When Law Enforcement Policy and Practice Conflict

by | September 25, 2017

In 1910, Frederick Winslow Taylor developed a scientific theory about how best to improve productivity in the workplace. In his book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor proposed an equal division of work and responsibility between management and line-level employees. He also suggested that optimizing and simplifying jobs (specialization) would increase productivity.

In 1922, the German sociologist Max Weber (pronounced Vay-bur) popularized the term “bureaucracy” and associated its importance with government business infrastructure. In his book Economy and Society, Weber illustrated bureaucracy as goal-oriented and hierarchical, where information moves up the chain of command while directives move down.

At this point you’re probably thinking, I’m a cop. Why should I care about the theories of some guy who pronounces his name funny and another guy who was naïve enough to think managers and employees could all just get along?

Good point. But, all this is relevant to policing. First, the concepts developed and presented by Weber and Taylor had a direct impact on the modern American policing model. Under the influence of their theories, police work became routinized and specialized, while governed by a para-militaristic, bureaucratic command structure (Peak). Officers were taught to enforce laws and make arrests. Individual discretion and decision-making were less encouraged.

Second, it didn’t take long for academics to identify shortcomings to these approaches. In doing so, they identified an issue we continue to deal with in law enforcement: the conflict between policy and practice.

The Rational, Natural and Open Systems Theories

According to Alford Congruent with Weberian beliefs and Taylorism, academics developed three decision-making models for organizational management:

  • The natural/specialization model, founded on Taylor’s work, focuses on employees. The creation of specific job responsibilities and training employees to meet those responsibilities form the core of this model.
  • The bureaucratic/rational model, founded on Weber’s work, focuses on an objective, impersonal organizational structure. Policy is the driving force in this model.
  • The open systems model merged the rational and natural perspectives, focusing on how internal and external factors affect the organization and its members.

Furthermore, open system theorists point out that there is frequently a disparity between the organization’s formally stated goals and the operational goals members pursue (Scott and Davis). Therefore, theoretically, policy and practice can conflict. Be clear, however, this theoretical conflict is very real. Law enforcement officers attempting to align the two get caught between administrative directives and societal problem-solving. In other instances, policy fails to address situations, leaving officers to fill the void between policy and practice.

As a rookie, everything appears black and white; it takes experience to understand how external forces can affect your actions. Case in point: At an oral interview shortly after completing the academy, I was asked, “Has there been a time when your actions conflicted with departmental policy?” Confused, I looked at the veteran interview panel and said, “I would never intentionally act in a way that would conflict with policy.” I thought they were looking for me to affirm my ability to follow rules. However, I now know the panel was less interested in obedience and more interested in seeing whether I could explain why I might violate policy. The panel members, cumulatively possessing nearly 90 years of experience, stared back at me. Needless to say, I did not get the job!

Field Bureaucrat

The conflict between policy and practice quickly became obvious once I started working in the field. A case involving a clothes washer provides a lighthearted example.

I responded to a marital argument that had the potential to become a physical altercation. The husband called the sheriff’s office hoping we could somehow resolve their 20 years of battling. Upon arrival, I discovered their impending separation and dispute all came down to a clothes washer: The husband wanted the appliance, but so did the wife. After some mediation, the issue was resolved. The husband would get the appliance while also agreeing to move out of the residence. But who was going to help the husband move the machine? More time passed while the husband made telephone calls to wrangle up friends. But every time he found a friend willing to help, the wife articulated reasons why that friend was not going to enter her house.

I recognized I could simply help the husband move the appliance. Department policy did not technically restrict me from helping, but even my limited experience had taught me to consider the risks: I might damage the residence or the appliance, or get hurt while moving the machine. Either of these would bring administrative sanction.

An hour passed. Irritated, I told the husband to grab the heavy end, and we moved the appliance. The call for service was resolved.

In hindsight, the open system theory applied directly: The stated organizational goal was to solve a problem (resolve the call) efficiently, but operationally, I knew I had a responsibility to limit the risk of civil liability or personal injury. On one hand, if I did not help move the washing machine, I would have been detained further, and the wife and husband may have come to blows. On the other, I might get hurt moving the washing machine. As officers do every day, faced with the void between policy and real life, I took a leap of faith and chose to help the husband move the machine.

Fortunately, my agency’s culture had evolved to acknowledge this void. It was common for us to work alone and situations often arose that could only be resolved by thinking outside department policy. When officers applied logic to resolve conflicts, supervisors and managers were often complimentary; the key was being able to explain why your decision was necessary. Black-and-white faded into gray as my academy training dissipated to reveal a common-sense approach.

Making Policy Work

But what if a specific policy had been in place restricting my actions? Would I have turned a blind eye to a policy that failed to take real-life factors into account? Maybe. Certainly, I would not be the first officer to face this quandary.

The tendency for officers to fill the void between policy and practice—or to go against policy when it does not reflect real life—underscores why policy must be applicable, practical and functional:

  • Applicable: Is the policy  appropriate for the services the agency offers
  • Practical: Can the agency make the policy work in their organization?
  • Functional: Will the policy work in real life?

So what happened when I explained why I spent so much time on a domestic argument to my lieutenant, and how did he react to my decision to fill the void between policy and practice? Without hesitation, he said, “Good work.” Would he have responded similarly if there was an impending civil claim or an on-duty injury? Perhaps, but you can bet there would have been a new policy  to fill the void within a week!

The world of law enforcement is one of imperfection, and applying logic through policy to imperfect situations is challenging. Policies are never a substitute for good decision-making, and we can hardly write a policy for every situation. But we can strive to author policies that provide realistic guidance to help officers do their jobs safely and efficiently.

Lexipol’s Law Enforcement Policy Manual and Daily Training Bulletin Service provides essential policies that support officer decision-making in all facets of law enforcement operations. Contact us today for more information or to request a free demo.

Citations and References

  • Alford C. (12/28/14) Rational, Natural and Open Systems. Drama Uncomplicated Blog. Retrieved 8/31/17 from: https://drcedric.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/rational-natural-and-open-systesms/.
  • Peak K. (2009) Policing America: Challenges and Best Practices. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
  • Scott W R. and Davis G. (2016) Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open Systems Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
  • Taylor F. (2013) The Principles of Scientific Management. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.
  • Weber M. (2013) Economy and Society. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.


JAMES CONCANNON retired as a sergeant with the Sierra County (CA) Sheriff’s Office, where he served since 2001. From 2011 to 2015, he served as Undersheriff, then returned to the sergeant rank after an administration change. Concannon earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State University in California and his master’s in criminology, law and society from the University of California-Irvine. He is also a professional services representative for Lexipol, helping law enforcement agencies implement policy and training.

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