§ 13.05. Supervision

(a) Agencies should require that supervisors encourage and incentivize officers to engage in sound policing, and that supervisors guide officers and hold them accountable when they do not engage in sound policing;

(b) Agencies should select supervisors who are willing and able to promote sound policing, give them the tools and training to do so, and hold them accountable when they do not promote sound policing.


a. Effective supervision to promote sound policing. Sound policing requires that officers understand what is expected of them, are assisted in fulfilling those expectations, and are fairly and consistently held accountable for their actions. Supervision is central to this process. Effective supervisors proactively teach, redirect, support, mentor, and guide officers. They look after their officers’ and employees’ safety and mental and physical well-being, and seek to further their career success, satisfaction, and longevity. They reward and support officers when they practice sound policing, and they offer nondisciplinary corrective action and, when necessary, disciplinary action, when they do not. Effective supervisors also model sound policing in the field: whether a supervisor de-escalates conflict rather than exacerbates it; intervenes to prevent harm rather than stands by; chooses to cite or give a warning rather than arrest; and responds with patience and professionalism rather than anger and retaliation when subject to verbal abuse, will play a significant role in how subordinate officers act in similar situations.

b. Selecting, evaluating, and promoting supervisors. Agencies should select for supervisory positions individuals who are willing and able to engage in effective supervision as described in this Section. Thus, agencies should ensure that criteria for selecting and testing supervisors are based on the traits and skillsets that agencies and the communities they serve need supervisors to have, rather than merely on the length of an officer’s service or poorly tailored written exams. In addition, agencies should consider officers’ work history, including complaint and disciplinary history, when selecting supervisors. Because sound policing is not measured in metrics such as stops or arrests, agencies should not overemphasize officer “productivity” in selecting supervisors. Rather, agencies should seek to elevate officers who display good judgment, commitment to community engagement, moral courage, and strong critical-thinking skills, among other qualities.

In selecting supervisors, agencies also should value diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Supervisors holding perspectives different from those that often predominate in traditional police culture may be more able to innovate and improve policing practices and to support those they supervise in doing the same. Relatedly, ensuring demographic diversity in supervisory ranks—in particular racial, ethnic, and gender diversity—is a component of maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce, as discussed in § 13.02(a). Agencies therefore should scrutinize supervisor-selection and testing systems to ensure that unnecessary demographic disparities are eliminated.

Agencies should hold supervisors accountable for how they supervise their subordinates and how their subordinates police. First-line supervisors in particular, more than any other strata of the police hierarchy, set and perpetuate a law-enforcement agency’s culture. Culture, in turn, determines whether sound policing is the norm and misconduct an aberration. Supervisors thus play a critical role in ensuring a culture of policing that is strictly law-abiding and community-focused, and should be held accountable for doing so.

c. Training and supporting supervisors. Supervisors should receive training on the elements of their supervisory role before they begin supervising others. New supervisors should be provided field training and qualitative feedback on their work to foster effective and appropriate supervisory habits and approaches. Supervisors should continue to receive regular training throughout their tenure as supervisors. Agencies also should assign supervisors a manageable workload so that they can provide close and effective supervision of each officer or employee they oversee. The appropriate ratio of officers to first-line supervisor will vary depending upon the particular agency and assignment.

Supervisors should seek to identify problems with officers in the early stages of their development so that the problems can be corrected before they cause significant harm to the community or the officer. Although research supporting their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness is limited, well-designed early-intervention systems may assist supervisors in this task, especially in large departments or departments in which officers change supervisors relatively frequently. Early-intervention systems are databases that aggregate information related to officer performance and notify supervisors or the agency of officers who may benefit from intervention to correct their behavior.

Reporters’ Notes

1. Role of supervisors in promoting sound policing. Supervisors must promote sound policing or it is unlikely to take hold in an agency. This is because supervisors, especially first-line supervisors, play a critical role in creating agency culture. While the precise impact of supervision on officer attitudes and behaviors is not fully understood, it is clear that supervisors can influence not only specific officer behaviors, such as how often officers use force, but also on how officers’ ethos and outlook develop more generally. Robin Shepard Engel & Robert E. Worden, Police Officers’ Attitudes, Behavior, and Supervisory Influences: An Analysis of Problem Solving, 41 Criminology 131 (2003); Robin Shepard Engel, The Effects of Supervisory Styles on Patrol Officer Behavior, 3 Police Q. 262 (2000). Sergeants (or their equivalents), comprise approximately 6.6 percent of sworn personnel and directly supervise 85 percent of a law-enforcement agency’s employees. Police Exec. Rsch. F., Promoting Excellence in First-Line Supervision 5 (2018) (first citing Bureau of Just. Stat., U.S. Dep’t of Just., Data Collection: Law Enforcement Management And Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), https://www.bjs.gov/‌index.cfm?‌ty=‌dcdetail&iid=248; and then citing ICPSR, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/‌icpsrweb/ICPSR/ series/92). Each first-line supervisor thus has an outsized ability either to promote sound policing or undermine it.

