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The Power Gap and Police Performance Failure

By David Hudson, Marin Consulting Associates

Managers in America have developed some bad habits.  Employers in industry and government alike seem to have relinquished their right to assure that individual employees make the contributions for which they are paid.  Unfortunately, accountability seems to be more a subject of discussion than of action.

   Certainly, while most American workers are willing to do their jobs, there are some in the work force who seem to feel entitled to the employer’s scarce salary resources whether they produce or not.  Although these poor performers are there for all to see, they are discussed only informally in most organizations.  Life goes on around them/ the whole system compensates for them.  They usually receive good performance ratings from supervisors who, in turn, receive good ratings from the managers above them.  It has become commonplace for entire organizations to benevolently support those who appear to have no interest in the missions they were hired to serve. 

   Sadly, this has become the American Organizational Way – a result, at least in part,  of the “Theory ‘Y’ Imperative” to trust everyone and to overlook any evidence to the contrary.

   In “Bridging the Power Gap in Performance Control”, written a few years ago for the journal of the California Peace Officers’ Association, I attempted to stimulate a dialogue among law enforcement managers about a critical but unpleasant subject:  supervisory powerlessness.  The Power Gap was defined as the standoff between agency managers and their first-line supervisors. 

The Supervisor says:

“If push comes to shove, I can’t take the poor performer to task; my managers won’t back me.  I just put up with it.”

    The Manager says:

“I would back supervisors if they would just give me something to back!”

    Supervisors and their managers seldom sit down together to solve the stand off.  The issue occasionally comes up, but is seldom resolved.

   Agency leaders expect sergeants to monitor the officers’ conduct and performance.  If an officer is not performing to acceptable standards, the sergeant is expected to do whatever is appropriate to correct the poor performance; failing that, he is to complete the documentation necessary to eventually dismiss anyone unwilling or unable to perform acceptably.  Indeed, this is the essential function of supervisors throughout history.

   This is the logical view, perhaps, but it does not take into account the Power Gap.

   The Power Gap is present when supervisors feel powerless to successfully claim acceptable work from their employees.  The reason commonly given nowadays is “lack of support from above”.  While seldom true, the belief runs deep; it is almost unshakable in this generation of supervisors.  

For some reason, police managers are reluctant to accept the fact that supervisors feel uncertain about their power to hold employees accountable.  Conversely, supervisors resist admitting their sense of powerlessness to their managers.  The result:  little to no dialogue, and too little problem-solving.

   If sergeants are convinced they are helpless, it is not hard to understand why they so often look the other way, or find ways to rationalize why the poor performer “isn’t so bad”.  It follows, then, that poor performers can expect to receive satisfactory ratings and be permitted to blend into the background, receiving pay, benefits and occasional promotions.  “After all,” the argument goes, “it’s only the few.  The others are good performers.  They compensate for the bad ones.  Besides, we get our work done.”

   Perhaps the Power Gap could have been overlooked indefinitely were it not for the mounting number of news stories like the Rodney King incident and other such spectacles across the country.  Such incidents, regardless of who is found to be “right” or “wrong,” overturn the argument that “the good ones compensate for the poor ones.”

   Power Gaps are almost impossible to identify and root out because most agency levels seem to be in the habit of overlooking them.  Meanwhile, of the 8000 police  supervisors and managers from more than 300 agencies who have attended POST performance and accountability workshops, over 80 percent claim to be powerless to deal effectively with serious problem officers.

   In such workshops, which bring the usual lack of accountability out into the harsh glare of daylight, participants are asked to define a real performance problem in their own ranks.  The following represents a common dialogue between the sergeant and the trainer.

     Trainer:  So you have a problem officer?

Sergeant:  Yes.  This one is a zero.  Just does enough to get by.

   Trainer:  Explain.

Sergeant:  I don’t think he’s made a self- initiated arrest in years-at

least not in the past six months.  Maybe one or two

tickets this quarter.  No DUIs.  No Fis.  If he doesn’t get

a direct order on the spot, he won’t  do it.

   Trainer:  But he does take calls?

Sergeant:  When he answers his radio.  It’s  hard to get him


 Trainer:   Does he take his fair share of calls on the shift?

Sergeant:  Well…he milks his calls.  Probably takes two or

                  three times the amount of time the others take on a

    routine call.  So he’s just not available.  He probably

    manages to do half of what the others do-on calls, I


   Trainer:  How about reports?

Sergeant:  Hopeless.  I have to kick back most of his reports.  He

  doesn’t do all that many.  Loses them.  He likes  to

  the victim out of the report.  I have a complaint on my

  desk right now, a domestic violence call…no report.

   Trainer:  Are these the only problems?

Sergeant:  There’s more.  Lots of unsustained complaints about

  verbal abuse,  rudeness and force, stuff like that... He was

                suspended for vehicular accidents, but it hasn’t helped. 

