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Can supervisory style influence correctional officers’ use-of-force behavior?

There is evidence to suggest that a correctional leader’s style can affect the UOF behavior of their officers


Corrections officers and “prisoners” stage a mock prison riot to test non-lethal stopping technology at a 2011 event at a decommissioned penitentiary in Moundsville, W.V.

Photo West Virginia Division of Corrections

By Dr. Tommy Sickels, C1 Contributor

Law enforcement are formally trained to use force against individuals, and in doing so, they learn the details or differences in what is considered unnecessary and necessary force. The daily lives of American officers have them struggling to find the appropriate ground in using the correct amount of force during their tactical duties. Use-of-force does not become a problem until the amount of force used becomes excessive or unnecessary. At this time, it may become a civil liability issue which could cost a law enforcement agency a significant amount of money.

Throughout history, law enforcement has had the firearm and nightstick available (Alpert & MacDonald, 2001). Therefore, use-of-force when combined with other devices was the strength of American law enforcement for several hundred years (Aveni, 2003) and has aided many officers in the performance of their duties. The issue becomes: what is the acceptable level of force in relation to how uncooperative a person may become before the officer decides to use such force? Variables can be examined to see if a relationship or correlation exists. In this essay, the discussion centers on whether or not officer use-of-force has a correlation with leadership style. Furthermore, the author found these variables should be analyzed against the six levels of the “force continuum.”

Force Continuum
Correctional officers at all levels have been challenged with individuals resisting law enforcement efforts, especially in arrest matters. Officers have been taught a particular form of the use-of-force continuum that supplements any level of threat they have encountered. The assumption is that use-of-force has been used by many officers in split-second responses. While necessary, their actions were not intentional or a part of well thought-out plans (Petrowski, 2002). There are expectations as follows: in use-of-force by law enforcement, officers should be in control of every event they encounter (Cronin & Reicher, 2006).

In a study completed in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Indianapolis, Indiana, which was titled Project on Policing Neighborhoods or POPN data was obtained during observations made at both agencies, and while making personal observations of the police in action at both of these jurisdictions. In their study, a specific coding scheme was devised by the researchers to assist them in identifying instances where the level of force used by officers did not necessarily match up with the level of resistance used by offenders (Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002). It was determined what influenced the decision by officers within the levels of the force continuum by using the POPN data from the research (Terrill, 2005).

Use-of-force and the force continuum have been used in American law enforcement for many years. Although the force continuum isn’t widely used today by the law enforcement community, it was used for more than 25 years and to this day, continues to be a threshold in terms of defining levels of resistance and levels in use-of-force. Department policies regarding officer training have evolved around the force continuum models as they have been refined over the past 25 years (Gallo, Collyer, & Gallagher, 2008). The purpose of the use-of-force continuum was to provide direction to officers about the varying forms of resistance (Terrill, 2005). Correctional officers have been instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the given situation and to acknowledge this, an officer may move from one part of the continuum to another, up or down, depending on the circumstances (Terrill, 2005).

There are six levels to the use-of-force continuum; they are:

1. Officer Presence — No resistance, no force can be used.
2. Verbal Compliance — force may verbal but not-physical.
3. Passive Resistance — empty-hand control, officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation.
4. Active Resistance — by using intermediate weapons including the baton, Taser, and physical strikes.
5. Aggressive resistance — intermediate weapons such as a “flash-bang” or rubber bullets, intensified techniques of self-defense, but non-deadly force.
6. Deadly-force resistance — deadly force (Miller, 2010).

Leadership Styles
There are many forms and styles of leadership, sometimes called supervisory styles. Active leaders use a “hands-on-approach” to supervising, which allows them to take speedy actions with their subordinates. Passive, “management-by-exception” leaders will leave subordinates alone, but when they get into a performance problem these leaders will enforce action against them, taking whatever action may be necessary to correct an issue. The supervisors’ actions may result in punishment or disciplinary action for subordinates (Kieu, 2010). The transactional leadership style may produce unwelcome outcomes as this style does not provide any type of motivation for subordinates to achieve success or a way to improve employee performance (Kieu, 2010). Three forms of leadership style will be discussed in this essay; they are: Transactional Leadership, Transformational Leadership and Laissez-Faire Leadership.

