How to Decentralize Control and Get Police Officers to Love Their Jobs

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How to Decentralize Control and Get Police Officers to Love Their Jobs

June 1, 2001 21 min read
Dean Esserman
Senior Policy Analyst on International Economics

I never thought that I would grow up to be an American Police Chief. I never would have chosen to grow up at all, except that the people around me told me to. I can still remember the first time I met a cop. One of the very first Emergency Medical Technicians in New York City's police department grabbed us in Central Park, and I needed a community service internship for that summer. You needed one to graduate from my high school in those days. The next thing I knew, I met and worked with police officers. That time in Central Park was the first time I had ever met a police officer. . .well, except once before. And I still say I didn't jump that turnstile to get on the subway.

Then I went to Dartmouth. After my freshman year, I interned in the New York City Transit Police for Deputy Inspector Hillel Valentine. I stayed interested and involved throughout the rest of my college years, and when I was about to graduate, Tony Bouza, the very outspoken deputy chief who later became chief in Minneapolis, arranged for me to meet with Pat Murphy, the legendary one-time New York police commissioner who has headed departments all over the country. I stayed an hour and a half listening to Murphy and getting to know him.

Pat told me about Victor Cizanckas, who was chief in Stamford, Connecticut, and had been chief in Menlo Park, California. He said, "He's not that far off from New York, and he's doing some crazy things. Why don't you go pay him a visit?" I interned with Victor for six months before I went off to New York University Law School. Never in my dreams did I think that 20 years later I would be sitting in his job in Stamford. Every few months now, I go to Vic's grave just to spend a moment.

After law school at New York University, I became an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York. From there, I became a special assistant United States attorney. In 1997, I became the general counsel to the New York City Transit Police. I met Bill Bratton, who was then heading the force and later became commissioner in New York. I ended up at the New Haven police, and I served on Bill Bratton's transition team for the NYPD. Then I was head of the Metro North Police, the agency that polices the trains that run throughout New York and into Connecticut.

In 1997, I was cutting the ribbon in Connecticut at one of our railroad stations in Stamford. I met the new mayor, Danell Malloy, and we hit it off. We discovered we had been assistant district attorneys in Brooklyn together and had never met.

He's a great guy, who I respect and like enormously. In 1995, he campaigned on community policing. He had inherited another police chief and wanted to bring in someone he knew. He recruited me to come up, and I've been in Stamford three years now.

The City of Stamford

Let me tell you a little bit about the place where I'm the Chief of Police. In Connecticut, the state with the highest per capita income in America, there are five cities with more than 100,000 residents. Those five cities are the capital, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and, of course, Stamford. Four of the five cities are among the poorest in the nation. They have the highest infant mortality rates and the highest out-of-wedlock birth rates in America. They are losing population all the time. And that doesn't even bring Connecticut down to second richest state in America. And then there's Stamford. Stamford is booming.

Stamford is booming because of the geography. It's the southern city in Fairfield County, one of the richest counties in America, right above New York City. It's a city of about 120,000. About 25,000 to 30,000 people commute every day to New York City, more often than not by rail. And somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 people commute to Stamford for work. It's what Washington Post writer Joe Garreau calls an edge city. An enormous number of corporations have come into the city. One corporation after another came to downtown Stamford where, up until the early 1990s, they could avoid paying income taxes and still be very close to New York City. They built giant campus-like facilities all over town and brought thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax base. We have more people coming in than going out each day. It's not a suburb any more. The train platforms are full in both directions.

The city of Stamford is nearly 39 square miles, very large geography for the northeast. It's a diverse city that looks a lot like the United States as a whole. There are rich people and poor people. We've just torn down the worst of our public housing but there's still an inner city. There's always been a significant black population and Latinos are just now arriving in large numbers.

A Crisis of Leadership

I've learned a lot along the way, and believe me when I say there were a lot of mistakes. What I've learned about police leadership and organization is this: we talk a lot about decentralization, and a lot of it is just talk. People say that we need to give more power to everybody, that we need to flatten the organizations, and we do need to do those things. But to do it, we need to find leaders. Officers look for leadership, and the chief can't do it alone.

I came to Stamford in February of 1998. On my first day of work, I walked in at 5:00 in the morning and found the door to police headquarters locked. I waited for someone to let me in. The department wasn't open to the public or to its own people, and it didn't take long before I realized that the crisis that was taking place was coming from within.

Stamford had a dispirited police department. It was a department with wonderful people who had been devastated, who had lost much of the reason they had wanted to be there. The department had broken their spirits by never changing, never offering new opportunities, so they had found other outlets.

No one was allowed to make a decision. I remember my first homicide. I rolled out of bed to go to it, and they were asking me, "Should we call a detective? Do we have permission to call the detective on overtime?" I said, "Well, I'll let you make that decision." So the chief of detectives never showed up; but he was there at 8:00 a.m. at his office, and by 9:00, he had typed a report about what had happened even though I was the one who was there and he was not.

