A formal mentoring program
Implementing a formal mentoring program can help new leaders make a successful transition to their new role. (PHOTO DALE STOCKTON)
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
The two most influential leadership positions in a law enforcement agency are the chief and the field supervisor or sergeant. The chief defines the department’s vision for providing police services to the community and directs the department toward it. The sergeant is a direct link between the chief’s view of the law enforcement mission and the way the officers do their jobs. In a broader context, sergeants should be acting as leaders and mentors, helping officers make the right decisions and develop their careers. But if a department agency doesn’t do the same for its new sergeants, how can they be expected to do their jobs? And, as has been pointed out numerous times, the transition to the role of field supervisor is not always an easy one. I’m living proof of this.
When I was first promoted, I made some mistakes and faced a few challenges. My department at the time had a basic training program for newly minted sergeants that consisted of pairing one with a veteran supervisor for a few shifts. Eventually, this would be followed by attendance at a sergeants’ academy for a week. If the new sergeant was lucky, they would be assigned to the course prior to promotion, but often it wasn’t until months after the swearing-in ceremony that most were able to attend. In the interim, they were expected to do the best they could. This sink-or-swim process would sometimes be enhanced by a supportive veteran sergeant stepping in to lend a few words of guidance.
For some time, I’ve felt this was not enough. From what I’ve seen, many departments just don’t do a good enough job in this context. Those of you who have stepped into the role of a new sergeant supervising a squad on the streets may agree.
To help address this, the department eventually adopted a training program for folks who were new to these duties and responsibilities. The goal was to provide them with a higher level of support and preparation than in the past. Philosophically, the program focused on helping them learn how to find their way through the challenges that would arise once they were promoted.
My suggestion to you as a department trainer is to consider the ideas we’ll discuss in this article. If appropriate—even if you’re not a sergeant or above—tailor these ideas to fit your agency and then craft a proposal to the chief suggesting the implementation of your own new sergeants’ training program. The benefits to the agency and those involved will be worth the effort.
What follows is a list of people and concepts that new sergeants should be exposed to as soon as possible after their promotions. It would even be better if this took place before the ceremony. We chose to try to do everything on this list in one day with everyone in the room together. However, the topics can also be addressed incrementally, based on the availability of those involved.
Start at the Top
In a typical scenario, new sergeants attend a promotion ceremony during which the chief says some encouraging words, swears them in and gives them their badges. The interaction between the chief and the new sergeants in this forum is often minimal. Obviously, the proud new supervisors have already gone through some form of selection process in which the agency’s goals and philosophy played a role. But again, this may not really define for them what it is to be in charge of a squad of officers. With a training program implemented, a top priority should be to arrange a real sit-down with the chief. If at all possible, I think it should be their first stop.
If you work for a very large department, this may default to a meeting with a deputy chief or someone of similar rank. But whoever it is, I believe it should be someone from the top leadership strata. This first one-on-one meeting should be viewed by the participants as laying a foundation. New sergeants should walk out of this encounter with an understanding of what the chief expects of them and just as importantly, what is expected of the line officers they’ll supervise. A chief who truly understands their role as a leader and knows the immense value of first-line supervisors with character and a strong ethical base will welcome the opportunity for such a meeting.
Uniform Division Commander
Time with the uniform division commander (or watch commander) should follow. Although the chief may paint the supervisory picture with relatively broad strokes, the patrol boss will have a tighter focus. This is especially true within the context of the ever-present operational aspects. For example, the proper use of force and its accurate documentation at the supervisory level is guaranteed to be a topic that new sergeants will have to wrap their minds around as soon as possible. Rather than making them wait for guidance or, worse yet, the administration assuming that the new sergeants know what’s expected of them in this commonly occurring issue, it should be clearly discussed and understood.
Getting direction on this important topic from the uniform division commander (or their designee) can have a significant impact on the individual, as well as the agency. Flawed or improper use of force documentation by unprepared or inexperienced sergeants may cause unwanted consequences for everyone involved. The uniform division commander should give direction on how the new supervisor is expected to work with a squad of officers.
Internal Affairs Supervisor
The discipline process is another area that should be addressed through training as soon as possible after promotion. To one degree or another, all sergeants must deal with disciplinary issues. Depending upon the agency, this can include conducting investigations to determine whether or not officers have been involved in misconduct.
Misconceptions or even the lack of a proper perspective toward the internal affairs (IA) process may lead to serious mistakes that will affect officers, as well as the agency, if not handled correctly.
In this context, new sergeants may be overly influenced by locker room talk that’s unfair and inaccurate with regard to the facts of the case and the motivations of the supervisor. In some cases, the new sergeant may not understand the change in mindset required after promotion, especially when it comes to this important topic. This may sway the investigating sergeant into making poor decisions, conducting flawed investigations or even compromising their responsibilities and ethics out of a misguided desire to be popular with the troops rather than doing the right thing.
A common example of locker room talk that surfaces as novice sergeants conduct their first IA investigation is that they’re out to get their first “pelt” or prove themselves to the administration at the expense of the officers in question. This may sometimes be the case, but from my experience, the gossiping officers making the accusations are usually wrong. And let’s be honest: Often, the gossip is the same officer who created the circumstances and the need for an investigation.