Transactional Leadership — Transactional leaders offer a system of rewards and punishment to subordinates and this style is dependent on the subordinate’s performance (Bass & Riggio, 2006). This system will not contemplate the subordinate’s personal development or goals. There is no attention given to the subordinates’ personal development or objectives (Northouse, 2006). Employees may receive rewards as long as they meet the leader’s expectations. Disciplinary action may be used if subordinates do not meet the expectations of the leader (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

The philosophy of management-by-exception and a contingent rewards system is the operational system of transactional leaders, a contingent rewards system. The details of a rewards and disciplinary system can be the basis of a contingent rewards system, and depends on subordinates knowing facts by agreement with their leader. In review of this style, subordinates may perform according to the rewards or sanctions offered by these leaders (Kieu, 2010).

Transformational Leadership — Transformational leaders motivate and assist subordinates in succeeding in the organization. The transformational leader has the ability to inspire subordinates to perform beyond their expectations (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Transformational leadership leads the way to gender equality within law enforcement organizations (Antrobus, 2000). Above the other forms of leadership styles, transformational leadership may have the upper edge of precipitating change, along with other organizational activities (Deluga & Souza, 1991). At times, transformational leaders acknowledged large amounts of admiration from many of their supporters (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Transformational leaders inspire subordinates to achieve their personal and workplace objectives in making commitments to improving job satisfaction for all employees (Kirkbride, 2006).

Laissez-Faire Leadership — These leaders are known as “passive avoidance” leaders and they share characteristics with the leadership style called “management-by-exception” leaders; they do not set workplace standards with subordinates (Avolio & Bass, 2004). Laissez-Faire leaders will not provide any input or direction to their subordinates (Lewin et al, 1953). This leadership style may be the least active and the most ineffective method of supervising employees. Avolio and Bass (2004) labeled this style as “passive avoidance leadership.” Also known for its “hands-off” method where leadership does not occur (Northouse, 2006). These leaders do not get involved in operational matters. They hope the matter will go away or disappear in some fashion as they choose to ignore any real problem that may exist. Typically, these leaders may be seen as aloof and at times they may be seen as “social-loafers.” These leaders give very little thought to their organization and they avoid any leadership responsibility (Bass & Avolio, 1994).

Research Study
In a quantitative research study conducted with officers of the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department located in New Albany, Indiana, the author was able to significantly extrapolate data from surveys and a field scenario experiment. The Floyd County Sheriff’s department consists of over ninety-plus deputies and jail officers. It is located across the Ohio River from Louisville, KY in a metropolitan area of at least 800,000 people. Fifteen officers were evaluated in this scenario; for our purpose this type of experiment is known as an ex post facto field scenario experiment. The same scenario was played out each time the scenario was presented and the same actors were used. This process took 3 days because of scheduling. The only difference was that there were 15 different officers used; one for each of the 15 scenarios.

For each of the 15 officers who completed the scenario, their immediate supervisor’s leadership style was synchronized with them. The leadership style of their supervisor was determined by the results of self-evaluation surveys completed by the supervisors. The survey was the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire MLQ - “rater form.” The Spearman Rank-Ordered correlations between the 15 leadership scores and the officer’s use-of-force scenario evaluation rating were used in this study. Spearman rank-ordered correlations were used instead of the more common Pearson product-moment correlations due to the small sample size (N = 15). The results of Spearmen indicated 7 of 15 correlations to be significant at the p <.10 level. Cohen (1988) and others typically use the rule of thumb when interpreting correlations that an absolute value of |rs = .10| (about 1 percent of the shared variance explained) would be considered to be a weak correlation, |rs = .30| (about 9 percent of the shared variance explained) would be considered to be a moderate correlation, and |rs = .50| (about 25 percent of the shared variance explained) would be considered to be a strong correlation. In addition, using the Cohen (1988) guideline, 7 of 15 (leadership characteristics) correlations were considered to be strong correlations. Even though there were 7 indications that proved to be significant, the results of these 7 indications are significant in terms of proving leadership style is related to use-of-force behavior.

