Unity of command is a management principle that establishes a hierarchy where a subordinate reports or is only responsible to a single superior directly above their own position. The principle is important as it forms the basis of an incident management system. It establishes clear responsibilities and channels of communications across the hierarchy.
In law enforcement, the officers are all ranked and have a superior officer who they are report to. It is required that before an issue gets to the top of the hierarchy, it should have passed through the relevant subordinates and their superiors. This ensures that matters that can be handled at a lower level are resolved and allows room for the higher levels to focus on other difficult or more pressing issues. The same is required as the flow of information goes down the hierarchy to avoid conflict arising from information being received from different superiors by a single subordinate and creating confusion.
Unity of command also plays a major role in efficient and effective mobilization of teams in response to incidents. The teams are coordinated towards a specific goal and are organized to perform their tasks by reacting to information from a single source.
“Unity of command” simply refers to an organizational structure designed to ensure that each employee or member of an organization reports to only one person above him or her. Also referred to as “chain of command,” and used in both the military and law enforcement, but also in many other types of organizations, unity of command simplifies or clarifies management by presenting each member or employee a designated superior to whom he or she is expected to report. In law enforcement, as in the military, ranks are used to designate position within the organizational hierarchy. Patrolmen and women report up their chains of command to corporals and sergeants, who report to their lieutenant, who report to the captain, and so on. Respect for one’s chain of command is expected of all police officers, and violating that chain of command by reporting to a lieutenant or captain without first consulting one’s immediate superior – in effect, the corporal or sergeant – is frowned upon, and can hurt one’s career.
Unity of command serves the essential purpose also of ensuring that higher-ranking officers are not unnecessarily inundated with personnel matters that could be handled further down the chain of command.