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How do you retain officers? Be a great leader

How do you become a great leader? Follow these 12 steps


Great leaders are principled, effective communicators who encourage and enable their teams to do great work.

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Many of the factors contributing to the current police recruitment and retention crisis are out of the control of department leaders. However, there is one contributing factor within their control. They can choose to become a great leader!

Here are some attributes of great leaders.

Great Leaders…

1. Know their officers.

Too many leaders are invisible to the officers they lead. They choose to spend their time in offices, conference rooms and council chambers; everywhere but on the street. To these leaders, their officers who are the department’s most valuable asset, become invisible as well.

Too many leaders only see their officers when they are hired, fired, or retire (if then.)

Great leaders make it a point to be visible to their officers. They not only know their officer’s names, but they know what they are doing, how well they are doing it and what they are capable of. Great leaders concentrate a great deal of their time and effort on inspiring and enabling their officers to live up to their potential.

When Teddy Roosevelt was a New York Police Commissioner he could be seen walking beats night and day and he was forever revered for that. Just try this: When an officer calls for assistance, show up and help them get a resistive suspect into handcuffs. Do it once and that officer will never forget; do it often and none of the officers will forget! You see, officers follow leaders who they believe are there for them because they care for them!

2. Are highly principled.

A great leader not only memorizes these critical principles but also lives and breathes them. Great leaders:

  • Are honest, even when it is difficult.
  • Are ethical beyond reproach.
  • Are courageous.
  • Are oath takers and keepers.
  • Know the job like no other!
  • Are decisive in difficult times.
  • Are consistent.
  • Are problem solvers.
  • Are visibly cool under pressure.
  • Are at their best when things are at their worst.
  • Work hard, and when their people are overwhelmed, they share the load.
  • Are consummate professionals.
  • Are friendly until it is time to be something else.
  • Firm but fair.
  • Are accountable.
  • Are never just present, they are a presence!

Great leaders not only talk the talk, they walk the walk. When a great leader arrives on the scene of a hot call, officers on scene breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh good, they’re here.”

3. Train their officers to succeed.

Great leaders ensure their officers have the ongoing training to be effective in all of the difficult circumstances they face.

The best of these leaders not only makes certain the officers are well-trained, but they train alongside them.

4. Recognize and reward great police work.

Great leaders never miss an opportunity to tell a deserving officer, “Damn! That was a fine piece of police work!”

A formal, or informal leader, who re-enforces a good job by saying “good job” creates positive feelings in even the most cynical cops. Sincerely recognizing the great work of an officer costs nothing, but to most officers is priceless.

5. Are great communicators.

Great leaders realize it is essential to first become a great communicator. This skill is not innate. For example, Winston Churchill was clearly a great leader, but he was born with a stutter, which he had to overcome.

There are many great courses and mentors from which you can learn to become a better communicator. However, step one in this process should be to develop your skills as a great listener, and work from there.

6. Are fair and firm.

When mistakes are made a great leader uses due care to ensure the right corrective action is taken to maintain the professional standards of the agency and improve the officer’s future performance while retaining the morale of the officer and the agency.

It is imperative that officers who take what is difficult but correct action in the line of duty never find themselves punished just for political expediency. In such a case as this, leaders must stand firmly behind their officers when they are in the right.

7. Encourage and enable officers to do the difficult job of police work.

There are countless cases around the country, of late, where leaders have ordered officers to stand down, stand back, and even ignore in-progress criminal actions because of the fear of lawsuits, civil unrest, police hating/defunding elected officials, criminal prosecution, or prosecutors who refuse to prosecute. No one wants to work in law enforcement with someone who is “nervous in the service.” Great leaders ignore the “white noise” while keeping themselves and the officers they serve focused on the department’s mission.

Great leadership is a critical element of an environment where officers who want to do police work are encouraged, even inspired, to do so.

8. Lead efforts to get reasonable hours, good pay, benefits, equipment and working conditions for their officers.

Great leaders aggressively resist efforts to defund their department and argue vigorously against cuts in budgets, pay and benefits of their officers. These leaders also properly equip officers to do the job safely and effectively.

For example, law enforcement requires officers to work, nights, weekends, holidays and birthdays. They miss many family functions. This has historically been hard enough, but in many jurisdictions these days, officers are required to work a 12-hour, call-filled shift. These shifts are often followed by overtime for writing reports or attending court. Besides these requirements, these same officers are sometimes mandated to take on extra shifts due to personnel shortages and special events.

Great leaders, out of concern, will either protect their officers from having the joy of life crushed out of them by oppressive workloads, or they will be seen working the same hours alongside their officers until the situation is corrected.

9. Maintain a proper perspective on what is most important.

Great leaders place a high priority on their agency’s ability to respond quickly to emergencies and provide ample backup for officers.

When there are personnel shortages, great leaders suspend nice-to-have programs in order to bolster essential needs. That which comes first – patrol – should be diminished last!

10. Are agents and facilitators of change.

Great leaders are the cutting edge and even the agents of positive change. However, they understand that most people are naturally resistant to change. Therefore, when change is needed they will also be the facilitators of change and make change tolerable.

11. Treat people with respect.

Treating all people with dignity and respect in today’s world is a superpower. Great leaders do this to a fault, daily. With that said, there is no one more deserving of their respect than the honorable officers who work the streets of their jurisdiction every day. Respect them!

12. Stay positive.

It is natural for a police officer to gravitate toward cynicism. Therefore, great leaders must endeavor to practice the discipline of staying positive for the benefit of everyone in their department.

These times are quite possibly one of the toughest periods in American law enforcement history. If you can be a leader who remains confident in yourself and your officers while maintaining a positive attitude, your leadership will bring success to yourself and others. In times such as these, officers will recognize your style of leadership as unique and rally around you.


These are difficult times for American law enforcement but do not despair. Challenging times provide formal and informal leaders, along with their fellow honorable officers, a chance to rise up, excel and make a difference. As Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” What a great opportunity you all have to become a great leader.

In conclusion, remember this article refers to leaders, not supervisors. You see, not all supervisors are leaders and not all leaders are supervisors! Whether you are chief, sheriff, sergeant, union president, investigator, patrol officer, or even a recruit, never has there been a greater need in law enforcement for great leaders.

So be a leader and lead greatly!

NEXT: The leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter.

Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. He is the co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters.” His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and “Destiny of Heroes,” as well as two non-fiction books, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History” and “If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street.” All of Lt. Marcou’s books are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.