Conclusion and Recommendations
This study was undertaken to evaluate the relationship between leadership styles and “use-of-force” by concentrating on research in transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles as they apply to the “use-of-force” employed by police officers measured against the six levels in the use-of-force continuum. Past research has suggested that supervisors may influence patrol officers’ behavior, and in doing so they should manage this influence with responsibility (Agassi et al., 2001; Banker et al., 2004). This study increased the knowledge of what a law enforcement agency may have about the types of leadership styles or profiles that exist within their agency. Many law enforcement agencies do not know where they fit in when it comes to leadership style or how their supervisory team compares with other similar agencies. The MLQ by Avolio and Bass (2004) was used to identify the leadership style of the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department, New Albany, IN.

Quantitative research using published instruments was appropriate for gathering data pertinent to leadership styles of the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department and the six dimensions of the “use-of-force continuum.” Quantified data results of a field scenario that involved a “use-of-force” scenario was used in another analysis. Officers participating in the field scenario were evaluated against the six dimensions of the “use-of-force continuum.” This evaluation was correlated with the results of the “Sergeants Leadership Style Questionnaire” that officers completed on their current field supervisor. Data analysis shows the implications of this research with regards to leadership styles and use-of-force by police officers in the Floyd County Sheriff’s department. Although this research focused on a micro-organization its intent was to represent a much larger picture of the law enforcement community.

This study showed that the more transactional leadership was perceived the less force was used, and when laissez-faire leadership was perceived officers used more force. It has been obvious from the findings that leadership style does play a role in how use-of-force may be delivered by officers. Also, the use-of-force behavior among officers under transformational leaders was significantly lower compared to those under the laissez-faire leader. Transformational leaders are leaders who inspire their subordinates to attain their personal and workplace goals. These leaders are able to instill this commitment in employees by increasing job satisfaction (Kirkbride, 2006).

The first recommendation involves leadership style practices in law enforcement agencies. How a law enforcement agency develops, its supervisors may be central to the function of delivering services. The way police agencies develop supervisors has comprehensive implications regarding organizational structure and function. Supervisory behaviors obviously affect how a workplace climate evolves (Goleman, 2000). It may be imperative for law enforcement agencies to identify and promote leadership styles that support less use-of-force and eliminate those leadership styles that promote more use-of-force. There is a need to inspire leadership development and related programs involving all employees. Supervisors especially need to develop an understanding that establishes and endorses better roles for leaders and followers. This study has determined that there may be a statically significant relationship in leadership style and use-of-force behavior.

The current study concentrates on leadership style and use-of-force and it may be the first study that has used leadership style and use-of-force as independent and dependent variables. It could also be the first study that used a field scenario’s results to correlate use-of-force and leadership style. Prior research has compared leadership style and numerous other variables, but the results in use-of-force have the potential to save law enforcement agencies millions of dollars. Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to reduce unnecessary costs where it can be effectively identified. This study also identifies the possible benefits that may be achieved through the knowledge base of leadership styles in governmental agencies (Van Wart, 2003). It is imperative that law enforcement agencies improve their understanding of the role leadership style plays in improved methods of training (Van Wart, 2003).

Future consideration should be given in the study of the impact of holding police departments accountable for their officers’ actions (Maple, 1999). Planning and developing methods of adjusting to complaints of police violence can be compared to the investigation of crimes against persons. Making police leaders and administrators accountable for their officers’ actions and taking measures to ensure these events do not happen again should be a priority in law enforcement (Maple, 1999). Another concern for future research involves the perception officers develop of their supervisor. Research from this study indicates there may be a small or slight shift in supervisory style from ratings by officers. Higher marks were received by transformational leaders, followed by transactional and then the laissez-faire leadership styles. Although one point separated each of these leadership styles, analysis of the research revealed a correlation that the more transformational and transactional leadership styles were exercised, the less use-of-force occurred. The opposite was true when it came to the laissez-fair leadership style; the more laissez-faire leadership style was perceived, higher use-of-force was exercised.

About The Author
Tommy Sickels is a 28-year police veteran who retired from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (2007) and is currently a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix. Dr. Sickels completed his Masters in Public Administration from Indiana University and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Phoenix. He has been actively studying use-of-force and leadership styles of police officers and supervisors in the Midwest for over five years.

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