Friday, August 29, 2008


The Houston Police Department has had a number of mismanagement scandals over the last few years. The crime lab has proved to be very unreliable. Evidence has disappeared from the property room. Overtime has been severely abused. Other serious problems have cropped up from time to time. In every instance only those employees directly in charge of the troubled units have been disciplined or terminated. No one in top management has been held personally accountable.

Such scandals would be handled quite differently in the private sector. The top manager in the organization who has been assigned responsiblity for the operation of the scandalous unit would get the heave-ho along with the person directly in charge and his supervisor in mid-management. (We are not talking about scandals like those at Enron, where the chief executives were themselves involved in running a scam.) Supervision of employees, from bottom to top, is enhanced when those in charge understand that they will be held personally accountable for the foul-up of their subordinates.

Whenever there are problems in the police service they usually result from a lack of adequate or competent supervison. I have personally observed sergeants in the Houston Police Department staying at their desks (or sometimes even sneaking home) for a whole shift to study for a promotional exam instead of being on the streets to supervise officers on patrol. Some of these "supervisors" got away with this for several weeks at a time. Could that be because their immediate supervisors also studied the same way for promotion to the position they now hold?

Houston's problems are certainly not unique to its police department. Most law enforcement agencies are staffed with a good number of incompetent or unqualified supervisors. You often hear it said that, "He was a really good cop, but he is sure a lousy supervisor." Experience on the job and passing some promotional exams does not necessarily make a good supervisor. And while the mid-management person directly in charge of the crime lab may be a (civilian) criminalist, the top manager responsible for the lab will be a licensed peace officer who probably does not know the difference between DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and the DNC (Democratic National Committee).

Why is there so little personal accountabilty for screw-ups in the police service? As I see it, there are two primary reasons - labor contracts and politics. The "meet-and-confer" clauses in labor contracts often make it too troublesome to discipline rank-and-file officers and first-line supervisors. Since it is easy to find a lower ranking scapegoat to take the fall when things go wrong, top managers (sometimes even mid-managers) usually go unpunished, often because of political considerations.

The "meet and confer" clauses included in most police union contracts allow an offending officer to request the presence of his union representative during any disciplinary process. Many contracts require the attendance of the union rep even for a plain old ass-chewing by a police sergeant. In many jurisdictions this requirement so complicates the disciplinary process that, to avoid the cost of lawyers in case of an appeal, minor violations are simply overlooked. Misled into believing they are immune from punishment by seeing numerous minor infractions ignored, officers are more likely to commit a major violation down the road.

Political considerations appear responsible for the fact that nobody in top management has been held accountable for the scandals experienced by the Houston Police Department. Houston has a strong mayor type of government (as opposed to a city administrator system) and it is no secret that Bill White, the current mayor, has higher poltical ambitions. Punishing only first line supervisors and mid-managers covers up the failure of top management to carry out its responsibilities. By letting top management off the hook, the mayor saves himself from the embarrassing revelation that his police department is being mismanaged by incompetent police executives.

Personal accountability is the primary factor that will ensure close supervison and responsible management in the police service. I worked for a state law enforcement agency in which supervision all the way up the line was tight as a drum. Every supervisor was held accountable for the performance of those they supervised. If a line officer screwed up and was given a three-day suspension, his supervisor also received a three-day suspension unless he could document that he had taken steps along the way that could have prevented the subordinate's transgression. If a lieutenant got a three day suspension, his captain was also subject to the same suspension. The agency suffered realatively few screw ups because that level of personal accountability kept everyone "on the ball."

But what about a lay manager's accountability for the crime lab. We're talking about the captain or assistant chief who doesn't know the difference between DNA and the DNC. Trusting the criminalist in charge of the lab will not do it -that's what went wrong in Houston. A police agency could obtain the volunary services of three or four experts from the private sector to conduct monthly inspections of the crime lab's procedures. Even accredited labs can fall into disrepute and these monthly inspections could prevent that from happening. And by using outside inspectors, the lay manager would be meeting his responsibility for the successful operation of the lab.

Personal accountability is the name of the game when it comes to a scandal-free and successful operation of the police service. When police personnel, including top managers, are not held personally accountable, you will find poor supervison in the lower ranks and mismanagement at the top, a sure prescription for a police agency plagued with a miriad of serious problems.

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