By Dr. George Thompson
From my ten years in the world of university teaching and my 23 years in law enforcement, both as an officer and as an instructor, I am convinced that leading and supervising officers requires what might be useful in other professions—on the street presence!
Officers can be uniquely challenging to supervise because they themselves supervise hundreds, if not thousands of people daily, many of whom are under the most extreme influences and conditions. Street patrol is by definition a supervisory job!
For years I have advocated an approach/theory, which more often than not, raises eyebrows, if not blood pressure. Many chiefs and sheriffs don’t want to hear it, and many more in middle management are afraid to try it.
I call it “The Hook-Down Theory,” that says, “To supervise street officers you yourself must be one!” Translated, this means “The higher you go in rank, the deeper, proportionally, you must “hook-down” to the street level.”
(I have come to the conclusion that perhaps we can debate the hours or days I suggest below, but not the fundamental approach itself.)
To fully understand this approach, you must believe as I believe that patrol—street work of various kinds—is the most important of all police functions. Every department should shape its way of doing business, from top to bottom, on this basic assumption. That means that the best cars, the best equipment and best support services should go first to patrol. The best training should be available to patrol — first. Good officers with experience should be our FTOs, our field trainers, and they should receive extra pay and benefits for doing what should be rightly defined as the second most important job in the department — training and developing the future department.
The third most important assignment, of course, is supervising sergeant, the line supervisor that makes it all “go” on the street. His or her job is to train, evaluate, support and back his/her troops in the field. Being there is a necessity!
Yet as simple and true as this all may sound, it is a rarity in the modern police department. Every department says patrol is the key, but few departments put their money where their mouth is in their allocation of funds, equipment or rewards.
Bosses drive the good cars while patrol works the squads with 100,000-plus miles! If one stays in patrol too long, he/she is regarded as a “drone,” someone who is going nowhere. Our FTOs are all too frequently young and inexperienced, with three-five years on the job. Why? It not the fault of the young selected FTO; it’s the fault of the system that says the job itself is not important enough to make important. If it takes (and I believe it does) at least five-six years to make a seasoned officer in a busy district, what does this say about the level of expertise being exhibited by these young FTOs?
But let’s assume for the moment that the reader of this article believes patrol is the critical arm of law enforcement—certainly what any citizen would believe as well—how can the “Hook Down Theory” help a supervisor make effective contact with his troops?
Here’s how it goes: The street officer is 100% on the street. Once promoted, a sergeant’s time should break 80%-20%, meaning 80% of his/her time is spent in the field with the troops, watching, evaluating, training and supporting the officers throughout the shift while 20% or less is spent in the office doing paperwork.
Many officers report they hardly ever see their sergeants during shift. And many sergeants tell me they have too much paperwork to leave the office. Others tell me they would like to be with their troops more but such relationship is actively discouraged by upper management.
Ideally, the sergeant’s “office” is his patrol car. Because his job is first-line supervision (meaning out there) he must lead from the front, never from behind or from a desk inside.
With promotion, the sergeant now becomes a lieutenant, and with increased planning and paperwork, the percentages should rightly shift, ideally to 30-70, meaning 30% of the lieutenant’s time would be in uniform, working and supporting his troops, and even answering some minor calls to relieve pressure from patrol and to keep his/her skills fresh. Wherever I mention these figures in classes I get guffaws of laughter and comments like, “Never in My Department!”
If we could get middle management to come out with us, think of the benefits to all. First, the lieutenant earns instant credibility from his troops. Without exception, when I hear lieutenants praised in a department, always do I hear the phrase, “He’s one of us; he’s out with us!”
Indeed, I teach a “Thompson Law” that says: "The more mundane a task a supervisor performs for his troops, the greater his credibility in their eyes." Having a lieutenant stop by a DUI arrest, for example, and offer to inventory the car or take a prisoner to jail or get some additional witness reports will immense respect from the troops.
The supervisor does not want to interfere or take over from the working officer—rather, he wants to simply support and help where possible. Indeed, more calls like burglary reports could be taken (and in a more timely fashion) were middle managers out there helping—and that is real community policing! Too many middle managers inside make us ‘fat” in the middle and sluggish to respond to community problems.
Leaders lead by their example and new leaders are created by the examples they are given when they are in the ranks, at whatever level. Absence is no example! But such an emphasis cannot be mandated: Rather, it must come from top down, so the hook goes higher yet to drop down effectively. A captain could profitably spend three shifts a months—24 hrs.—in uniform, doing real police work. Were he to work each of the three shifts per month, he would truly know what was happening on the streets and could better brief top management. To have a captain or higher help you with crime scene tape or a report is an uplifting event. Morale soars when teamwork is displayed!
Assistant chiefs and chief deputies could likewise usefully spend 10% or more of their time per week being out there, chatting with the troops, monitoring activity and contacting the community—in uniform.
Say what you want about Chief Daryl Gates of the LAPD; his men and women loved him precisely because they saw him as one of them! Once while teaching LAPD Verbal Judo I was with one of the SWAT officers late one night in South Central and saw Chief Gates helping his officers with a crime scene by keep spectators away while they strung some tape. I said, “Is that really the Chief out there?” And the officer replied, “Yes, he often can’t sleep and comes out with us!” The day he was forced out after the Rodney King affair (March 3, 1991), officers had tears in their eyes. When I asked why, again I got the same answer: “He was one of us.” No greater compliant can a chief (or any supervisor) get.
And, everywhere do we hear in police departments across the country and around the world the same plaintive cry: “Those up at top have lost contact, have no idea of what it’s like out here now.”
What if, for health reasons or pressure from above, a supervisor is not able to stay close as described to his /her troops? The “Hook Down” can be modified. Here’s one way: Read the field reports carefully from your office, note what you particularly like about an officer’s performance, then leave your office and reach out to that officer, commenting specifically on his/her work that day. Think how uplifting it would be to have a Captain come to you, the officer, and say: “You know, John, I wanted to thank you for how you handled that scene at the Windsor Bar the other night. You stayed calm despite provocations and you brought the scene to a successful close—nice work!”
Officer John now goes away feeling good—someone noticed his work! —and you, Captain, have earned credibility! Though unseen, you have made your presence felt and he feels good about your super-sight. You can’t lead if you can’t see, and you can’t see if your not there.
What if you are a seasoned supervisor and you have made these mistakes of distance and separation? Can you fix it? Yes! Follow the “Hook-Down Theory” immediately. Reintegrate yourself with your team by reconnecting yourself to the job that your people do. Do the little things to help and support; let your people know you are there for them and can be trusted. Follow another Thompson Law: look down to your people and ye shall rise! Focus on their needs and lead by example. Earn the street credibility that only comes from being there!
True Leadership is Contact Power. You earn your authority and believability through close contact with your people. Distance and separation are the evil twins of “garbage” supervision and ineffective management. Avoid them at all costs!
About the author
If you like the flavor of this article, read Doc Thompson’s latest book (with Gregory A. Walker) on Leadership: THE VERBAL JUDO WAY OF LEADERSHIP: Empowering the Thin Blue Line From the Inside UP! Available from Doc’s web site, www.verbaljudo.com or from Looseleaf Publications 1-800-647-5547. Doc gives discounts for multiple orders.