Change in Police Organizations: Perceptions, Experiences, and the Failure to Launch

AuthorJoseph A. Schafer,Sean P. Varano
Published date01 November 2017
Date01 November 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(4) 392 –410
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986217724532
Change in Police
Organizations: Perceptions,
Experiences, and the Failure
to Launch
Joseph A. Schafer1 and Sean P. Varano2
Studies and accounts of change in police organizations frequently emphasize case
studies of specific efforts enacted during relatively discrete periods of time in one or a
few agencies. The narratives often emphasize the success of change efforts or seek to
explain why initiatives failed in the case study agency. While instructive, such accounts
do not provide broader insights into successes and failures with change across longer
periods of time, differing types of change, and diverse organizational contexts. Using
survey data from mid-career police supervisors attending the FBI National Academy
program, this study considers change experiences. In particular, consideration is given
to the frequency of change, its results, and the factors associated with successful and
failed outcomes.
organizational change, police organizations, leadership, successful reform
Organizational change in police organizations is often a stigmatized and controversial
process. Scholars have long lamented the barriers, obstacles, and sources of resistance
toward achieving successful outcomes in the pursuit of change and reform (Greene &
Mastrofski, 1988; King, 2009; Langworthy, 1986; Maguire, 2003; Mastrofski &
Willis, 2010), leading some to liken bringing about change in policing to “bending
1Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA
2Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joseph A. Schafer, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Southern Illinois University, Faner
Hall, Carbondale, IL 62901, USA.
724532CCJXXX10.1177/1043986217724532Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeSchafer and Varano
Schafer and Varano 393
granite” (Guyot, 1979). In reality, however, the history of American policing is a his-
tory of change and evolution (Mastrofski & Willis, 2010; Walker, 1977; Zhao, 1996).
While that change process has not always been linear, police organizations and the
broader police profession in the United States have been on a slow and continual tra-
jectory of change (Uchida, 2010) even if the degree of success associated with many
major changes initiatives might be called into question (Cochran, Bromley, & Swando,
2002; Zhao, 1996).
Literature examining the change process in policing and police organizations has
often focused on either case studies of agency-specific implementation efforts or the
broader diffusion of innovative practices and approaches across the profession. This
case study approach, while informative, frequently fails to capture whether and how
change efforts have affected the larger context of police personnel and/or organiza-
tions. As meaningful organizational change is often a long-term process, case studies
limited to discrete points in time often fail to explain the bigger picture. The case study
approach more often than not tells “success” stories and systematically omits any sub-
stantive discussion about failed change efforts. When patterns of innovation are con-
sidered, the emphasis is on the decision to innovate, not failed efforts at bringing
innovation into organizations. This follows a larger tradition in the social sciences of
publication bias toward successful, as opposed to failed, interventions (see Franco,
Malhotra, & Simonovits, 2014; Kellerman, 2004). The result is that little is known
about the broader experiences police leaders have with change across its life cycle,
particularly efforts that fail or do not fully achieve their promised potential.
This study examines how mid-career police supervisors have experienced change
processes of varying foci across differing organizational contexts, but focusing par-
ticularly on failed change efforts. Operating from the premise that organizational
change is something often experimented with and something that frequently results in
failure, this study adds to the literature by illuminating the prevalence of change efforts
in police organizations and how police managers navigate the world of failed change.
Data are drawn from surveys completed by participants in the FBI National Academy
(FBINA) program. Although not a statistically representative national sample, the
FBINA provides a unique opportunity to glean insights from supervisors working for
agencies of all sizes and types from across the United States. Although the data are not
specific to one type of change effort (i.e., the implementation of intelligence-led polic-
ing strategies or the deployment of a less-lethal weapon in patrol operations), they
provide a broader perspective on the change process.
Literature Review
Over the past 50 years, studies examining organizational change have yielded a variety
of perspectives on implementation success or failure as it relates to processes, the role
leadership, personnel perceptions and commitment, and environmental factors (Decker
et al., 2012; Jones, Jimmieson, & Griffiths, 2005; Lok & Crawford, 1999; Piderit,
2000; Reichers, Wanous, & Austin, 1997). Change is complex and uncertain, in many
cases moving in anything but a linear fashion or as initially envisioned. Police

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