2. How supervisors promote sound policing. Notwithstanding the considerable autonomy law-enforcement officers have, first-line supervisors play a direct and influential role in guiding, reviewing, and approving officer activity. Among other duties, supervisors—particularly sergeants—often: respond to and manage some arrests and critical incidents in the field; observe officer conduct to see how officers perform (including reviewing body-camera or in-car-camera footage); provide formal and informal feedback and evaluation to officers and employees; review and approve arrests and uses of force; write reports; monitor radio traffic, dispatch information and officer-activity logs; take, investigate, and resolve misconduct complaints; address conflicts between officers and community members; and meet with community members and groups. PERF, Supervision, supra.

In addition to setting agency expectations through the supervisory tasks set out above, supervisors make their expectations for sound policing clear through their own conduct—towards both members of the public and other officers. Whether a supervisor’s conduct comports with agency rules signals to officers the importance and sincerity of agency support for those values. Further, research on internal procedural justice shows that officers who feel respected by their supervisors and peers are more likely to accept departmental policies, understand decisions, and comply with them voluntarily. See Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing 10 (2015). Supervisors also can improve officer wellness and health by raising and addressing matters including police fatigue, stress, and health during training, roll calls, and in more informal settings. See Cynthia Lum et al., An Evidence-Assessment of the Recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing–Implementation and Research Priorities 42 (2016).

3. Selecting supervisors who will promote sound policing. Given the importance of supervision to the goal of achieving a culture of sound policing, agencies should take considerable care in selecting good supervisors. The act of selecting for promotion individuals who promote sound policing in itself reinforces those ideals by demonstrating concrete organizational support for them to those within the agency. By contrast, supervisors who reject or do not reliably practice sound policing may negatively impact policing by line officers and make an agency’s commitment to sound policing seem insincere, both to line officers and members of the public.

Developing a culture of sound policing requires particular attention to supervisors’ support for change. Organizational transformation, especially transformation that encourages line officers to be innovative and community-focused, can be challenging for some first-line supervisors. See Robin Shepard Engel, Supervisory Styles of Patrol Sergeants and Lieutenants, 29 J. Crim. Just. 341 (2001). Agencies can facilitate supervisory support through clear statements promoting sound policing and tangible support for change, but given supervisors’ direct impact on attitudes and conduct, it also is critical for agencies to select supervisors who are comfortable promoting organizational transformation and innovation. Toward this end, agencies should seek broad diversity within supervisor ranks, as individuals with perspectives or backgrounds that differ from traditional or status quo policing approaches tend to be more comfortable with change and innovation, as discussed in § 13.02.

Agencies also should develop, maintain, and use effective mechanisms for selecting supervisors. Some agencies have struggled with generating effective supervision because they have failed to develop effective protocols for selecting individuals who will promote sound policing or because they assess candidates for promotion too infrequently. PERF, Supervision, supra, at 36 (infrequent promotional exams result in promotion of less-qualified individuals and risk losing good candidates to other agencies); Civ. Rts. Div., U.S. Dep’t of Just., Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department 78 (2011), https://www.justice.gov/‌sites/‌default/‌files/‌crt/legacy/2011/03/17/nopd_report.pdf (noting RAND Corporation study of New Orleans Police Department finding that intervals of several years between promotional exams resulted in officers leaving agency rather than waiting for next exam, and finding that this dynamic resulted in promotion of lower-scoring officers).

Once supervisors are in place, they should not be expected to supervise so many people, or have so many responsibilities, that close supervision is impossible. Official ratios of officers to sergeant (sometimes called the “span of control”) generally range from 4:1 to 15:1, with an average of approximately seven officers to each sergeant. See, e.g., PERF, Supervision, supra, at 19. However, actual supervisory ratios can be more extreme, usually to the detriment of safety and sound policing. See, e.g., Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, supra, at 61 (finding a 12:1 span-of-control by policy and a 20:1 by practice); Civ. Rts. Div., U.S. Dep’t of Just., Investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police 33 (2014). https://‌www.‌justice.‌gov/‌sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2014/12/04/‌cleveland_division_of_police_‌find‌ings_‌letter.pdf (discussing unmanageable workloads for supervisors, making it difficult to “effectively lead, manage, and hold officers accountable.”).

