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Do’s and Don’t for New Commanders

A reader recently sent me this in an email. I would like to see an article about the do's and don’ts for newly promoted sergeants or commanders. As a young promoted supervisor, who is coming from the lower end of the seniority spectrum and now being "in charge" of those his senior; how do you handle it? Well, this is a frequent theme in police departments nationwide. Let’s take a look at this and make a few suggestions. There are several of you are going to deal with in your new journey as the new person in charge of their lives.  

First of all, there are those who believe in seniority. Matters not what you have done for the department. Your departmental track record of taking on hard assignments, collateral duties and such, matter not. Your academic and/or training records do not count. There are a select few who believe that if you are there for the most years, you should be in charge. I counter these dinosaurs with a question. If you sat in a garage on a box and watched for twenty years, would you become a master mechanic? These are the curmudgeons of the department; there is not much you can do for them. Most don’t even bother in taking the test, they are there to gripe, find fault and be a royal pain until they retire or win the lottery. Suggestion is to find out what they are good at, if anything. Capitalize on what skills they have and make them the ‘go to person’ there. Let them think you are smart enough to capitalize on their vast skills (if any). You are not going to win them over but try to work with them.

Sadly enough most of them are the informal leaders or the precinct bosses. They do not have authority (stripes) but have the power (informal leaders). They will be the ones most of the regular ones will follow when without leadership present. They are often old detectives or special units that got bounced back to patrol. Many were old Field Training Officers (FTOs) of the past era. Many have some ranking officers who actually respect them. They came on the department together, one advanced and the other did not. Again, try to work with them. The main thing here is to respect their service and attempt to get them to work with you. Do not ‘pull out your stripes’ on them unless you have to.

Classmates and last week’s co-workers will offer you some problems as well. If you come in blazing stripes and going hard-core rules and order over them, they will resist you. Most will shut down and offer passive resistance. Some may resist and remind you of your past transgression that went undetected and now you are better than thou with them. If you are smart, pace yourself with them, most understood the test, the process and will give you a chance to adjust to your new position. If you have a true pal from the academy, they will respect it and be your supporter, remember respect them back. I had one friend from the academy who offered me insights and perspectives; he was a true pal and I am still grateful to him. With these officers, remember that your first few weeks and decisions will be the ones that they will make your legacy. One thing here is to seek their insights and capitalize on their experience.  If they are on scene and this call requires a boss, listen to them and their recommendations on handling it. You are there for the call’s criticality and not to handle it, do not act like a high paid patrol officer. Should they need resources, request detectives or other staff; it is your position that allows you to do so. You are there to make them and this call a success, not to Bogart the call. You are a team leader, not the shinning star.

The Fabulous New Guys (FNG’s) are the recruits, the yearlings and just so new that their uniforms still fit from the academy. You might just be their first sergeant in their career. They are not that much of a problem; they are young and still need direction. Your role with them is to set their career compass. The Field Training Officer (FTO) did a great job on them, but still they are full of questions. Don’t ever fuss over them coming to you with a question. It is when they don’t come with questions that there can be a problems, be available to them.

Middle of the road, average officers and most of the squad could probably care less who the new Sarge is. They see you at roll call, a critical call or so and will deal with you over reports and time off. Just because they are quiet and have little or no needs, do not let them go off. Spend some time getting to know them, respect their experience and they are often the backbone of the squad. Note to self, get to know all of the squad. Know their strengths, contributions and chinks in the armor. Do not spend all of your time on the few that you worry about.

Avoid the “I syndrome” at all costs. Do not ever before any of team members remind them that YOU were selected for promotion for “I was the fill in the blank” such as (best, smartest, most educated, highest scorer, whatever). There is an old saying at a very large department that you had a ‘lucky Saturday’. This department gives promotional tests on Saturdays and you were lucky enough to pass the test that day. I do not care why or how you were promoted, you were lucky or what. Never ever, brag about your promotion in front of the staff, this is bad voodoo for you.

Finally, for the new Sarge, here are a few keys to your success as a leader. Never, ever criticize a staff member in public. You praise them in public and chastise in private. If you ever verbally dress-down a subordinate in front of others (especially their peers) they will never forgive you. Matters not what they did, it will be an unpardonable leadership sin. Counsel in private and when it is over, its over. Don’t pass them in the hall two days later and remind them of the ‘little talk’ within earshot of their squad members. Praise them in public and make sure it is for proper recognition of all involved. Don’t praise your favorite one and omit the other on the call who you have issues with. Did I mention a favorite? Your squad is similar to a family; maybe a dysfunctional one but they are a family. They will bicker with one another, but do wrong to one, then all show up to defend them.  Bottom line is whether they are a royal pain or not, they are yours so respect them all. They are your new team, there is no “I” in team. 


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.