  He’s back to his old ways.  Says we’re picking on him.

   Trainer:  So, are you going to document this guy’s performance so that

  your  agency can eventually put an ultimatum in front  of him?

 Are  you going to ask him to either perform to standards or face

 possible dismissal, for example?   Anything like that…?

Sergeant:  Well, he’s a good cop.  He’s capable. He’s been like

   this  for years.  He does enough to get by.  He’d have

   to really screw up to lose his job.  It won’t happen in

  my department-Not just for performance.

   Trainer:  So what will happen?  What are you going to do?

Sergeant:  The officer is really angry right  now…I marked him

  down to “competent” on his last rating.  He has been

   rated “highly competent” by other supervisors for

  quite a while now.  But he claims it’s a personality

                 conflict… that I’m out to get him.

   Trainer:  So you documented that this officer was “competent”?  I’m

  curious-what would it  take to get an unsatisfactory rating?

Sergeant:  Like I said.  He does enough to get by.

   Trainer:  What does that mean-“enough to get by”?



Sergeant:  That means you take the calls you can’t get out of. 

  You don’t leave any paper for the next shift to do; it

  upsets   them.  You keep your nose clean.  No

  sustained   complaints.  No bad press.

   Trainer:  But I know your managers.  I think they really want more than

  this for the  $80,000 to $100,000 they spend to put an officer

  on  the street each year.

Sergeant:  We want more than this too.  But we’re talking real

  world.  I inherited this guy.  Others have tried.  You

  said you didn’t want us to B.S. you.

   Trainer:  So you have your worst problem performer a “competent”


Sergeant:  Got any other ideas?  It’s Civil Service…


   As stated above, this dialogue repeats itself weekly.  Only the names change.  The sergeants seem sincere in their frustration about their perceived powerlessness.  They would rather be real supervisors.

   Top-level managers almost always refuse to believe that one of their own supervisors would complain about feeling powerless as in  the above dialogue.  To the observer who hears both sides, however, such managerial disbelief suggests that, although well known off the record, the Power Gap must be a “secret” at the formal or official level.  The phrase, “the secret that everyone knows,” comes to mind.

   So, what to do?  It won’t help to be outraged or indignant about the Power Gap.  It won’t help to attack those who bring the unpleasant subject to light.  There is no one person to blame.  All of us had a hand in shaping it.  We all listened to too many new management theories while ignoring what was happening before our eyes.  We allowed the Power Gap to become embedded in the American culture-a commonplace part of the landscape in America’s corporations, government institutions and law enforcement agencies, as well.  At least in law enforcement, there are those who are taking deliberate steps to close it.  These departments have learned that a climate can be created wherein being a professional employee isn’t optional; it’s the only option.


What Does It Take to Close the Power Gap?

     In the leadership ranks, it takes an unshakable commitment to ensure professional-level performance from employees and the courage to confront and follow through on anything less.

·         Agency leaders (from sergeants up) must agree-in specific terms-about the service to be delivered by the agency.  (A good labor attorney must also be consulted to clarify the agency’s right to a day’s work for a day’s pay.)

·         Performance expectations (standards) must be specified.  All command levels, from agency head through first-line supervisor, must negotiate a common view of the performance to be delivered by officers, dispatchers, detectives, etc.  They must then ask employees for these results and be ready to take the flak from a generation of employees unaccustomed to leaders who follow through to ensure accomplishment.

·         Each agency level must be held accountable for holding the next level accountable in turn.

·         Guidelines and training must be provided to show all supervisory personnel how to judiciously use their rightful power to ensure performance by all hands.  (Training alone, however, will not put the sergeant back in charge.  Holding him accountable for ensuring his subordinates’ performance is imperative.)

   Many law enforcement leaders see the above list as “pie-in-the-sky” thinking.  They say that, however good it may sound in theory, it’s just not practical-“Not here, we’re too big (or to small).”  These managers will not believe that one of California’s larger agencies has already achieved the above steps.  So have some of the smaller ones, as well as a few medium sized ones.  It takes time, of course, but one chief has done the job in less than three years.

   The popular alternative of overlooking poor performers leaves the option open for employees to perform unprofessionally.  Despite Theory Y teachings (giving employees job freedom, etc.), consequences can be severe if employees are the only ones to monitor and regulate their own performance.

   Many fine law enforcement leaders are shaking their heads about recent media reports of police failure on the street.  If even a quarter of such reports are true, we must wonder why they happen as often as they do.

   On the other hand, if over 80 percent of police supervisors can point to a bad apple in their ranks and claim (accurately or not) that they are powerless to “fix it”, then the performance failures that make the nightly news are remarkable not because they happened in the first place, but because we are so perplexed by their occurrence.


Author Dave Hudson of Marin Consulting can be contacted at:

Or visit the Marin Consulting website at:





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