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Personal Preference or Policy Decisions

A reader contacted me and requested that I discuss some of the dilemmas that a freshly promoted sergeant will face. There are a few to consider but this is probably one of the first ones that a young buck sergeant will deal with on day one. Should I hold others up to my personal standards and preferences or should I accept what is the standard written policy?

You have been promoted to sergeant because you are a self-starter and your work is exemplary. This is what we believe and the way it should be or some may have had a lucky day at the sergeants’ test. Matters not, you are now there with your stripes and a squad to see if you know how to wear them. It would be a wonderful place if all of the police officers wrote reports as well as you, logged in evidence as accurate as you and handled all calls as brilliant as you. Right, let’s step back and look at this from the 50,000 foot level first. First of all, not everyone can be you, I don’t know if the department or the world for that matter can withstand you being cloned about. Each officer is somewhat of an individual in their own right. I know we wear uniforms, we have uniform crime reports and everything is pretty consistent about the department, so we should all be the same by some definition. Still, we function differently. If ten cops rode the same call, you will probably get ten different nuances in how it is handled and all could be correct. So, first mistake a young sergeant can make is to assume that you are going to change your squad immediately. Stop and look at them, some have been on the job longer than you and have been handling the tasks without your magic touch. Personally, my first day as sergeant one of my FTO’s was in my squad, so I know this firsthand.

My recommendation is for you to fully know and understand your department’s policies and procedures. If you were a Field Training Officer (FTO) you should have a leg up on this for you know how to instruct on filling out reports and their protocols. Your departmental policy and procedure is the foundation. You can discipline or correct an officer based on policy and procedure infractions or failing to achieve given standards. You cannot discipline an officer for not following your ‘way’ or personal preference. There is no validity threshold here, just because you write a three paragraph report and the one paragraph fills the bill, you can encourage better performance but not punish. The only caveat to this is tactics and safety, neither of which should be violated to achieve a lesser mission. Here again, there will be training directives or standard operational procedures (SOPs) that will validate the basis for safety and proper tactics.

Now, to encourage a marginal performer to perform in an exemplary manner, this is what real leaders are made for. My military police first sergeant told us that sergeants are instructors too. As a squad leader you were to see that your squad could perform all the tasks and missions put before it. If one could not succeed, then the squad did not either. You as a sergeant were to ensure that all of your squad was technically and tactically proficient. The more I think about this the more it rings true today. You can never select the officer you want to handle a specific call, they are usually dispatched out and it is luck of the draw. So, to avoid sergeant heartburn syndrome, work and encourage (train) your staff to the best level of performance of their abilities and you succeed. This is not an overnight adventure, you may be good but nobody is that good.  Encouragement or positive reinforcement as a leader is a long term commitment to excellence. This is similar to quitting smoking or making healthy choices in your diet. I may have quit smoking cigarettes several years ago, but every day I have to ward off an urge for tobacco. You just don’t miracle any officer to excellence and they stay there, it is a long term commitment.

How you achieve your staff’s commitment to better performance is a study in positive reinforcement. My best recommendation is to recall the following. Praise in public and chastise in private. Praise in solitude is worthless, before your peers it is priceless. One note, don’t over do it for it will lose its purpose. Sooner of later you will be praising for expected behavior rather than exemplary acts. Never, ever chastise (chew out) in public, the only exception I can offer is if they are in the performance of an unsafe act or reckless tactics; your verbal direction is for their and others safety. If you need to give verbal direction or counseling, do so in private. This is a personnel and personal matter. Each of us has been chewed out before our peers and we forgot what is was really about and focused on the action of the supervisor more so than our own. Treat every interaction as a learning experience and you will go far. The next step is lieutenant!


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About The Author:

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a native Virginian. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC). Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department. He served in field operations, investigations and support services, and completed his career there as the director of training. He has published several articles in professional periodicals and has lectured nationwide. He is serving as a chief of police in central Pennsylvania area; a duty he’s performed for the past nine years. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and other professional associations.