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Improving understanding between the ranks in law enforcement

It’s difficult to empathize with someone who isn’t experiencing the same things we are, which is especially true for police chiefs and line-level officers

Officers in talks (2).JPG

We spend a great deal of time as a profession discussing the things that make it hard for officers at all levels from all walks of life to relate to one another.


I’d been a chief for a few years and was catching up with a former coworker back home. During the time since I’d moved away, I’d been leading a small-town police department in middle-of-nowhere Kansas. My friend had, likewise, left the office space we’d shared as detectives, moved up several ranks and was now commanding a patrol shift larger than the entire Kansas department I’d moved to. It was uncanny, therefore, how we had both, independently, come to the same conclusion:

“This is harder than we thought!”

During our time together in the detective unit, we did what many cops do. We talked at length about the shortcomings of our supervisors, the upper administration and the department in general. We had it all figured out. If only we were in charge, things would be better.

In many ways, we were right. I have great reason to believe that the department I’d led was better than it was before I got there, and I have every reason to believe that my friend was doing an incredible job as a supervisor. But a few years in the proverbial hot seat brought us both to the unmistakable conclusion that leadership is harder than it looks.

Understanding operational differences

Ironically, I’ve found myself thinking the same thing, in the opposite direction, recently. My duties as an administrator seem to keep me more and more in the office. My memories have faded about my time as a patrol officer some years ago. When I do carve out time to ride with patrol officers, I’m always amazed at the way they’re able to do their job. Not all people can answer a radio, carry on a conversation and navigate to a call at the same time. They work long hours, get called in on little notice and deal with things that would make most people cringe. Having walked in those shoes myself, I often find myself thinking:

“This is harder than I remember.”

We spend a great deal of time as a profession discussing the things that make it hard for officers at all levels from all walks of life to relate to one another. Buzzwords like “generational differences” are commonly used. You’ll be hard-pressed to attend a basic leadership school and not hear the word “millennial” or “boomer” thrown around. These things are important to discuss, but we often neglect to discuss “operational differences.” All too often we fail to acknowledge that it’s difficult to empathize with someone who isn’t currently experiencing the same things we are. This plays a large role in the lack of understanding between the ranks in law enforcement.

What police leaders should know about line-level officers

My buddy and I thought we had all the answers. To some extent, we probably did. Line-level officers (especially in this day and age) are a valuable trove of knowledge and information. It’s important that any organization have mechanisms for line-level employees to be heard.

They are the ones who use the equipment and software an agency purchases. If something doesn’t work, they’ll be the first to know. They are responsible for implementing policies that administrators dictate. If those policies are having unforeseen effects, line-level employees are feeling those challenges. There are nuggets of truth and wisdom in even the angriest of complaint sessions. It’s important that these legitimate concerns be acknowledged.

This is especially true today when line-level officers are often just as educated and experienced as the supervisors they answer to. Departments need to have mechanisms in place for legitimate feedback, as well as a culture that is open to it.

What line-level officers should know about police leaders

That being said, my buddy and I were also ignorant of many of the challenges our bosses faced. Our supervisors may have agreed with much of our sentiment but were possibly powerless to change it. Line-level employees need to realize that their administrators work within a bureaucracy. They too, answer to people.

Even a “top-level” administrator may have less authority than most people think. It may look as if chiefs can unilaterally make decisions, but they probably can’t. Most chiefs answer to either an appointed city manager or an elected mayor. Depending on the setup of a particular government, these individuals may even have the actual power to set police policy or make all the police personnel decisions. In many local governments, a chief isn’t necessarily the actual head of an agency, but one of many cogs in the machine making decisions about the department.

Chiefs also answer (directly or indirectly) to elected councils. Sheriffs are typically the most powerful of law enforcement officials, but they too answer to the community every four years in an election. While they can arguably make more change than other leaders, too much change too fast may mean they aren’t around to make any change in the long term.

While the reality of diluted authority makes positive change difficult, it is a necessary evil. A government that placed absolute authority in the hands of a law enforcement leader would be a dictatorship. We might be okay with it while a particular chief was doing something we approved of, but undiluted power is rarely a good thing in the long run. Some inefficiency is a necessary part of the democracy we’ve all sworn to uphold.

Line-level employees would also do well to remember that their administrators have to balance the interests of many different stakeholders. A K-9 unit may have a valid argument for purchasing larger SUVs to accommodate its plethora of gear. What the K-9 officers may not realize, however, is that one of the detective units has an equally important need for a new crime scene truck. Both are legitimate needs, but the reality of finite resources means the chief can only include one of the requests in the budget for the upcoming year.

