The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 8 | August 2008

Police Discipline and Community Policing: New Models

image of a balance How police officers are disciplined for acts of misconduct affects how the community views the police and how the police view their job. An agency that routinely fails to take proper action when discovering that its officers have committed acts of misconduct will eventually lose its credibility in the community. Intuitively we can see why: if officers feel that the discipline system gives them no reason to obey the rules, some of them won’t. The public may see the results in more acts of police misconduct. Likewise, if officers view the agency’s discipline as captious or oppressive, they will often avoid the work that generates the most complaints: citizen contacts.

Historically, the solution to the problem of proper discipline has been to “strike a balance” between doing little about reports of misconduct and being oppressively harsh. This creates a tension which, when properly managed, enforces compliance with agency rules without harming agency relations with officers. That seems like a simple enough task: just do the right thing, officer and agency, and all will be well.

But it often doesn’t work like that.

A Brief History

The traditional form of police discipline has been a standard punitive model that seeks to fit the punishment to the offense. It is virtually universal in policing and mirrors a criminal justice scheme in many respects, particularly in its notions of punishment, deterrence, and harsher penalties for repeat offenders. Its end is to create an environment where officers comply with the rules the way citizens obey the laws: get caught doing wrong and punishment follows. This has seemed to work to constrain misconduct in part because the punitive model often succeeds at firing officers who get caught committing gross misconduct. It also seems to work because there has been no practical alternative: everyone does it this way—so why change?

Why Striking a Balance Doesn’t Quite Work

The tension between insufficient discipline and too much punishment is more difficult to manage than is widely known. This was a point that recurred in a recent national conference on internal affairs. The COPS Office, through a cooperative agreement entitled “Internal Affairs Network,” Award No. 2003-HS-WX-K040, with the Los Angeles Police Department, funded the first-ever ongoing major cities internal affairs network or community of practice. During the conference, a group of police internal affairs executives (referred to as the Big 121) asked, among many other things, how well each other was managing to strike the balance, and whether they were achieving what they wanted. The particulars of the responses varied greatly, but every executive agreed that the balance was too often perceived by officers, their leaders, or the public as unachieved. Was there a better way than trying to strike a balance? Could it be that changing the discipline model could solve some of the problems that traditional police discipline could not?


Two members of the Big 12, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Houston Police Department, had already begun looking beyond traditional police discipline2. The Houston Police Department has begun working to create a constructive alternative model in which, rather than merely issuing the standard suspension-without-pay punishments, officers could be presented with the opportunity to do something constructive—literally. From the conference report3 we find that “One example is offering an officer the opportunity to participate in community projects within the jurisdiction, like doing free home repairs for persons who could not otherwise afford the labor costs in the open market. While an officer could decline the offer for the alternative activity, the system is nevertheless designed to increase the number of ways employees’ actions can be reoriented to the Agency’s standards.”4 The innovation here is not merely that the officer is presented with a constructive rather than negative disciplinary option (although Houston’s model is innovative in that regard), but that the option simultaneously serves two potent ends: it reorients the officer to the agency’s standards and provides help in tangible ways to community members who most need it, thereby directly improving community-police relations.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has begun to approach the problem from a different framework. Operating from the notion that in dealing with misconduct, leaders should “think first strategy, not penalty,” the LAPD is developing a model that sees disciplinary matters as employee development questions.5 The question of penalty is subordinate to the question of strategy: “A suspension or other punitive action isn’t necessarily the best way to induce improved thinking and behavior for most employees. For the strategic model, the presumption is that behavior changes by influencing the employee’s thinking toward acting on explicit principles, not just rules.”6 In the developing LAPD strategic model, the question is not, “How heavy should the penalty be?” but “What is the employee development solution?” The question of striking the balance is irrelevant.

In one case, a supervisor facing discipline for causing several on-duty traffic accidents would have faced a multiday suspension under the punitive model. Adopting the strategic model, the supervisor’s captain interviewed him and determined that the supervisor was not intentionally driving recklessly; he just was not considering the consequences of his driving decisions. The remedial strategy included having the supervisor become a traffic officer’s trainee in a traffic division assignment for a month, doing nothing but traffic collision investigations to see with greater clarity the consequences of bad driving decisions. Whether the strategy was ideal is not the issue: the point is that seeking a solution to the problem rather than seeking a number of days-without-pay penalty is the essence of the strategic model.

Alternatives to Traditional Police Discipline and Community Oriented Policing

Whether through constructive discipline, the strategic model, or some other innovation, agencies that field officers who are cultivated—not just regulated—are more capable of inspiring officers to engage the community in partnerships with a clear sense of mission. Officers who realize that their agencies are more concerned with developing them than punishing them are more likely to hear their leaders’ call to community partnerships. And citizens who know that their legitimate personnel complaints end in effective changes, not just disgruntled cops, are more likely to feel confident in their police and the partnerships available to them.

Finding alternatives to traditional police discipline seems now to be an intriguing, unexplored means to enrich community oriented policing. As the internal affairs community of practice continues its discourse through videoconferencing, we look forward to finding other means of improving officer development, and perhaps also revealing how discursive communities of practice in fields typically not associated with community policing can improve it in novel, unforeseen ways.

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