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Why police officers need to fess up when they mess up

No one is immune from making mistakes, but the true test of a leader is taking ownership of errors


I always try to live the example of leadership I taught for 20 years as an academy instructor, so this story is both humbling and challenging.


This month I want to tell a story about myself that fits with the overall “firearms” theme of my column, while dovetailing with my other teaching passion of police leadership.

I always try to live the example of leadership I taught for 20 years as an academy instructor, so this story is both humbling and challenging.

Two months ago I retired from the Illinois State Police Academy and signed on as the public safety director in my hometown in Illinois. My lifelong friend, who had served as the community’s police chief prior to his own retirement, had been elected mayor and convinced me to help him work the city’s police and fire departments out of a budget crisis. Time will tell if I made a wise choice.

How honesty makes a leader

This story has nothing to do with budget problems, but everything to do with me being accepted as the leader of 18 police officers, 15 career firefighters and 7 telecommunicators in the 911 center (as well as other support staff), who aren’t sure I should hold a position of authority over their agencies.

Being a firearms instructor for almost 40 years, I was bothered to find out a previous chief had switched the police department to Glock pistols without providing any transition training from the Sig pistols most officers had carried their entire career.

With the threats police officers face on the streets today, I immediately ordered ammunition and changed the department’s policy of a single 50-round qualification course per year (which met the state-mandated minimum) to quarterly shoots: one qualification to meet state law and three unscored training sessions to build the officer’s survival skill set. Most police departments do conduct more firearms training/qualification sessions than required by state mandates.

In two sessions totaling 4 hours and 250 rounds of training, the officers quickly mastered the mechanics of running Glock pistols and increased their marksmanship skills, including malfunction clearing and shooting/loading on the move. They did well and universally appreciated the new focus on life-saving skills. My goal was practical firearms training, but I think I also earned some respect as their new leader. And I have always believed respect as a leader must be earned.

After finishing the first phase of the pistol training, I was hot and sweaty, but due at a city council meeting that evening. I cleaned up, changed clothes and got ready for the meeting.

My everyday carry sidearm is a Colt Lightweight Commander Model 1911 pistol custom built by Richard Heinie, one of the all-time great 1911 pistol smiths. Colt built the frame of the pistol in 1956, making it one year younger than the old fart carrying it.

I was standing on the ground in the open driver’s door of my personal truck as I loaded the Commander, seating a magazine of carry ammo and chambering a round. I dropped the magazine to top it off and did my standard press-check to verify the loaded chamber. I let the slide snap forward from the press check and promptly punched a hole through the passenger door (the bullet safely dug into the dirt beside the driveway). A .45 is damn loud inside a vehicle!

The immediate follow-up sequence goes: WTF!? I can’t believe I just did that. How did I do that? Go see where the bullet went.

After that, I loaded carefully, pointing at dirt. Everything seemed OK, so I figured it was a “stupid is as stupid does” moment and went to the meeting.

I remembered during the night that the hammer was at half-cock after the loud bang, which could point to a cracked/chipped sear, which would explain the negligent discharge. I’ve seen a couple of 1911s do that on the range and, when they do, they uncontrollably empty the magazine on full-auto. But I had the magazine out so could only get one round fired.

I’m an armorer for 1911s, so after the meeting I disassembled far enough to see the sear, which looked fine. I went to the range and fully function checked with dummy rounds first, then with live ammo. No bangs. I finally ran the sequence with my trigger finger pulling the trigger as the press check was released, the most likely cause of my screw-up. No bangs. So, what caused the BANG? Damned if I know!

I try to learn a lesson from every mistake and there are two to share from ventilating the door of my Ram 4x4:

1. Firearm safety lesson

Never, ever violate safety rule #2 (do not let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy). My old truck needs a little body work anyway, so plugging the new “mini-window” in the front passenger door shouldn’t add much to the cost. Had the muzzle been pointing at one of my body parts or the neighbor’s house, the damage could have been non-repairable.

2. Police leadership lesson

Anyone can make a mistake and everyone should own up to their mistakes. After my safety check that morning on the range, my next order of business was to draft an email to everyone under my command and my boss, the mayor, with the above information. I did this for two reasons. The first is that no such event could ever remain secret for long. Second, I wanted to emphasize an object lesson that mistakes can happen to anyone who works with dangerous tools, even highly experienced operators. Following the safety rules will limit the damage to repairable items. Ownership of screw ups, I believe, is the first measure of a leader.

Lastly, the boss should not be exempt from the brutal hazing he deserves from such an event. Within an hour of the email being sent, a large band aid appeared over the hole in the door and the day shift lieutenant said he considered getting a shield out of the SWAT van before walking by my office door, just in case.

Several of my police officers and firefighters have subsequently told me in person or via email that they appreciated my honesty and ownership on this issue. I still have a long way to go in earning their trust and respect, but sometimes admitting a mistake might be the first step down that road.

In other words, if you F-up, Fess-up. Nobody’s perfect.

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.