5 powerful moments leaders won't want to miss

You do not need to be chief of police to make moments memorable for the officers in your agency

By Sergeant Christopher Littrell

I recently read "The Power of Moments" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The authors detail how normal life events, like the first day at work, can be turned into defining moments that shape culture, elevate attitudes and inspire change. Based on their research, they found that defining moments are created with one or more of the following four elements: Elevation, insight, pride and connection.

This book got me thinking about how we treat such events in law enforcement. Are we taking advantage of life events to maximize our success, build stronger relationships and retain our best employees? What if law enforcement leaders, from the rank and file to department heads, capitalized on these moments? 

Cadet Jonathan Mark Steed, right, smiles as his father, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Lt. Mark Steed, left, has difficulty in pinning the Mississippi Highway Patrol badge on him, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, during their graduation ceremony, in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Cadet Jonathan Mark Steed, right, smiles as his father, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Lt. Mark Steed, left, has difficulty in pinning the Mississippi Highway Patrol badge on him, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, during their graduation ceremony, in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

All law enforcement officers can be part of this process, affecting change in their sphere of influence. Here are five powerful moments law enforcement leaders won’t want to miss.

1. First day

Before their first day of work arrives, assign a liaison officer to be the point of contact with the new hire. Some agencies use training officers/sergeants for this role, while other agencies use recruiters. Make sure the new employee knows all the crucial details of their first day of work. There should be no surprises.

Start the day with the swearing-in ceremony. Make it a family event. Invite the local news media. Chief, wear your uniform and have the new officer wear theirs. This moment signifies the culmination of hard work and determination. Being in uniform is a memorable, picture-worthy moment.

After the ceremony is over, there should be a more intimate meeting with time for Q&A with the chief, the new hire and family members. End the day with the liaison officer giving the family a tour of the police station and introducing them to officers throughout the agency. Now, send the officer home to celebrate with family and friends. I know it is not a full 8-hour day. But sitting the officer down to read rules and regulations or to mull through the mountain of paperwork with human resources will diminish the moments you just created. If the officer is required to work 8 hours, schedule some range time or a ride-along with another officer.

“The lack of attention paid to an employee’s first day is mind-boggling. What a wasted opportunity to make a new team member feel included and appreciated.” ‒ Chip Heath & Dan Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

I recall my first day of work at two different organizations. At one, the liaison officer and his sergeant were clear communicators. Before the first day of work, they issued me a full array of new leather gear, freshly tailored uniforms and a pristine Sig Sauer P226 .40 caliber pistol. When I arrived for my swearing-in ceremony, I looked sharp and felt on top of the world. In contrast, at another agency, the liaison officer issued a combination of used and new police gear. I arrived on my first day of work without a name tag or a gun. At one agency, I felt valued and proud to be part of the team.  At the other, I felt like an afterthought.  

2. End of Probation

Most agencies have probationary periods where officers can be fired if they are not meeting department standards. During this period, officers are under constant scrutiny from the watchful eye of their field training officers (FTOs) and sergeants. Finally, after over a year of hard work, they pass their probationary period. This is a significant achievement in a young officer’s career and an opportunity to celebrate.

As a patrol sergeant, I found an easy way to capitalize on this moment without any additional costs. Officers at my agency are not issued personalized business cards until they complete their probationary period. Most officers do not receive their business cards until months later. I decided to track the exact date officers passed probation. I coordinated with the police administration to have their freshly produced cards on my desk waiting for that day. Then in roll call, I acknowledged the officer's accomplishment and presented them with the box of cards. Those cards serve as a reminder of their hard work.

Officers do not need to be in a formal leadership position to make this a powerful moment. If you know one of your partners just passed probation, take them to lunch or coffee. Take a moment to point out the strengths you have seen in their work.

3. Career Milestones

Numerous career milestones have the potential for being defining moments, both for the officer and the entire organization. These include appointments to specialty positions, promotions, awards and longevity.

“People need recognition and a sense of worth as much as they need food and water.” ‒ Colin Powell, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership

Career milestones can be recognized through ceremonies, plaques, coffee and cake, or intentional words of affirmation in front of their peers. Regardless of the method, make it classy. It does not have to cost a lot, but it needs to be genuine.