4. Early-intervention systems. One popular approach to preventing harm in law-enforcement agencies over recent decades has been early-intervention systems, which Samuel Walker describes as a “performance database that permits police managers to identify officers with patterns of problematic conduct and then to provide specially tailored interventions designed to correct those conduct problems.” Samuel Walker,Police Accountability: Current Issues and Research Needs 15 (2006), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/218583.pdf. In 1981 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in its report Who is Guarding the Guardians?, endorsed these systems, and they have been supported widely since, including by the U.S. Department of Justice. See, e.g., U.S. Dept. Just., Principles for Promoting Police Integrity (2001). Early-intervention systems have been a staple among the reforms mandated by consent decrees that have resulted from federal pattern-or-practice investigations, and many agencies have adopted such systems even in the absence of court-ordered reform.

Despite the popularity of early-intervention systems, there is limited evidence that they are effective or cost-effective in preventing misconduct or other adverse events. Most research supporting early intervention has focused on success in one or a few departments. See, e.g., Robert C. Davis et al., Off. of Cmty. Oriented Policing Servs., Federal Intervention in Local Policing: Pittsburgh’s Experience with a Consent Decree (2005); Walker et al., Early Warning Systems, supra. Moreover, most have been weakly designed without adequate control groups. See Robert E. Worden et al., Intervention with Problem Officers: An Outcome Evaluation of an EIS Intervention, 40 Crim. Just. & Behav. 409 (2013). Recent efforts to study existing early-intervention systems more rigorously have found them to have little positive effect and some unintended consequences. See John A. Shjarback, Emerging Early Intervention Systems: An Agency-Specific Pre-Post Comparison of Formal Citizen Complaints of Use of Force, Policing, Mar. 2015, at 8 (finding that “[i]n the aggregate, departments that have developed and implemented EI systems are generally not experiencing lower levels of formal citizen complaints of use of force relative to before the systems were employed”); Worden et al., supra; Kim Michelle Lersch et al., Early Intervention Programs: An Effective Police Accountability Tool, or Punishment of the Productive?, 29 Policing: Int’l J. Police Strategies & Mgmt. 58 (2006).

Several challenges confront early intervention as a prevention strategy. First, early-intervention systems require that agencies choose factors to monitor and thresholds or other means of triggering intervention. Systems vary enormously in the number and kind of criteria and thresholds they use to trigger intervention, and those selection criteria are insufficiently supported by empirical research. See, e.g., idat 58. Second, little research supports the most common interventions used in early-intervention systems, such as supervisor counseling and officer retraining. See Worden et al. Lastly, even assuming that an early-intervention system is designed on a solid foundation, many systems require significant and ongoing information-technology updates, substantial and costly data entry, and continual and considerable institutional commitment to effectively implement and maintain them. See Samuel E. Walker & Carol A. Archbold, The New World of Police Accountability (2013). Thus, theoretical rigor can be difficult to translate into institutional success.

More research may assist agencies in identifying systems that are more effective and less onerous and costly to adopt. In the meantime, agencies should continue to monitor officer-performance measures and criteria of concern, to follow research on more rigorous, preventative intervention systems, and, when possible, to embrace partnerships with researchers to assess and improve evaluation and prevention systems.

5. Agency liability for inadequate supervision. Agencies should be mindful that municipalities may be held liable for some kinds of inadequate supervision that causes misconduct by police officers. For instance, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a municipality may be found liable when it has a policy or custom of failing to provide adequate supervision and discipline of officers who have committed constitutional violations. Such claims are analogous to claims of liability for failure to train officers adequately. See City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989). Inadequate supervision may also be viewed as evidence that officer misconduct in a law-enforcement agency amounts to a “pattern or practice” of constitutional violations that could justify a suit by the U.S. Department Justice pursuant to 34 U.S.C. § 12601. See, e.g., Investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police, supra, at 33 (finding one root cause of officer misuse of force to be lack of experienced, well-supported, well-trained supervisors). The rationale underlying imposing liability based on inadequate supervision under both statutes—that is, that good supervision promotes sound policing and prevents policing harm—justifies agency efforts to ensure adequate supervision, far beyond the boundaries of legal liability.

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