The city had grown and changed, but the department was the same as it had always been. All policing was delivered through police headquarters. The chief was pleased with it; the officers didn't mind it; and the department was proud of the fact that nothing had changed in three decades. Not a single patrol sector had changed.

The officers didn't want anything different. They didn't want better shifts. The union paid for erecting the billboards during the contract negotiations that said, "Welcome to Dodge City" so that the half-million people who drive up and down Route 95 every day could see that sign. At the same time, Stamford was a city that was blossoming and taking off. The downtown was coming to life for the first time in many years.

Selecting Deputies

When I came in, there were two deputy chief's jobs that were empty. In one of the first conversations I had with Bill Bratton after taking office, I remember saying to him, "I'm traveling alone." Bill always traveled alone, too, until he came to New York for the second time.

I said in the contract negotiations, "Look, I want to fight for the right to pick any deputy chiefs I want, from anywhere I want. So let me do that." The union let me win that one, and when I was ready to pick the deputy chiefs, I said, "I don't need to do any interviews, because that's what I've been doing for six months."

I chose insiders: Three out of four were lieutenants because it was clear to me that in the Stamford police department, the lieutenants were the leaders. There are four deputy chiefs, six captains, 12 lieutenants, 52 sergeants. The organization rests on the lieutenants.

Everyone appreciated the fact that I had fought for and won the right to bring in outsiders, and everyone thought I would. But I picked them from the inside. Picking new deputy chiefs wasn't the whole deal. The administration as a whole was closed. The higher up you were in the organization, the less you had to work: That was the culture.

"I Want It To Be Your Jealous Mistress"

I ended up calling up all of the lieutenants and telling them that I'd pay for overtime because I wanted to know what they thought. I wanted a staff meeting. They hadn't had a staff meeting in years. Nobody could remember when the last one had been.

I said, "Show me the conference room." They did. It was a storage room. We threw the filing cabinets out of the second story window into the parking lot. Once we cleared it out and had a conference room to use again, I said to them:

I'm here. I plan on staying. And what I want is for you to come back again. You tell me what it will take to get your heart back in this department, and you tell me what it's going to take to get your best days, because I want your best days. I want you up all night thinking about this joint. I want you back in the morning before you need to be because you can't wait to get to work. I want you thinking about your job. I want you dreaming about it. I want it to hurt your marriage. I want it to be your jealous mistress. I want it to be your obsession.

They thought I was out of my mind. Maybe I was. I said, "We are going to meet every day, and we're going to be back here every morning."

They realized they were getting some serious overtime. I told them that I didn't give a damn about the money, so we started talking and being honest. I purposely didn't bring in any consulting firms, although I later did call in some consultants on technical issues. We ate doughnuts, drank coffee, and just hung around and talked. I let everyone tell his or her story, and there wasn't a single man or woman that didn't tell a story about being hurt, about being in a department that had betrayed their hopes. There was the feeling that nobody cared and that what they said meant nothing.

We reworked the police department. I had to find the leaders in the police department, and they were, as I've said, the lieutenants. Chiefs come and go. When I was looking for the leaders, I realized that I could walk down the hall and speak to roll call, but the guys down at roll call are keeping their eyes on the sergeant and lieutenant. The lieutenant just rolls his eyes when I say something he doesn't agree with and stares out the window, and so does everyone else.

Mistakes in New Haven

I did this because I realized what my first big mistake in New Haven had been. I realized that you have to find the leaders first.

I came to New Haven as a police academy rookie: 32 years old, the oldest and highest ranking rookie Connecticut had ever had in the academy. I was a lawyer and a prosecutor, but they made me go to the academy before I could take over running a department. I thanked the academy when I was done and said, "Thanks. I'm not going to transfer you." They made me pay my dues, and I left.

I was chief of operations in New Haven. I ran the entire department. I never took a day off. As the young chief, I said, "I'm going out to ride with the cops." And I thought I was doing everything right, because I had read about Pat Murphy and how he would get out there and work with the cops.

Boy, did I get it wrong. The supervisors led this department, not me. I decided not to make that mistake in Stamford. I worked for the bosses, and I spent my time with the lieutenants and the sergeants.

Rethinking the Squad System

The lieutenants ran the Stamford Police Department because they ran the squads. A squad is a little fraternity, a group of 30 to 50 cops. Officers worked a week of days, then had a few days off. Then they came back to work a week of nights, then had a few days off, and then went back to a week of days. Midnight shift was separate. They had a few sergeants and a lieutenant.

The squads were on duty together. Then they went home at night at the same time and went drinking together and came in the next day. A group of them went out like a tide and patrolled for eight hours. Then they came back and went off, and then another group came up eight hours. They never had anything to do with each other.

