part because they are not always easy to live. They are a process and a belief system that puts leadership on a new path. For many people, these concepts will seem strange and unconventional. They are, but I believe our profession is at a point where we, as leaders, must assume a new role, accept additional responsibilities, and understand the changes in the culture and the people coming into our profession. We must lead with a dedication to our core principles and purposes and our people first.

The author invites readers interested in this topic to contact him at jpangaro@yahoo.com.


Diane Thielfoldt and Devon Scheef, “Generation X and the Millennials: What You Need to Know to Mentor the New Generation,” August 2004, http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/ mgt08044.html (accessed August 3, 2009); and Craig Junginger, “Who Is Training Whom? The Effect of the Millennial Generation,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2008, 19-23.
For additional information on the concept of servant leadership, see the Robert K. Greenleaf Center, Inc., at http://www.greenleaf.org/index.html (accessed August 3, 2009).