High-profile outsiders unlikely to produce real police department reform, says MIT expert

Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 17, 2003 — If they really want to improve their police departments, Boston and other cities seeking new top cops should resist the temptation to recruit high-profile outsiders, according to an MIT Sloan professor who studies police and other groups.

“Since I began studying police in 1968, I've seen wave after wave of reform chiefs who have tried to push change from the top down,” said MIT Sloan Professor of Organization Studies John Van Maanen. “That reform message might resonate at the top level or in a particular unit, but its impact at the level of the precinct and the street is pretty minimal. The more outside the traditional ranks the chiefs or commissioners are, the less relevant they become because the street cops, who have seen chiefs come and go for 20 or 30 years, will just wait them out.”

The real key to police department effectiveness, Van Maanen said, lies at the middle and lower levels of police management. “Right now, the only ones in a department who are willing to make decisions are the commissioner at the top and the cop on the street,” Van Maanen said. “Because you have such weak middle management, everyone else is deferring. You need to develop strong captains and lieutenants.”

The relative inability of a police commissioner to make changes that reach down to the precinct reflects a fundamental divide within all police departments, he said.

“The reality is that each department has two separate cultures. There are street cops and management cops, and they don't respect or like each other. The management culture speaks to the public and to other agencies that touch on the law enforcement world. Then there's the street cop operational culture, where arrests are made and the cars are staffed. There is very little interaction across these two cultures, and often a great deal of antagonism between them.”

Van Maanen said some cities, such as San Diego, have made progress in instituting changes that effectively reach the middle and lower levels of management. But for the most part, police forces remain insulated from lasting change in part because of public reluctance to push for it.

“In some respect, we get the police we deserve,” said Van Maanen, who noted that the United States “is in many ways an over-policed society,” with a plethora of local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. “The public may know it has enormous and expensive problems with police departments, especially in major cities. But the public's fear of crime serves to protect the agencies that have the mandate to protect the public. As long as the American public sees a significant possibility that someone might kidnap their daughter or steal their stereo, the police will remain a sacred cow.”

And post-September 11 reverberations make institutional reform even more unlikely. “There is no question that September 11 set back the possibility of reform,” Van Maanen said. “Wrapping themselves in the flag makes what police do all the less questionable. They take on this heroic, Olympian stance that says, We're gods and don't mess with us. What makes one so cynical is that people in positions to know that changes really are needed now feel powerless to do anything about it.”

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