Finally, line-level employees should simply remember that their administrators are human. They make mistakes, just like everyone else. Police officers deal with situations every day in which they can’t make everyone happy. Administrators face this same issue with internal decisions on a regular basis.

The leader’s folly

That’s not to say that there isn’t general room for improvement in police administration. Quite the contrary, the stresses and realities of the job push administrators toward many common mistakes throughout the course of their career.

Law enforcement administration is hard, especially in this day and age. Just as many agencies have seen an increase in officer retirements and resignations, chiefs across the country have also found the door en-masse. Prominent publications such as USA Today, Newsweek and Fox News have run stories about the issue. Law enforcement in general, and administration in particular, can be a thankless endeavor.

A chief in Brandon, South Dakota recently resigned his post, citing concerns with low officer wages and inadequate facilities for the officers to work in. He’d tried to address it in his nearly two years as chief but had found the city council uninterested. His plight was not unusual for police administrators. While he was in a financial position that enabled him to resign in protest, most law enforcement administrators are not so lucky. Having banged their head against the proverbial wall of government to no avail, what is an administrator to do?

It’s all too easy to fall into a thought pattern of “Why should I try?” Administrators who push for change in local government may be lauded by the local citizenry, but such behavior rarely makes them well-liked by their peers or bosses. They quickly learn that the easiest way to get by is to show up for work, do as they’re told and collect their paycheck.

There are, no doubt, many police leaders who have this perspective, but they didn’t all embrace this perspective because they are lazy. Many were pushed there by the realities of the job. Such a perspective has to be actively resisted by administrators because line-level officers suffer when chiefs allow themselves to be pushed into a pattern of apathy. Officers deserve to know that their leader is fighting for them, even if the leader isn’t winning the fight.

Addressing the realities facing line-level officers

Another flawed perspective is to divorce one’s self from the realities faced by line-level officers.

Every policy a chief or sheriff writes carries huge implications for their officers. Most states require a government to “indemnify” their officers. Generally speaking, this means that a city has to pay for lawyers and judgments against an officer if they get sued, so long as they acted within law and policy. If an officer acted within policy, he or she falls under the proverbial “umbrella” of the department and should be protected in case of a lawsuit. It is all too easy for a chief to write unrealistic policies.

Line-level officers face unprecedented challenges and impossible decisions every day. If they act reasonably and with good faith, they deserve to be protected. When administrators write policies, those policies need to take this into account. It’s not fair for a chief to write unrealistic policies that will likely leave officers out from under the protective legal “umbrella” when they do their jobs.

How can an administrator make sure they’re writing fair policies? By having some skin in the game. Upper-level supervisors should routinely spend time with officers on patrol. In a larger department, this probably won’t make much of a difference in the line-level officers’ workloads. They may not even like it (who wants the chief showing up on a scene to get in the way?), but it’s not about the workload. A chief who does what their officers do will be better equipped to make policy decisions. They’ll know when a piece of equipment or new software isn’t working right. They’ll better understand the challenges their officers are facing. But, most of all, they’ll have skin in the game.

When I write a policy (especially a high-liability one such as use of force), it’s far too easy to write something that protects the agency, but simply isn’t realistic for the officer who has to follow it. It’s easy to do that because I’m writing a policy for “them.” But if I regularly participate in day-to-day policing, I’m writing a policy for “us.” An administrator who knows they will have to live by a policy is more likely to write one that is fair and safe for all involved.

We’re all human

At the end of the day, there is no panacea to guarantee harmony among the ranks. Law enforcement is a difficult, stressful profession and internal tension is often inevitable. The unprecedented scrutiny, controversy and criticism facing the profession make this truer now than ever before.

Officers and their agencies are frequently put in difficult, if not impossible, situations. Mistakes and shortcomings are inevitable. Both individual administrators and line-level officers have to look past those mistakes and look at the intent behind actions. Humans make mistakes and that’s doubly true in an endeavor as difficult as 21st-century policing. Whether we happen to be administrators or line-level officers, we have to have some good old-fashioned grace toward one another. Hopefully, we’re all doing our best to keep our communities safe in a world increasingly fraught with pitfalls for us all.

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Cliff Couch is a police chief in East Tennessee. He’s also led two departments in Kansas and served as a deputy with the Leon County (Tallahassee) Sheriff’s Office in Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology, and a master’s degree in public administration from Florida State University. He’s also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter at CliftonDCouch or on his blog,