I recall a time I learned that a senior patrol officer saved a woman’s life. He responded to a routine welfare check where the reporting party had not heard from their loved one for days. Upon arrival, he got no answer at the door. The senior officer took the extra time to call the reporting party and used creative ways to gain access to the back yard. Once in the back yard, he could see the victim lying on the floor inside the home. The officer quickly used his Miranda card to pick the lock and gain access to the residence. Medics arrived and provided lifesaving treatment. The Miranda card was destroyed in the process. After learning of this, I contacted our training sergeant and was given a new Miranda card. At the end of shift, with his peers standing around, I recognized the officer’s thoroughness and ingenuity and issued him a new Miranda card. Later the officer was recognized by command staff with a formal lifesaving award ceremony. The officer later thanked me for the extra work in recognizing what officers do regularly.

4. Tragedy, Loss and Crisis

One of the most universal experiences all humans share is loss. At some point, an officer at your agency is going to wade through a tragedy or crisis that knocks them off their feet. This is an opportunity to put words into action. You tell your officers you care about them. Partners say they have each other’s back. But actions speak louder than words.

"Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. All losses are bad, only bad in different ways. No two losses are ever the same. Each loss stands on its own and inflicts a unique kind of pain. What makes each loss so catastrophic is it is devastating, cumulative, and irreversible nature." ‒ Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss

Go visit the officer. You do not need to know what to say. Less is more. Express sorrow and reassure them you are there for them. Be present. Be empathetic. Be genuine. If the officer is extremely private, send flowers or a card. Call and offer condolences, time off and support. Consider organizing other people to provide meals and/or do chores around the house. Some LE spouse groups do this on their own. Each circumstance will be unique, so be flexible and respectful.

I spoke with one officer who told me his moment of crisis. He had just been hired for his dream job as a police officer. His wife was pregnant with their first child. He was two weeks into the police academy, separated three hours from his wife when he and his wife realized there was something wrong with the baby. After seeing a specialist, they were told that they could either terminate the pregnancy or deliver a dead baby. The officer described the next 24 hours as a “big cloud.” In a haze, he knew he only had one option; quit the academy and return home to be with his wife. He spent the night packing his bags and saying his goodbyes to classmates.

The next morning, he called his sergeant, broke the news to him and told him he was quitting. To his surprise, his sergeant told him not to quit. In quick order, the sergeant called the chief, and the chief sent a formal letter to the academy advising he was pulling the officer from instruction and would send him back for a future class. Since the officer already had a limited commission as a reserve police officer, the chief decided to put the officer in the field training program and keep him working. Peer officers donated leave so he could attend endless doctor visits. About four months later, the officer and his wife welcomed their daughter into this world.

After telling me this, the officer summed it up by saying, “We are all human and things happen.” He added, “I am in debt to this agency.” Well done chief, sergeant and officers! 

5. Retirement

Retirement celebrations should be anything but mundane. LEOs see the worst of our society. They go where most would cringe to protect those who cannot protect themselves. After years of service, countless hours working nights, weekends and holidays, officers should be honored for the selfless service.

“When a person retires after a long career, the moment is a hybrid of a transition and a milestone. Yet retirement celebrations tend toward the mundane: a sheet cake in a conference room with some hastily convened co-workers.” ‒ Chip Heath & Dan Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

One Washington State law enforcement agency combines the traditional coffee and cake ceremony with some elevating moments. The administration works with the police union/association to make it a simple, classy event. The police union has taken it upon themselves to purchase every retiring officer a shadow box designed by a local craft business full of badges, patches and memorabilia. Admin pushes out announcements to the local media and community partners, inviting them to the event. The chief culminates the ceremony by speaking of the officer's impact on our community and by issuing the officer their retired officer credentials; a retired custom retired police badge, brand new leather badge wallet and retired police ID. 

Making the Moments Memorable

Moments are happening constantly, all around us. We get to choose whether these life events are forgettable or remarkable. You do not need to be a chief of police to make moments memorable. Chose to be a leader in the sphere of influence you are in. Look for moments, big and small, where you can recognize the amazing brothers and sisters who protect our community.

About the author

Sergeant Christopher Littrell has been a law enforcement officer in Washington State for 14 years. He has had the opportunity to serve as a patrol officer, gang detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant and detective sergeant. Previously Sergeant Littrell served in the United States Air Force as a Security Forces member and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.

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