By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
Last month I wrote a column called Put ego aside, forget your career, and be a leader. In it I recounted the story of a sergeant and his lieutenant, who by all accounts was a toxic supervisor. I received dozens of e-mails from officers lamenting that they, too, were saddled with dysfunctional leadership. Not exactly a surprise since complaining and commiserating are among the things we cops do best. In addition to the e-mails, the comments that accumulated beneath the column included similar stories of woe. However, I recently received an email that particularly struck me. The young officer who wrote it did so after only the first day of the Street Survival Seminar.
I asked his permission to use it here and he agreed, but I had to, for what you will see to be obvious reasons, omit his name and the names of his departments. I chose to share this letter for a number of reasons:
• First and foremost, this young officer is very articulate
• He shared a very positive story about strong leadership in his first agency
• He contrasts that positive account with a description the toxicity in his current organization
• I believe it is a tale that will resonate with most who have spent any amount of time in law enforcement
Note at the end of the email he indicates that he was apprehensive about approaching me. His immediate supervisor was in attendance and this young officer didn’t want to be seen having a discussion with an outside trainer. I think this is both interesting and telling — if he is literally afraid to be seen talking with an officer outside of his agency, that’s a sure sign that the atmosphere pervasive in his department at present is one of fear and mistrust.
A quick note: Aside from where we have REDACTED names, this is the exact text of his letter — we have changed nothing, and the style and grammar are left completely in tact as originally written.
And now, the letter…
I am an officer of about 4 years, and have worked for two very different departments. My first agency was REDACTED, a small, but very busy agency, and my immediate supervisors as well as the command staff were excellent leaders. Training and officer safety was paramount, and the department took great pride in it's professionalism and effectiveness on the street. I believe most good officers want to be led by great leaders, and can achieve great things just by following good example and being inspired. John Quincy Adams said "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." When I was hired by my chief, (Unfortunately, also REDACTED) actually hired us two months before the academy began. He ran with us 2 miles a day, and then personally trained with us at the gym 5 days a week. He organized a study plan for the recruits (five of us) and we had the utmost respect for him and the department. He showed that he truly cared about us, that we were not just bodies, and he remained available to all officers. We all felt that he was someone we could trust, and someone we wanted to do good work for. I only left because I moved out of state.
My current agency, the (REDACTED), is going through many growing pains, and does not share the above attitude. In the last three years the agency has had a change in leadership particularly with a new Chief. Even though he seems to be working hard for the officers, many who worked under the previous Chief remain disgruntled, do not trust admin, do not welcome change or attempts to become more professional, and only perform at minimum levels. There is a great disconnect between our officers in many areas but, I personally believe responsibility for this begins with those in leadership roles. It is they who need to take charge and shape the department and it's officers into something great. I wish that our entire agency and command staff could attend the Street Survival Seminar, it would be a great place to kick start it back into shape- because although you are teaching "Street Survival" much of this course revives the feeling of what it means to be a police officer, why we chose this profession, and why we need to work together to be effective.
Many officers are struggling with the decision to stay, ride it out and try to continue to make improvements, or to find agencies which have more stability and structure. Several new officers, with only several months experience, are already making plans to leave because they are frustrated and believe things will never change. I am trying to make improvements where I can but I’m only a Patrol Officer I do not have the ability to make changes on the scale needed to turn things around. I am a former Army infantryman, and the training and experiences I received instilled in me many values that I will carry for the rest of my life. I will never give up, I will never surrender, and I will strive for perfection in my work, and work hard to exceed what is expected of me. I take pride in what I do, and I always try to do it well. I wish I could expect the same from everyone around me, not perfection, but the desire, the attempt, the struggle to improve ourselves and everything around us would be nice. For me it is very frustrating when I see young officers become complacent, or "retired on duty." - I cannot say "fuck it", though that is exactly what everyone around me is saying, when they are not busy arguing with each other...
I realize this situation is very complex, and there is too much to add here, but I would appreciate it if you could offer any advice, or any books which might be of help. I don't quite know how to deal with all of this. This situation has been festering for at least two years yet no changes are being made and there has been no attempt to improve morale. I realize this may seem off topic, but I feel the connection to officer safety and officer/department morale is huge. I originally sat down to send a quick "thank you" so I apologize for the lengthy letter. As I gathered my thoughts about my situation, I realized that I could not speak with you in person, as this is a lengthy topic, and my supervisor is attending the class! I don't think he liked your joke about uniform hats by the way!
Anyway, thank you for all you are doing. It is truly an awesome course, and I believe that every police officer, supervisor, and city council member should attend.
Next month, I’ll be doing an article outlining the common denominator traits of effective leaders. For now, I want to end this article with a point that may seem clichéd. Taking that risk, here goes:
Employees are assets and resources, not costs and potential liabilities.
This young man is an obvious asset — a creative, enthused, educated, and forward-thinking line officer. But what has the climate in his organization done to him? And what does that hold for the future?
First line supervisors set the tone and create the immediate communal spirit for the organization. If you are one of these line supervisors, ask yourself this question: What climate are you creating? Is it one teeming with trust and confidence or does it instill a sense of anxiety and dread?
Bottom line: it’s up to the leaders to lead. They set the tone.