Balancing 'police supervisor' and 'cop buddy' roles
There is a balance between forming a bond with your employees and maintaining a professional relationship
By Neal Collie
I was talking with a law enforcement friend of mine recently concerning an incident with a member of his agency’s command staff. My friend and the supervisor are both employed at the same agency, and also attend the same church. My friend said that he asked the supervisor if he wanted to go grab a bite to eat after the church service and the supervisor bluntly told him “no.”
My friend was offended, as the two had been fairly close in the past. The young officer was told by the supervisor that he couldn’t associate with him since he was a member of their agency’s administration.
Over my career in law enforcement, I have attended various management training courses and this topic has never been formally addressed. So, can a supervisor be a friend to a subordinate officer? The answer can be a bit tricky, but in my opinion, the best answer is, “Yes, to a degree.”
A Friendly Yet Professional Bond
For a supervisor – regardless of rank – you never want to come across to your employees as being unapproachable. However, there is a balance between forming a bond with your employees and maintaining a professional relationship that allows you to be an effective manager.
A law enforcement career could last 30 years or more. Most people have the desire to work their way up the career ladder before retiring. Chances are you could find yourself competing with a friend and coworker for the same management position at some point in your career. If you get the promotion over your coworker, do you simply stop being their friend? What if they get the promotion instead of you – do you want them to stop being your friend?
My response to both scenarios would be “of course not,” but there has to be a distinct middle ground established.
I was having a conversation with my wife recently concerning friendships, which led me to a sad realization. In all my years as a cop, I was unable to name one coworker I could call a close friend. Sure, I had many coworkers I would call acquaintances who shared common passions outside of the job, but I couldn’t name one that I enjoyed spending my days off with doing a hobby on a regular basis.
I don’t know how you feel about ending a 30-year career without any close friends to show for it, but for me, that feels like a pretty unappealing place to dwell. Your coworkers are the ones you talk with at 0300 hours – whether you’re venting about a call or just trying to keep awake while working swing shift.
They are the ones who have your back on a daily basis and vow to fight with you to the death should that time come. This relationship should not come to a screaming halt just because one of you was promoted.
Respecting New Boundaries
Things are going to change, and everyone involved will need to make some adjustments and respect the new boundaries. There will be things that you may not be able to vent to each other about as you once did. There will be times when the supervisor cannot share information with the officer, and the officer needs to be considerate of the supervisor’s role and loyalty to their agency. The officer needs to realize that they will not be “in the loop” simply because their friend is a supervisor.
When an officer is newly promoted, one of the supervisor’s first orders of business should be to establish clear, documented expectations for each of their employees. These expectations should be verbally discussed with each employee so that any questions or concerns can be addressed. The list of expectations should also include rules of conduct that the supervisor expects from employees, as well as disciplinary measures that will be enforced and supported by the agency’s policy and procedure manual for failure to adhere to these rules.
Your officers want to be able to trust not only your decision-making as a supervisor but also you in general. You will need to form a professional bond with your officers in order to build upon this trust. Law enforcement supervision is a much different animal than the common workplace environment. Law enforcement officers and their supervisors work closely together and rely on each other to keep each other safe during their shifts.
Good supervisors should be able to immediately know when something is weighing on one of their officers’ minds and have the ability to go to the officer and attempt to help resolve the issue. Without the issue being handled, the officer could develop poor morale, decreased work performance and even put themselves or a coworker in a dangerous situation because their “head isn’t in the game.”
As a supervisor, you will have to put a little distance between you and your officers to effectively manage them, but you should strive to be the supervisor whom officers are excited to work for.
About the author
Neal Collie is a sergeant with the Wake Forest Police Department. He has been in law enforcement since 1996 and has supervised patrol and narcotics divisions. He is a certified criminal justice instructor and teaches at the Coastal Plain Law Enforcement Training Center in Wilson, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the Administrative Officers Management Program at N.C. State University and is an active member of the North Carolina Police Executives Association. He has had multiple articles published online by popular law enforcement publications.
This article, orginally published 09/12/2013, has been updated.