Leading from the Front

Oct. 5, 2015
The patrolman at the “pointy edge of the spear” must provide leadership for his agency.

Truth is that during this 33 year ride I’ve seen many kinds of supervisory personnel.  I’ve had wonderful leaders I’ve worked for.  Old time street cops, they came up through the ranks, knew the job inside and out, held their men to the highest standard, but took care of them even when they screwed up (as long as it was for the right reason.  This meant taking your lumps and accepting your discipline if you were wrong but learning from the experience).  Officers wanted to work for these supervisors.  Their shifts or units were full, with a waiting list to get on and morale was high.

On the other hand, some bosses were vengeful, ego-driven megalomaniacs who believed: A) They walked on water, B) The rules and procedures didn’t apply to them, C) Sought position, promotion, and advancement to serve themselves, D) Had zero experience or couldn’t cut it on the street, E) Squelched any dissenting opinion based on their little to nonexistent self-esteem, F) Used internal affairs investigations as tools of retaliation, G) That the troops existed to serve them.

The latter group form what has been known as “toxic leadership.”  Unfortunately it is all too prevalent in law enforcement where most promotions are based on taking tests, not actual leadership abilities and potential, with many chief’s positions now political appointments.

A Forbes January, 2014 piece by David Sloan Wilson talks about the U.S. Army’s study on Toxic Leadership.  From that article:

“Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.”

“Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.”

In any police career, you’ll run into both extreme types with some in the “muddling middle” who just want to get promoted so they don’t have to answer calls for service, and actively encourage the officers who work for them to not get involved in anything which actually requires supervision. 

How Did It Get So Bad?

Leadership is exemplified by the chief or commanders, or not.  Leadership is not “bestowed” by position or promotion.  In truth, many supervisors can be better described as managers certainly not leaders.  They might do well following adolescents around with a grease pencil at the local burger chain making sure the fryer is clean, but they are incapable of leading.  Not on a daily basis and certainly not when things get bad such as riots or other emergency situations.  One only has the look at Baltimore PD and the recent riots to see the result of managers not leaders running operations!  Add to this mixture of weak police supervisor the adverse impact of politics and political pressure and you have a certain recipe for disaster.  Imagine, police supervisors promoted to what are supposed to be positions of responsibility who can’t or won’t make a decision and won’t stand up to poor decisions based on political pressure.  Sure makes you want to grab your riot helmet and shield and go stand on a skirmish line doesn’t it?

Don Healy, retired commander from the Baltimore Police Department, stated at an NTOA conference about the reluctance to go tactical by police administrators and commanders.  Healy pointed out that many police supervisors have a “Not on my watch,” mentality.  “In essence they delay any decision to go tactical.  There is a “Damned if you do - Damned if you don’t,” attitude.  Healy commented, “The latter option is preferred by many.  Less to explain.”

So what we have are a bunch of supervisors, paid to lead, with no intestinal fortitude, who stand back and refuse to get their butts out in the breeze, who won’t stand up and protect the troops from bad decision makers above them and won’t make a decision because it exposes their beloved career to risk.

Great system isn’t it?

The Patrolman as Leader

Truth is that the patrolman, responding to calls for service has to make more decisions in a day than most police brass.  Their decisions will have consequences, ripples if you will, far beyond them but those decisions have direct impact on the officer’s career, livelihood, even freedom.

In this day and age those decisions will be examined ad nauseam under a microscope.  Despite the Supreme Court’s admonition in Graham v. Connor, that use of force will be judged at the moment and not in the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

So how does a patrolman lead?

By practicing the following:

  • Know the law – your job is to know your local ordinances, state and federal laws.  Only by having a proper knowledge of the law can you make proper decisions, on stops based on reasonable suspicion, probable cause, search and seizure, vehicle violations and offenses and more.  You must study and know the law!
  • Communicate well – verbally to citizens and suspects as well as in the written form.  You must seek out and practice sound communication concepts.  More officers have gotten written up for what they say than what they do.  Further, master the ability of putting your ideas and thoughts into reports and narratives.  Report writing is an art form.  You must master it!
  • Be skilled in use of force – from handcuffing to the use of deadly force, you must have the physical skills and abilities to apprehend resisting and violent suspects, protect yourself from assault, competent in the use of ALL force tools such as empty hand, pepper spray, baton and electronic control weapons, and you must be able to effectively stop a deadly threat.  The use of firearms require mastery of the fundamentals as well as the skills associated with fighting with those weapon systems!  It is one thing to stand in one spot and shoot a tight group on a target.  It is quite another to fend off a hyper-violent suspect and stop them with gunfire when they are shooting back!
  • Know your rules, regulations, policy and procedure as well as your union contract, if applicable.  By knowing the rules, and operating within them, you can be accused but will be able to prove that you violated no procedures.
  • Know and protect your rights – In this day and age when officers are frequently thrown under the bus for political reasons, knowing your rights, post shooting and otherwise, and protecting them with union and legal representation, is as important and surviving the actual encounter.
  • Be a professional – In all things: contacts with citizens, interactions with peers, in training, with supervisors – be the consummate professional.  Many officers handle the call or interaction correct, legally and per policy, but react emotionally and shoot their mouths off resulting in a complaint.  Don’t take it personal, be a professional!

Wrap Up

One of the wisest comments I’ve heard is that you are the C.E.O. of your own corporation.  That you are the leader of your own company.  If you approach your police career in this fashion you will lead from the front and provide meaningful police service to the public.

In these interesting times, there is oftentimes a void in police leadership.  Those who get paid to lead, oftentimes are the most unwilling to do so for they are so protective of their career they refuse to make decisions or fall into “analysis paralysis.”  The patrolman cannot afford such luxury.  Study, train, practice, be a professional, and document your actions properly and you’ll be a leader in your agency.

*This column is dedicated to my Brother in Blue Paul Hlynsky.  Rest in Peace!

About the Author

Kevin Davis | Tactical Survival Contributor

Kevin R. Davis retired from the Akron Police Department after 31 years with a total of 39 years in law enforcement.  Kevin was a street patrol officer, narcotics detective, full-time use of force, suspect control, and firearms instructor, and detective assigned to the Body Worn Camera Unit.  Kevin is the author of Use of Force Investigations: A Manual for Law Enforcement, and is an active consultant and expert witness on use of force incidents.  Kevin's website is https://kd-forcetraining.com/ 

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