The role of leadership in promoting ethical police behaviour

Leadership is consistently identified as one of the most important aspects to maintaining police integrity and ensuring police professionalism. Identified weaknesses include lack of supervisory presence, superior officers not setting common standards, and supervisors willingly turning a blind eye to corrupt behaviour.

Leadership principles from organisational psychology, such as transformational leadership and operant leadership offer guidance on effectively promoting ethical behaviour. Concepts such as leader visibility, fairness, timeliness, consistency and proportionality of responses to performance have been shown to be effective while feelings of unfair treatment can negatively affect job performance and rule adherence.

Recent developments in policing show several initiatives that can promote leadership responsibility throughout the organisation; for example, clear accountability structures, values statements, management intervention models, and devolution of complaints handling. A combination of these initiatives, through incorporation of the leadership qualities mentioned above, can offer a complementary model for improving leadership, management and, ultimately, integrity.

However, while organisations can change their formal systems, informal systems (cultures) are equally, if not more, influential. Thus, it is important to consider not just formal leadership mechanisms and styles, but also informal leadership, including social influence and role models.

Perpetuity and Griffith University (Australia) have been commissioned to undertake primary qualitative research examining both formal and informal leadership practices within police forces. This research will explore perceptions of leadership against other methods for regulating behaviour. Findings from the research will contribute to policy and training initiatives around ethical leadership.

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  • I’m currently on the UK Cabinet Office /BSI committee that is drafting a new standard on Crisis Management (publication due early 2014). More specifically, I’m responsible for leading the team writing the chapter on leadership in crisis scenarios and was also a senior police officer many years ago and have lectured on leadership in the UK, Australia (UK & Aus. Governments) and elsewhere. Thus my interest in your work.
    It is my opinion that we sometimes confuse leadership with management, command or authority, but they are not always the same. To therefore help determine what leadership is, I suggest it’s worth contrasting these other activities:
    • Management might be described as the organization and coordination of an activity, or series of activities, in order to achieve defined objectives. It often consists of the interlocking functions of organizing, planning and, controlling. In a business context, it is often included as a factor of production along with machines and materials.

    • Command is often a managerial function that might be defined as the direction, co-ordination and effective use of resources. Equally, the ability to use or control something, as well as a more common application as an instruction causing a computer to perform an intended function.

    • Authority is often seen as the possession of powers based on a formal role. For example, the possibility of those with authority promoting or demoting or otherwise disadvantaging subordinate staff may well secure their compliance, but that is not the same as leadership.

    • Leadership is often something more informal – the ability to make sense of, and inspire others in situations that are out of the ordinary. Effective leaders may have formal authority, but they rely in large part on informal authority. This flows from their personal qualities and actions. They may be trusted, respected for their expertise, or followed because of their ability to persuade, or a combination of both. Sometimes a ‘situational leader’ can be especially effective by selecting the best behaviour and approach to match the task needs, and capabilities of those needling leadership in order to complete those tasks.

    Turning to more broader policing concerns, there is, I believe, a key issue that should be properly recognised as a matter of some urgency:

    The policing in the UK and most other countries, is not exclusively with the consent of the local population. That is a misconception. What would happen if over 50% of the residents of Broadwater Farm Estate in North London, or any similar area, decided that they did not want any patrolling officers? The legitimacy of the police in Britain at least, has traditionally been founded, not upon conformity to popular wishes, but upon impartiality. Regrettably, the talk of heresy nowadays.

    An alternate and more accurate description to consent is acting with ‘legitimate authority’ – created by a central and democratic Parliament. A point well recognised by Sir Robert Peel (creator of the Metropolitan Police) in 1829 when this was first debated. Because we recognise an officer’s legitimate authority we conform with his instructions. However, this is now in serious jeopardy for as long as such questions remain unanswered.

    Conformity is increasingly being replaced with scant compliance, more in common with responding to police ‘instructions’ in less stable countries. As our beleaguered police resort to ever more ‘practical’ attitudes, this change becomes very apparent. For example, the notion of ‘uniform’ has I fear, been replaced by the routine display of weaponry hanging from an officer’s belt nowadays which has a more powerful and explicit message (immediate injury should we fail to comply with instructions), than his/her legitimate authority to enforce the law impartially. We have ended up moving too quickly from Dixon to Darth Vadar I suggest, with the growing presence of ‘warrior cops’ (ref John Stossel)?

  • I believe that “leadership” requires the ability to get others to readily comply because they understand or identify or are able to justify an advantage to do so. The ‘ethical” nature of this can often be subjective and situational requiring clear guidelines and strong moral to overcome personal biases or Machiavellian motives. The “impartiality” of our Police forces must be maintained and transparent. “Without Fear or Favour”.

    Peter – I agree with your assertion about the “display of weaponry”. As a former UK Police officer now in Australia, one obvious difference is the routine carrying of firearms by Police Officers. It moves the “use of authority” from consentual conformity to compliance through conflict, reducing the communication options and increasing fear of consequences for both parties.

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