Who's Really in Charge of the Police?

Police administration and reform go beyond just boots on the ground.

Posted Jun 04, 2020

In my February and May 2020 posts "Police Use of Force" and "Thin Blue Line Against Anarchy," I examined the legality of the use of force as well as the consequences of being a cop today as the most visible and vulnerable agent of a society’s government in the United States.

In the business of policing and most often with the use of force, the court of public opinion brings emotion and tension to a scene that already has enough of both. There is a great deal of speculation about what officers do (or don’t do), why, and what should happen as the result. Cries for justice are loudly pronounced.

When a use of force or police response is over, questions by the public will remain about the incident and its aftermath, setting into motion a string of often knee-jerk, reactive responses by governmental and special interest oversight through policies and legislation. This is the cycle of use of force in policing and is well known in the business. Public pleas for change are certainly okay—and always have been — but does the public truly understand who is ultimately in charge? It’s not the police officer on the street.  

As a cop-turned-professor with 10 years in uniform and the next 15 years in the academic classroom as a criminal justice and law enforcement instructor, trainer, and researcher, I have experienced the brutal totality of the criminal justice system from several different angles. Although there is overwhelming support for the police in the United States, savvy politics often undermines the scope and nature of what we ask our police officers to do. If you have difficulty filtering through mainstream and social media outlets to make an informed perspective or decision about the police response to George Floyd and its precipitous civil unrest, you are not alone.

Who's Minding the Shop? 

To create and maintain law and order within the dynamic of crime and criminality, where does the buck stop and who is responsible? In beginning to answer some of those questions, it’s important to first understand the basic anatomy of government as it relates to policing in the United States.

In the U.S., we have a democratic republic with a system of federalism that divides power and laws between federal, state, and local governments. It’s a vertical layer that behaves with a top-down, hierarchical, and chain-of-command approach. It seems clear cut and theoretically distinct but it is not. It’s often a shared, overarching, and overreaching process often without legitimate boundaries and appropriate accountability. 

By its very nature, our collective governments all have a spoon in the chili in regard to creating laws, policies, and ordinances, executing and judging those directives, oversight and fiscal management — all with the hopes of yielding a return on the investment. Add in human nature and you can imagine where this can go.

Police Anatomy and Politics 

There are roughly 327 million people in the U.S. and about 800,000 cops protecting them and enforcing the law. Not great odds. Uniformed, boots-on-the-ground patrol officers make up nearly 670,000 of those cops across 50 states. They are not elected or appointed. They apply to become cops and are hired in a similar fashion as everyone else. Helping people is their incentive — not money or power — even though they have some of each.

Like a military chain of command, they take orders and do what they are trained and told to do under the color of law through departmental policy, state, and federal law. Although it appears that they have much discretion and autonomy, they really don’t.

All police are tied to 13,000 law enforcement agencies who govern them. Although the police serve the public, they serve within a chain of command not unlike the military with mid-level supervisors and administrators. All of them ultimately serve a police chief or sheriff. The breadth and depth of a police command structure often depends upon the size and resources of each agency across the country — some are large but most of them are small or mid-sized.

Partisan politics are very much a part of United States law enforcement administration. In county government, a sheriff is elected by the residents of that county on a Republican, Democrat, or Independent ticket. The sheriff works with (not for) a county commission also made up local representatives from the community in both partisan and non-partisan elections. For uniformed county law enforcement officers, they are responsible to their direct supervisor, but the buck stops with the sheriff.

The sheriff is responsible for their cops and making sure they know and follow policy, laws, and training while ensuring that they have the training and tools they need to get the job done. The span of control for a sheriff, then, can yield many different directions tied to police unions, local government and officials (including county attorneys and judges), legislators, special interest or lobby groups, and of course their constituents who are the public that elects them.