It was three cities that never talked. Citizens didn't know what was going on. They would ask cops about something, and they couldn't even
figure out who worked in their neighborhood.

I decided that these lieutenants were people I was going to break bread with, and we spent a lot of time talking. Then I said, "Look, you run this police department. If you decide you don't like someone up there in your squad, then that person gets a lousy shift. You get to dole out overtime. You're the ones who have the power."

Letting the Lieutenants Take Charge

What they wanted was to be in charge, to have real control over the way the department was run and the way the policies worked. So we figured out how to carve up this department and put them in charge, where they have real jurisdiction. We redesigned it around 12 commands: one for each of the lieutenants. We split the city into five commands for patrol, five geographic commands where the lieutenants were responsible 24 hours a day. Why? Because that's how they wanted to do it.

I spent a lot of time with them. I did not make the mistake again of undercutting my sergeants and lieutenants, because they were our leaders. I spent all my time out on patrol with the sergeants and the lieutenants and showed them a lot of respect. Over time, I did ask them, "Can I go out with one of the officers, please?" But always through them. They never felt undercut.

I had no plan to do that when I came in, but it's what felt right. You have to redesign the roles of the real leaders if you want to be a good leader yourself.

I remember discussions at the Police Executive Research Forum one meeting, the discussion question was: "Is it more important to be an external chief or an internal chief?"

I argued for being an external chief, and now I think converts make the best preachers. I was all external in the old days, but I realized that first you have to be an internal chief, and then, over time, you've got to be both. The Stamford police had a crisis within, and to fix it, I needed help from the people who really ran the department: the lieutenants. Those lieutenants created the police department.

We looked at a new level of internal detail. I told them, "Go out and do it. You do it and I'll support it. Go out and find a substation. Go out and organize your people. Do it all. I will do none of it for you, but I'll support you." We now have five districts and nine substations. We got all of the substations for free.

It got to the point where I said, "You're in command, whether you command the detective squad, the youth programs, or whether you are the narcotics lieutenant or the internal affairs lieutenant, or whether you are one of the five patrol district lieutenants. Wherever you are a lieutenant in command, you get the same deal. You are a lieutenant commander."

I gave them new arrangements for work. I told them a few things.

  • Number one, we're giving you a take-home car. You never had one before. The same for other equipment: cell phone, laptop, you name it.

  • Number two, I'm giving you flex time. Come and go when you want.

  • Number three, if you need overtime, spend it on yourself. I'm giving you all 12 hours overtime to spend on yourself because it's not a 40-hour job. Use it or lose it. You want to work an 80-hour week, go work it. I'll pay for you. The only thing I ask is that you take home your problems. You think about this job 24 hours a day. If there's anything going on this community, God help you if I find out about it before you do.

That's what happened. They tested me. They pulled everything they could pull. They did everything they wanted. They played with me, tried to push my limits, and I let them.

A lot of them doubled their salaries. I could not have cared less, because they tripled their workload, and they tripled their commitment. They cared about the department again. Sick time went down. They didn't want to use their vacation. They competed with one another. All of a sudden, they were giving cops a hard time about little things that they hadn't cared about before. They were saying things like, "Why didn't you show up for work today? What's this about you have an injury on duty? I can't afford for you to be off today."

And crime went down. It went down a lot. Our crime reduction was one of the biggest on the East Coast, and we're now tied for the safest city on the eastern seaboard. In 1999, we had the largest crime reduction in any city east of the Mississippi.

All of a sudden, the lieutenants were being the pain-in-the butt chiefs that everyone used to hate. They were writing reports. They were making presentations. They were doing things they had never done in their lives. They had no role models to follow. They had no mentors. They had no examples.

We were all flying by the seat of our pants. We were having the time of our life. We were making mistakes. It didn't matter. The cops had never seen such energized bosses in their lives, and it infected them. You give a boss a real responsibility and authority, and he or she will rarely disappoint you.

Turning Lieutenants into Chiefs

For the first time in their careers, the lieutenants were feeling concerns for the community because they were not isolated in the world of police headquarters. All of a sudden, it's not the police chief who's out there feeling everyone's pain and who is at every church group and every community meeting and every school and every neighborhood association and every merchant's group. And the chief isn't always the one hearing from the community: "Chief, I want to see more cops. Chief, what about the kids on the corner? Chief, the cops are disrespectful."

Now they are there at those meetings: the lieutenants and the sergeants and the patrol officers. When you stop insulating them, soon they're feeling what you're feeling; they start acting like you would act. It's remarkable.

I wish I had learned that 10 years ago. When I was in New Haven, I was the community police officer. I was the lieutenant. I was doing their job. Once you get them to do their job, there's a remarkable transformation. They're fighting the cops in the locker room about "Get out of your car!" They say, "I don't want to hear one more time how you drove by this place. Who do you think you're fooling? You do it again and you're out of here."

