The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020 is undoubtedly the single biggest impetus for change in law enforcement in its history. Much of the change was good, and some was not. One area that has tremendously suffered is leadership. Leadership in police organizations is at an all-time low. Let us make sure that we do not confuse leading with managing.
Managing is just that. Managing is really keeping things neutral, which in fact, does not move things forward. Leadership is, well, leading from the front. Dissatisfaction, low recruitment and retention, severe apathy, low public support and extremely low political support have led to leadership that is “just putting in time.” There are many leaders who are just trying to feather their cap to move on to the next position, and in some cases, it is their retirement and into the private world of security consultants or something similar.
During my law enforcement career, there were many attributes that I aspired to acquire and leaders I looked up to. We need leaders who lead by respect. Law enforcement is a paramilitary organization. The saying “respect is earned” is true in our profession. You can be ordered to do just about anything, but you cannot be ordered to respect someone.
Based on my experience in law enforcement for 37 years and 13 as a chief, the following are leadership qualities that we should all aspire to.
- If you supervise people who wear uniforms, you should wear a uniform. While there are occasions where a chief would not have to wear a uniform, in most cases, they do.
- Stay in shape — it looks good in front of line officers.
- Get out of the office. Make it a point to leave your office once a day and hit the street with your officers. Tell your officers openly that you got their back. I have always been a believer that you can pull officers back from the small mistakes, but it is hard to pull them back from going over the cliff for a huge wrong or ethical misstep.
- Communicate well with your officers, and this means more than email.
- Routinely tell your officers they are doing an excellent job when they deserve it and when they walk through your lunchroom or rollcall room. Stop and tell the officers what a fantastic job he or she did on an arrest last night. This shows not only that you read the daily reports that land on your desk, but that you care and you actually know the details.
- If you see a simple task that is mired in red tape, do something about it and make it simple.
- Care about your officers. A good example of this is when an officer is injured. Every single chief should go to the ER or inquire about the officer who is injured in the line of duty no matter how minor that injury is. Any chief whose officer is treated in an emergency room or admitted to the hospital and does not show up with the command staff to check on the status of the officer’s well-being should be fired.
- Chiefs should also remember the officers whose spouses have children. Ask the officer about their kids, ask them about their family and how they are doing. Do not only act like you care — show it.
It has been my experience over the years that most police officers prefer an “atta boy” than other types of praise or acknowledgement. Early in my career, the village of Riverside, Illinois, had a monetary award program. They would give officers cash in the form of a check every month for what basically was an officer of the month-type of recognition. While the officers liked the extra cash, which was somewhere between $50 and $100, they would have much preferred a compliment from the chief, a letter of appreciation in their personnel file, or just saying what a respectable job was done. In fact, eventually, the officers and the union voted to get rid of the monetary acknowledgment altogether.
I am still a believer in police chiefs having to hold officers accountable for their actions. There is a time for retraining, reprimands and discipline, but if you are a good leader and you lead by example, those times are rare. You must ask yourself why young men and women are not coming into our profession, and part of that answer is a lack of leadership.
You must speak up in public and back your officers up when they are correct. Too many chiefs are willing to throw their officers under the bus for “optics,” or they were told to do so by either their city manager or political leadership. This is devastating and unethical. Chiefs of police are hired to lead and run the department. Politicians and village/city managers should have the confidence that their chief knows what to do, as that is what they are being paid for. When I was first interviewed for chief of police, the village president who interviewed me asked me, “How do you see policing and politics mixing?” I told him, “Good policing is good politics. If my agency is doing a good job, then officers are doing what they are paid to do, and they are invested in serving the community. Policing and politics mix positively when each is allowed to perform and uphold the duties of their sworn offices ethically and are supportive of one another.” He told me, “You have the job.”
Remember, leaders lead. You do not need to know every aspect of the job. In fact, good leaders surround themselves with command staff that does not have the skills they do. That, in turn, makes a tremendous leadership team. Go out and support your officers, support the citizens you serve, and remember — leadership counts.