Rethinking police leadership training

The solitary leadership training class we provide new supervisors must be replaced by leadership development programs


By Andrew A. DeMuth, Jr.

The new supervisor echoes the words of the mayor as she takes her oath surrounded by colleagues, family and friends. An hour or so later, pizza and beer are served at a nearby saloon, and the following afternoon she stands at a podium in front of a half dozen former colleagues, now subordinates, as the early-evening shift gets underway. The first available supervisor training class is three months away, so she will have to wing it the same way everyone else did during those first few months.

Unfortunately, this scenario plays out far too often. Even worse, in some agencies, that initial training class is the only leadership training the first-line supervisor will ever receive. 

Leadership in law enforcement is too important not to be a permanent part of the agency training program. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Leadership in law enforcement is too important not to be a permanent part of the agency training program. (Photo/PoliceOne)

The law enforcement profession has become a target of choice for lawsuits, and two of the most frequent causes of action are failure to train and failure to supervise. Knowing this, many agencies still promote personnel to supervisory positions without supervisory training thus opening themselves up to litigation. Are we mad?

An across-the-board paradigm shift is needed in the area of leadership training. Not only do we need to protect our agencies, but we also need to protect our people. We need to set them up to succeed. We should do away with the idea of the solitary leadership training class and embrace what is truly needed: a leadership development program.

Leadership development programs

The private sector began with leadership development programs years ago to help develop strong leaders within their organizations. This unearthed numerous other benefits including increased employee retention and organizational loyalty, improved culture and enhanced employee engagement. Today, companies invest a great deal of money into these programs.

If law enforcement is going to commit to implementing a leadership development program, the first thing to understand is that the term “program” means ongoing and continuous. No longer will an agency send supervisors to a one-and-done training class. Instead, personnel will participate in a well-constructed program designed to help them develop and excel. They will learn about everything from handling toxic employees to leadership theory. They will be armed with the tools they need to mature into high-performance leaders.

Most small and medium-sized agencies lack the resources to have an in-house leadership class for every employee promoted so they rely on external training from local police academies and/or commercial training firms. Sometimes, these programs are not immediately available, but the employee is put in the role anyway. This should never be allowed to happen. No employee should be put in a leadership role without having proper training, especially in an industry where they will be leading heavily armed men and women in potentially life-threatening situations. At a minimum, the employee should be put through a comprehensive internal program that includes a close supervision component.

What a Law enforcement leadership development program would look like

When the promotion is first announced, the new supervisor should meet with the agency executive. This is a great opportunity for the chief to welcome the employee to the leadership team. It also gives the chief an opportunity to share his or her vision for the agency and expectations of its supervisors.

From here, the new supervisor could be scheduled for a half-day training with several members of the command staff. Again, we want to indoctrinate our people into the leadership culture. These senior administrators can provide a formal orientation, outline expectations, talk about the dos and don’ts, and share some stories of their successes and failures.

The next component could be an eight-hour tabletop training with senior sergeants. These hand-selected supervisors could put together a presentation containing scenarios a supervisor might face such as a lost child, domestic dispute or officer-involved shooting. This training will put the new supervisor in the position of having to handle these calls in real-time. Many of these situations can also help the new supervisor assess his or her knowledge of criminal law, policy and protocol, best practices and case law.

The United States Marine Corps, Zappos and the Wharton Business School are among many institutions that have required or recommended reading lists for their personnel. There are some fantastic leadership books out there (YouTube videos as well!), and there is no reason a law enforcement agency cannot have a required reading list as part of its leadership development program. Some of the books could be required reading as a prerequisite to promotion. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin is a great first book for new leaders. 

The new supervisor could be paired up with a senior sergeant for one or two shifts to help learn the thought processes that go into managing real-time calls. If the shifts are quiet, the sergeant could take the trainee through the managerial process of historical calls, as well as complex and emergency situations.

Before the first shift as a sergeant, the new supervisor should be issued contact information for select agency supervisors and encouraged to call if faced with a situation where they have questions. Moreover, for at least the first few weeks, this new leader should meet regularly with his or her supervisor to review and get feedback on how calls and situations were handled.

As far as a formal leadership training class, the problem of classes not being readily available is alleviated if agencies make it a point to send senior and high-performing line personnel to leadership training. Should they be promoted, they have already attended formal training that will help them. If they are not promoted, there is nothing wrong with having more trained leaders within the rank-and-file.

After the initial training, new supervisors should attend additional leadership development training and events throughout the remainder of their first 12 months in the position. This training should not stop at the end of the first year, either. Hopefully, the agency has a leadership development program in place requiring annual participation by all in leadership roles. Each year can bring new training blocks, new speakers, new books and new videos all to reinforce the importance of great leadership at all levels. The goal should be to establish a leadership culture within the agency.

why we must teach great leadership to expect great leadership

Leadership is too vast a field to have ever learned everything, and leadership in law enforcement is too important not to be a permanent part of the agency training program. Agency leaders should be preaching great leadership at every opportunity. It’s simple: we cannot expect great leadership if we don’t teach great leadership.

These are just suggestions for agencies that may not have a program in place. They can be customized as needed. Having a comprehensive, layered leadership development program looks great on paper and will certainly help during any failure-to-train litigation against the agency, but the sole purpose of the leadership development program should not be to deflect litigation; it should be to build great leaders. Ralph Nader is quoted as saying, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers." This should be one of the foremost priorities of the agency.


About the author

Andrew A. DeMuth Jr. retired from the Freehold Borough Police Department in 2015 after a 25-year career. He served as the agency training officer, range master, and press information officer in addition to running the investigations division. He is an active member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) and trains extensively at agencies and police academies throughout New Jersey. He has written for the FBI Bulletin and ILEETA and serves as an adjunct professor for Middlesex Community College in Edison, New Jersey.

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