Mission Command in Policing
By Megan Williams, M.P.M., and Chris Stasio
Without striking the correct balance between centralization and decentralization, discipline and initiative, authority and individual responsibility, it is impossible for any organization, let alone a police force, to operate effectively in an environment where disorder, uncertainty, and confusion are prevalent.1
Police and military leaders face similar challenges in determining and developing the level of their subordinates’ independence, which is essential to their respective missions. To this end, the U.S. Army’s framework for understanding and empowering decision-making—mission command—also applies to law enforcement. By understanding this approach and using it in discussion and training within their agencies, police leaders can strengthen the decision-making power of their organizations.
Doctrinally, the Army defines mission command as an “approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.”2 The Army developed this concept based on the chaos and uncertainty of war. In this regard, planning can prepare for the situation, but not every possibility. Effective plans must conform as necessary, and the Army trains leaders and subordinates to be flexible and adaptive.
Similarly, police departments frequently face frequently chaotic and uncertain environments. They analyze collected crime data to better evaluate crime trends and issues and to guide operations and asset allocation.3 This distribution of resources often is fluid and ever changing.
Officers must adapt to varying circumstances while top-tier executives effectively focus resources and develop crime fighting strategies. Mission command influences the ability and effectiveness of the department to acclimate as necessary.
Seven principles—competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance—enable mission command.4 All of these elements exist in police departments. However, discussing them in the context of independent decision-making can provide greater understanding about the latitude police officers may have in the execution of their duties.
Major Williams, a military police officer in the U.S. Army, is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 277.
Major Stasio, operations bureau major for the Pembroke Pines, Florida, Police Department, is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 277.
- Competence: Leaders continually must assess their staff’s proficiency. This largely determines the level of confidence placed in a unit or individual and how much autonomy to allow.
- Mutual trust: The trust between leaders and subordinates builds on reliability and competence. Leaders delegate more authority and independence to trusted personnel. In turn, these employees demonstrate more initiative when they believe their leader trusts them and supports their decisions.
- Shared understanding: When personnel at all levels have a mutual understanding of their collective purpose, issues, and approaches to solving problems, they will be more collaborative and effective. Of course, these employees may address issues differently, but they will recognize the organization’s greater direction, priorities, and methods. Leaders can work with their teams to decide on acceptable actions and determine who can make decisions and when. Agencies can create learning environments to develop and understand those margins, and teams can practice decision-making with feedback. This can occur during training or simply in discussions based around daily operations.
- Commander’s intent: While sounding formal, this simply expresses the mission’s purpose and the desired end state—what constitutes success. Leaders who clearly articulate expectations and the mission’s aim will prepare their team for successful completion.
- Mission orders: Verbal or written, these are the leader’s instructions. Such directives should emphasize needed results, rather than specific ways to achieve them. By having the most latitude to execute, employees gain more opportunity to fulfill the overall operational plan.
- Disciplined initiative: This means that personnel can take actions they think will best accomplish the mission when communication is limited or immediate decisions become necessary. When their orders and the plan no longer suit the situation, officers still must proceed because they understand the mission’s desired end state.
- Risk acceptance: The most challenging principle of mission command, risk acceptance, is the most variable and potentially the most volatile. Leaders must assess the amount of risk with their subordinates and determine how to address it. The greatest opportunity may have the most risk, but this varies according to the situation.
Mission command is a “human solution to complex operational challenges.”5 Many police departments already incorporate these principles or variations thereof in their operations and training. However, the concept has the most effect when informed leaders deliberately communicate about it on multiple levels within an agency. Leaders read about mission command in their personal professional development and work within their units to find best ways to apply the principles.
Police departments can implement mission command at all levels of leadership through two primary mechanisms: communication and mentorship.
Of course, communication within an agency always is critical for daily operations. However, leaders can amplify their message and the agency’s mission by communicating effectively and intentionally. Specifically, leaders should talk about mission command (e.g., “I want you to understand what to do, not specifically how to do it”). Transparently communicating about decision-making, soliciting input at all levels, and providing feedback will build mutual trust and shared understanding. This cycle allows leadership to convey guidance and intent while also hearing from their personnel. Communicating may be intuitive, but it takes deliberate effort to maintain consistent, quality dialogue.
Additionally, agency mentorship programs can reinforce the principles of mission command. These opportunities can introduce officers to other divisions within the department and allow them to gain a larger perspective of how the chief’s intent and instructions are mission executed. For example, an officer exposed to the investigations division will have a better understanding of how their initial actions on a scene can contribute to case development. Such knowledge can bolster their confidence in taking action when responding to an incident.
“Mission command influences the ability and effectiveness of the department to acclimate as necessary.”
Mentoring can positively reinforce individuals’ initiative while setting conditions for acceptable risks. For example, this could include when to authorize a vehicle pursuit or make a dynamic entry, again communicating why to have these discussions in advance to improve decision-making. Conversations in nonstress environments will prepare officers to make more effective decisions under stress. Additionally, mentoring may provide opportunities for participation in operational planning and development. Officers communicating and contributing to this process gain reinforcement and encouragement.
Intentional communication and mentoring development programs enable mission command and produce many positive results within departments. Officers who feel valued and empowered will collaborate and have increased ownership. Leaders who know and understand their people will place increased trust in them, generating more independent and invested teams. This relationship, intentionally developed and maintained, directly improves the efficiency of the team and the effectiveness of the department.
Military and law enforcement organizations both benefit from the application of mission command, with leaders empowering subordinates through mutual trust and disciplined initiative. Police departments require adaptive responses to changing environments daily. Units that implement mission command principles will have better operational output resulting from leaders’ confidence in subordinates and officers’ ownership of and participation in their duties.
Fostering mission command effectively supports the vital work that police departments do. Failure to provide such a proactive atmosphere shortchanges both the public and the officers who risk their lives to protect it.
“Police departments require adaptive responses to changing environments....”
Major Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Major Stasio at email@example.com.
1 Fred Leland, “Improving Policing with Mission Command and a Community Problem Oriented Approach,” in Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, ed. Donald Vandergriff and Stephen Webber (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 5, 2017), accessed April 20, 2020, http://www.lesc.net/system/files/Improving-Policing-with-Mission-Command.pdf.
2 U.S. Department of the Army, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces, ADP 6.0, July 2019, accessed April 20, 2020, https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN19189_ADP_6-0_FINAL_WEB_v2.pdf.
3 David L. Carter and Jeremy G. Carter, ”Intelligence Led Policing: Conceptual and Functional Considerations for Public Policy,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 20, no. 3 (September 2009): 310-325, accessed April 20, 2020, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=250163.
4 For an in-depth discussion of Mission Command and its principles, see Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces.