Leading police officers: 3 thoughts for making it through tough times

The dynamic of policing has changed and your brave men and women are looking to you for leadership, guidance, comfort and support


Can you lead when times are tough? If not, the world still needs bartenders.

Anyone can put on stars, bars or stripes and act the part in calm seas, but we are not in calm seas. The dynamic of our profession has changed and your brave men and women are looking to you for leadership, guidance, comfort and support.

The officers on the streets need to know you have their back and you have to do more than just say it. They need to see a leader in front of them with a proper compass heading and they need to know that you’re never adrift at sea.

I’ve told my officers, “Conduct business as usual and don’t worry about ending up on CNN, that’s my job as a boss. I’ll handle that, you worry about protecting the community and going home safe.”

Our leadership and use of force guys have repeatedly told our officers that we are not swayed by politics or lawsuits. If you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing then you’re going to be fine. We need to tell our patrol officers to worry about the threat in front of them and not a hypothetical court case two years from now.

If your department is moving toward adopting new philosophies in this changing era, so be it. Just make sure you effectively communicate the mission change to your officers. They have to understand your department’s mission and know that you support them.

We tried like hell to keep the Ferguson Effect, a reactionary model of policing, out of our house and we’ve been successful by backing our cops. Not blindly though.

We’ve fired cops and others resigned. We have no place for men and women who use their authority to abuse our citizens. We don’t want to fire anyone but we will, at the drop of a hat, if their behavior is unethical.

Here are my three success tips to positively impact your officers and improve your capabilities as a leader.

1. When the wolves come, get behind me
We’ve prepared, trained and equipped our officers to handle the storm. We know it’s not if but when.

Our officers know their bosses are onboard with what must be done. Not only do the officers have our blessing, but they’ll need to fight us to get in the door first because we train right beside them.

See to it that you train with your officers. Don’t think that those bars on your collar mean you can hang up your gloves. Get out there with your troops and make an effort. They’ll respect you for it.

It is important to lead by example. Leave your office and back up an officer on a traffic stop. Better yet, make your own stop and handle it start to finish.

Praise your officers when they do well. Counsel them when they need help. Handle your business when they mess up. Don’t tolerate cheats, liars or bullies and don’t become one yourself. Teach officers the fastest way to the finish line is not looking for shortcuts.

Stay active and practice what you preach to your officers. If you’re out of breath walking from the car to the building every day and preaching physical fitness to them, do you think they’re listening?

2. Difficult talks with difficult people
Have the uncomfortable talk with the officer who is messing up. No boss likes those talks and many avoid it. If you avoid it — fix it. If you can’t have difficult conversations with your cops, then you should re-read the first line of this article.

I conduct a skip level meeting with my officers every year. I want them to tell me how their bosses are doing. I have an opinion, but I want their feedback. You should not assume things are great because the sergeant who wants to impress you says so.

Listen to what the officers have to say about their bosses – and I mean really listen. This doesn’t mean we don’t trust our mid-level supervision, we’re simply looking for ways to improve their leadership. Sometimes perception, even if it is not reality, can be hanging things up.

Don’t be afraid to lead-up. Tell your boss if you think something is wrong. I am fortunate to have a boss that understands. After a heated exchange, I’ll come back in and apologize — to which he has said, “No worries, that’s what I pay you for” or “I don’t yell at bosses for being bosses.”

If you’re a boss — be like my boss. Take the criticism and reflect. It’s empowering and sobering. You never know how you look through someone else’s eyes.  

3. Protect your pride
Go beyond simply providing training and equipment for your officers. Provide them with the emotional support too. Pay attention. Listen. Offer advice.

Plan outings with your shift — and I don’t mean 10 cops trying to find an Uber at two o’clock in the morning (although those nights are fun too). Get them involved in team-building exercises or charity work. Show them the community they don’t see on the midnight shift.

Have a TOPGUN contest at the range followed by a cookout, or some other activity to get them out of their uniforms and talking, laughing and building relationships with each other and the community.

Create a Police Officer Support Team or peer support team in your area and make sure you support it publicly. I don’t care if you have eight officers at your PD, have a POST or find one already up and running and join it. It may save a cop’s life someday. 

Good leaders are usually unaware that they are good leaders. They’re too busy worrying about the people they supervise. If you have a good boss, let him or her know it and explain why.

Remember the words of Peter Drucker, “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

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