Police Leadership Style and Use of Force


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

PoliceOne.com recently discussed a study conducted by Dr. Tommy Sickles, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix, that sought to determine the effects of leadership style on use of force in law enforcement.

The three leadership styles evaluated were:

  1. Transactional leadership, wherein rewards and punishments are given based on the performance of subordinates.
  2. Transformational leadership, wherein leaders promote performance through motivation and inspiration.
  3. Laissez-faire leadership, wherein leaders provide little to no guidance to their subordinates.

Dr. Sickles conducted his study in conjunction with 15 officers from the Floyd County Sherrif’s Department in New Albany, Indiana.  Data collection included surveys and a field scenario.  The scenario placed each officer in a situation likely to be encountered while on duty.  The primary measure in the scenario was the level of force deemed appropriate by the officer.

As Dr. Sickles discussed, levels of force are of six types:

  1. Officer Presence – No force is used.
  2. Verbal Compliance – Only verbal means of force are used.
  3. Passive Resistance – Physical force is used, but only with empty hands.
  4. Active Resistance – The officer may use weapons, such as a baton or taser.
  5. Aggressive Resistance – The officer may use stronger weapons such as rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, and non-lethal means of empty hand self defense.
  6. Deadly-Force Resistance – The officer uses deadly force.

Each of the participants’ supervisors also completed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire to link supervisory style to each of the 15 officers completing the scenario.

The study suggested that transactional leadership (using rewards and punishment) was the least  associated with a higher force level.  Alternatively, as leadership styles approached Laissez-Faire (little to no guidance), higher force levels were more likely.  Transformational leadership was associated with higher force levels than Transactional leadership, but significantly less so than with the Laissez-Faire approach.

Be sure to read the full article for more details and Dr. Sickels’ recommendations based on the findings, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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