Every crazy idea got tried, and a lot of them worked. Bill Bratton taught me something which I never forgot. He said: "Go out there, as chief, and try to find somebody doing something right instead of wrong. Go catch him doing something right." I spent every day running around trying to catch people doing something right. I was throwing compliments out to everybody. It works!

Summer Camp Compliments of the Drug Dealers

We emptied police headquarters and took people out from behind desks. We have officers in every school. We started new things. We're running basketball leagues. And we paid for everything. You walk into a park, and every kid has new sneakers and is bouncing a basketball, and we bought every one of them.

We started a crazy summer camp because officers in the schools said, "You know, these kids, in the summer, they don't know what to do." We got the school to open up the building and build a summer camp. We put a plaque up thanking the drug dealers of Stamford for the asset forfeiture money we used for the camp. I notified the Justice Department, and I notified the state. I said, "I am notifying you ahead of time now that I might be breaking the law. I'm using the drug forfeiture money for this summer camp. I dare you to tell me to stop. I've now put you on notice." The drug forfeiture money is not being used buy police equipment, but God knows I need it. We hired high school students and trained them; paid them well too.

We started Compstat, the accountability system used in New York. We went to two staff meetings a week, every Tuesday and Friday. I'm very well aware that people are performing for me, that it's theater, but I like timely and accurate intelligence. It's a tough ticket. It's as good a show as anything on Broadway. But the bottom line is, I understand that, but I'm going to be after you if you ever forget that what you're doing is about results.

If you wake up at 2:00 in the morning, you better wake up screaming about crime, fear, and disorder. If you can't scream those things in your sleep, then you don't know what your job is. I don't care how hard you work. You produce results. You bring down crime; you bring down fear; you bring down disorder. Never lose your focus.

Police Chiefs' Dirty Secret

I love what I do. It's my work and my family, but there's one thing that's always bothered me. Most officers never get promoted in their career, and a little secret most people don't know is that most officers never choose to take a promotional exam. I see really talented guys who could move up easily and even say they want to, and then they never show up on Saturday to take the sergeants exam even though they're registered.

You get excuses: "Well, it was snowing. Well, something came up. Oh my car wouldn't start." There's always a reason not to take the exam. The average cop never takes one in their career. It's because there are so many problems with police leadership. It's not that they hate their bosses all the time. It's that the leadership has problems. The cops don't trust it.

I look back now, on my third anniversary at Stamford, 22 years after I went into Commissioner Murphy's office, all these years after I left the prosecutor's office, and what do I see about my colleagues? Whether its my 220 or so colleagues in cities with more than 100,000 residents, or the police chiefs I work with in Fairfield County, or the police chiefs in Connecticut, or just the police chiefs I know in person, the one thing that pains me is that there's a little secret about a lot of police chiefs that is hard to believe: Most police chiefs don't like cops. They hate cops.

And most cops know that. Most lieutenants know that. Most sergeants and captains and commanders know that. Somehow, you spend your life climbing and grappling and fighting your way to the top; yet when you get to the top, you spend your energy holding that job by both hands, and you feel the greatest threat to your job security is the cops. They're going to mess up at night; they are going to screw up; they are going to take you down.

You walk into most police departments, and the abyss between the chief's office and the rank and file is gigantic, and its hard for me to see. Maybe 20 years later, if I'm still around, I'll be one of those guys and say, "What happened?"

It's amazing: the union on one side of the table and the chiefs on the other, and they fight a lot. Are we ever going to trust each other? The rank and file don't show up for those exams I mentioned because they don't trust us.

Chiefs tend to promote loyalists. They spend their time looking out for you, and they end up controlling everyone around you. The atmosphere quickly becomes stifling. It quickly becomes one where you don't trust the people who work for you. The chiefs feel that the cops are going to mess up, that they're going to make poor decisions. They are not well-trained; they're not well regulated. At these police chiefs' meetings, the chiefs sit around telling war stories about how they were screwed by their cops and how life would be great at police departments if it wasn't for the cops that worked there.

You have to trust the people that work for you. If you give them trust, more often than not they won't break it. If you give them responsibility and authority, more often than not they will rise to the occasion. A chief can't do it alone.

If you bring a lot of rules and regulation, it becomes a problem. There's always one more study and one more regulation and one more thing to monitor it. The truth is, if you have the right people, the rules are irrelevant. It's not about the rules. I think it's about local control; it's about decentralizing; it's about coming in and being flexible. It's about investing in your people, and it's about looking for results.

Dean Esserman, the chief of police in Stamford, Connecticut, started his career as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York.


Dean Esserman

Senior Policy Analyst on International Economics