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Taking a chance on civilian management

May 21, 2019  By Todd Hataley and Christian Leuprecht

Police culture is notoriously averse to civilian management. When Bill Elliott was appointed commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2007, much of the RCMP’s membership took exception to a civilian leader with no prior experience in uniform. So visceral was the reaction that several senior members of the RCMP chose to leave the force, rather than serve under Elliott’s leadership.

While the choice of Elliott, his suitability for the position and his temperament may be controversial, the precedent was set: police services can be managed by a senior officer (which Elliott became under the RCMP Act by virtue of his appointment) who hasn’t spent years working his/her way up the uniformed ranks.

To police forces, civilian management is not new: HR, finance and technical services are frequently managed by civilians already – but subservient to an all-mighty uniformed chief. And the general sense among uniformed members, let alone officers, is that is the way it should be for many reasons, including self-interest in that they, too, would one day like to command that position, authority and salary.

Senior leadership in any organization calls for certain attributes, usually a combination of education, training and experience that allows them to command trust. Uniforms deem wearing a uniform a necessary, but wearing a uniform is hardly a sufficient condition.

Law enforcement benefits from top management that tends to share certain characteristics: leadership, foresight, vision, integrity and decisiveness – to name a few. In a world of shrinking public resources, yet greater complexity and accountability, fewer police per capita, increasing civilianization and privatization of policing services, and new delivery models that integrate police services across not only first responder services but also social or community services, the boss needs to bring a diverse set of skills and have a vision for the future.

This isn’t to say the skills needed to meet the challenges of future service delivery cannot abound in uniformed members. Rather, it’s about the assumption they only abound in uniformed members, or that the nature of uniformed experience necessarily trumps that of civilian is fundamentally flawed.

It’s like putting a golfer in charge of the golf course: need you be a championship golfer to run a successful golf course? The core expertise of police officers is… policing. The claim that police operations should be run by uniformed members is uncontroversial. The claim that those operations are all-encompassing is controversial. However, it does not follow that someone with an operational background is necessarily better placed to manage a span of control that includes HR, budgets and policy. Is someone with a business background ill-suited to manage that same span of control?

Police leaders need to innovate their business model, “do more with less,” respond to calls for ever-increasing accountability and transparency to communities, tax payers and elected leaders, and enhance prevention by fostering the horizontal and vertical integration of service delivery to enhanced community safety and well-being.

Uniformed members do not have a monopoly on making communities safer, more predictable and more liveable. Much of the controversy about policing in this country ultimately harkens back to the hubris they do.

Whether uniforms standing down on staking their claim on the full spectrum of police management and focusing solely on operations will actually lead to better communities remains to be seen; but it will go some distance to deflecting from myriad criticisms being levied at law enforcement by deflating the pretension that posits the uniform as a necessary and sufficient condition to run a police organization.

Todd Hataley is a retired member of the RCMP, a professor in the School of Justice and Community Development at Fleming College and adjunct associate professor at the Royal Military College. Christian Leuprecht is Class of 1965 Professor in Leadership at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, and Munk Senior Fellow in Security and Defence at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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