Training new sergeants on how to conduct an investigation—as well as how to properly write up their investigation—should be part of the orientation program. Build in a mentoring aspect to help those new sergeants with the challenges they’ll face.
The new sergeant should also be strongly encouraged to recognize good work. More than likely, you’ve done something during your career that truly deserved recognition from the department. Unfortunately, there are supervisors who feel there’s no need to reward positive actions and behavior because that’s an expected element of the job. This is totally off the mark. Although we don’t want to hand out commendations that aren’t justly deserved, we do want to ensure that when our folks do the right thing, they’re applauded for their efforts. This is just as important an issue for a new supervisor to keep in mind as the proper approach to disciplinary matters.
Command Post/Critical Incidents
You likely have a veteran sergeant or SWAT team leader who is quite good at the mechanics of handling a critical incident in the field. This person could be invaluable in training the new sergeant on how to do so as well. The basics of acting as the incident commander, establishing perimeters and command posts, rapidly evaluating major problems as they develop, directing and coordinating personnel and resources are just a few of the issues for which a proactive training program would provide new sergeants with invaluable guidance.
Clearly, this is an extensive area that requires work. It won’t be a quick fix. However, if you can give these sergeants introductory training, followed by hands-on experience, they’ll have a greater chance of success. The alternative is to allow them to default to what they think is best as they handle rapidly evolving situations for which they may be the only supervisor on scene.
Truth to Power
I believe that for a law enforcement agency to be progressive and effective, sergeants should be encouraged and empowered to tell their superiors what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. In keeping with this philosophy, the California POST (Peace Officers Standard and Training) Supervisory Leadership Institute (SLI) has been training sergeants for a number of years.
Through this program, sergeants from a variety of agencies are brought together on a monthly basis. With the guidance of class facilitators, students explore leadership topics through a variety of mediums, including extensive discussion, role play, books and movies. Some of these are appealing to the police psyche—such as movies like Patton and 12 O’clock High —and some are downright difficult, like the book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance .
The SLI program has given sergeants from throughout the state the tools and a support group to focus on the duty of a field supervisor to speak the truth to those above them in the police power curve. I would suggest that if you’re going to advocate a new sergeant training program at your department, then the truth-to-power philosophy is an important aspect.
Get the buy-in of the administration. I realize that may be difficult at your shop, but if the accepted goal is to produce sergeants with integrity and commitment to their role in the organization, being the prophet calling for such a valuable training program is, in and of itself, an example of truth to power in action.
If you don’t have a program similar to the SLI concept, consider developing your own. One resource, and one of my favorite books on leadership, is The Stuff of Heroes: The Universal Laws of Leadership by William A. Cohen. This primer uses real life examples to emphasize the importance of eight laws critical to good leadership. These are:
- Maintain absolute integrity;
- Know your stuff;
- Declare your expectations;
- Show uncommon commitment;
- Expect positive results;
- Take care of your people;
- Put duty before self; and
- Get out in front.
In keeping with the concept of getting valuable training from experienced veterans, I would suggest that new sergeant training include a one-on-one segment with a dispatch supervisor. Choosing the right person from your communications unit will be important.
There’s a saying that goes something like this: “The world is a circus, and the cops get in for free.” There’s some truth in this statement, and it’s the new sergeant who often has to be the ringleader. To do the job right, the sergeant needs to know what’s going on. Working with dispatchers can make or break the process. There are all kinds of positive and negative stories out there about the interaction between cops and dispatchers. The new supervisor must be educated on how dispatch can help accomplish the problem solving that has to take place out on the streets.
There are a number of other topics that we don’t have time or space to discuss in detail here. But I want to at least point you in the right direction. To round out the orientation I think it’s a good idea to address the following issues:
- Workplace harassment : Harassment has led to serious problems and heavy financial losses for police departments and other public and private entities. Treating people in a manner that falls within the realm of workplace harassment in a professional law enforcement organization is just plain wrong. Sergeants should be encouraged to step up and do the right thing in this context, both to protect the department and the individuals involved. Think about it: If your child were subjected to such harassment, wouldn’t you want someone to step up for them?
- Evaluations : An honest, properly written evaluation should be a positive process for the employee and the agency. However, if we don’t school new sergeants on how to conduct evaluations, they may produce ambiguous evaluations that do nothing to improve the person, correct problems or recognize good performance. New sergeants should be mentored on how to discuss an evaluation—especially one with negative points—with the employee to ensure positive outcomes.
- Media relations : It’s a good bet that the new sergeant will have to deal with the media at some point. Depending on the relationship between your agency and news representatives, these encounters can leave a positive and professional impression or trigger negative repercussions. Although the relative merits of professionalism—or lack thereof—within the media itself are a common topic among cops, the new sergeant has to approach each encounter with a positive mindset. The key is to remember that the media can be helpful in accomplishing our goals and that nothing good will come of it if we become entangled in negative interactions with the news folks. We can’t control their behavior, but we can certainly conduct ourselves properly, especially when the video cameras are rolling.
Department trainers should look beyond traditional training concerns. If there’s a clearly identified need for new sergeants to be better prepared for the challenging job of supervising a squad of cops, become a strong advocate for the adoption of a new training program.