Police chiefs are not elected nor are they explicitly tied to a political party, but are appointed by a mayor or city manager. That’s their boss. Different states and localities exercise either a mayor or city manager form of governance but the city councils or commissions, like counties, are also made up of representatives of the community in both partisan and non-partisan elections. For uniformed city law enforcement officers, they are responsible to their direct supervisor, but the buck stops with the chief.

The chief is responsible for their cops and making sure they know and follow policy, laws, and training while ensuring that they have the training and tools they need to get the job done. The span of control for a chief, then, can also yield many different directions tied to police unions, the agendas of their bosses and local government and officials (including city prosecutors and judges), legislators, and special interest or lobby groups.

Granted, there are so many variables that can’t all be accounted for in this post and a dozen ways it can be spun, so it is important to conduct your own, good research or take what you already know and connect the dots the best you can for your own informed points of view and, ultimately, action if you so choose.

Whether you take a micro or macro perspective, I will share with you that each law enforcement officer is responsible for their own actions. Period. It’s the way it is and the way it has been for decades. You won’t find a more stable illustration of self-restraint than an ordinary street cop. How can 670,000 uniformed patrol officers all be wrong?

What Can I Do? 

Policing is highly volatile, emotional, and political. With few exceptions, law enforcement officers are part of the government and the most visible agents of government. They deal with or pay for all sins of our society whether it is sociological, psychological, political, or financial. They have always been scapegoats when something goes wrong and they take those hits literally and figuratively. But who is really in charge?

If you’re looking for solutions instead of rhetoric, then consider this cause-tree or event-tree analysis: 

1. If you disagree with the law, take it up with your legislators — local, state, and federal. They are largely elected by the public and take their cues from political and financial systems of power — often special interest lobbyist groups;

2. If you disagree with the enforcement of the law, take it up with the law enforcement agency —namely the chief or sheriff. They are responsible for the execution of the law and accountability of their officers. They decide policy and procedure, coordinate and audit training, and manage complaints and enforcement actions. If you disagree with the results, don’t re-elect the sheriff. If it’s a police chief, talk to the mayor or city manager who appoints them. If that doesn’t work, contact their respective commissions;

3. If you disagree with the solicitation, fact-finding, and oversight of justice under the law, take it up with prosecutors and judges — they have more power than anyone else in criminal justice. If you disagree with those results, make sure they no longer hold the office;

4. If you disagree with a police officer’s actions, don’t confront the officer or the general police force. For safety reasons, this can end up worse for everyone. Whether a large or small grievance, pursue it through the court and legal system of that jurisdiction and/or file a direct, legitimate complaint against that officer with the agency they work for. Use the legal processes afforded to you under the Constitution. If you disagree with that outcome, take it up with the legal system of that jurisdiction or complaint system of that particular agency;

5. Search and discover special interest lobbyist groups and unions and reach out to them or find out how they are tied to public policy, campaign spending, and legislators. Do they truly advocate for and represent your values and the values of those who serve you? These indirect groups often work for and alongside public government. They are a bit more tricky to navigate because they are not organized like government, not always seen or heard, and work mostly from behind the scenes fighting power with power — legitimate or not. Remember Frederick Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Justice and Reform

All of these processes are here for our attempts at justice or reform but it's always important to put faces and names to the actual problem. Certainly, there is always enough blame to go around but in police administration, including the use of police force, you have to keep your eye on the ball and not the score — that’s how you hit it. You also have to trust and have faith in the legal and political processes of our nation's government and laws and perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road. We don't have the same knowledge, experience, and thresholds.

Nonetheless, these processes are here for us in criminal justice and law enforcement reform if we so choose. They can start at the lowest levels of local government and special districts and work its way up to the state and federal government. Other times, you can start at the top or in the middle. Regardless of the route you take, just keep in mind who is minding the shop, how, and why. Not everyone is bought and sold and there are many good, law-abiding, and ethical employees in the government at all levels, but you have to legitimately start somewhere and stick with it all the way through.

Copyright © 2020 by Brian A. Kinnaird


Beyond Good and Evil : Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. London, England; New York, New York, USA: Penguin Books, 1990.