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Personnel selection for acting positions

If you plan to implement acting positions in your agency, here are some considerations to review

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An agency might implement acting positions for several reasons.

One of the top priorities of a supervisor or manager is to develop their personnel. While most agencies may not have a formal process, a common procedure is to assign them to fill temporary positions in an “acting” role, such as an acting sergeant or acting watch commander or higher. If you plan to implement acting positions in your agency, here are some considerations to review.

why do departments appoint acting positions?

An agency might implement acting positions for several reasons. It could be to replace a supervisor who is on vacation, away for training, on a special assignment, or out sick.

While an officer is assigned to the acting position, the agency will be able to see how well the person does in a supervisory or management position. The more an acting supervisor realizes their role in providing oversight, monitoring and evaluations, the more likely they are to reduce department liability. Holding others accountable and clarifying expectations, will help them in their future roles as supervisors and managers. Once the person who serves in the acting role returns to their unit, ideally, they will be able to share their newly acquired skills.

Download a list of steps to take to establish an acting supervisor selection process.

What scenarios make the most sense for acting supervisors?

Depending on the length of the assignments, consider the following responsibilities for the acting supervisor:

  • Reviewing reports and initiating action due to the report’s content.
  • Ensuring officer compliance with policies and procedures.
  • Scheduling shifts, requests for vacation, training, court and sick leave. The ability to be flexible and creative in dealing with sudden absences is key, which has been especially true over the last year as COVID-19 and injuries due to civil unrest have impacted staffing.
  • Maintain payroll procedures and monitor overtime and attendance timesheets.
  • Attend staff meetings to represent the supervisor.
  • Prepare for and hold pre-shift briefings.
  • Report to immediate supervisor and keep them apprised of unit status, on-going issues and upcoming challenges.
  • Communicate with other shift supervisors.
  • Supervise high-risk situations including crowd control.
  • Research and prepare contingency plans and tactical plans for both natural and man-made events.
  • Serve as incident commander on critical incidents.
  • Conduct after-action briefings and create reports.
  • Utilize departmental and external resources including allied agencies.
  • Oversight of pursuits with the ability to call off pursuits per policy.
  • Initiating actions for various crime reduction programs to engage community members with officers with the intent to develop community partnerships and to reduce crime.
  • Oversee investigations for serious auto accidents, officer-involved shootings (initial response), use of force incidents and citizen complaints.

How to determine who to select for an acting supervisor role

Typically, the person assigned to serve as an acting supervisor is a senior officer or one who is either formally or informally an assistant squad or unit leader. Note that “informal” leaders may be underestimated as they have no “rank” but are often known as the “go-to person” in the department. Informal leaders are often the person other officers will gravitate to when there are questions about policies, procedures and tactics when a supervisor is unavailable. These officers are a great resource and should be given the opportunity to serve in an acting supervisory capacity.

Regardless, there should be a process in selecting someone to fill a spot temporarily. This decision should not be based solely on seniority, but on the candidate’s ability to perform at the supervisory level. Selections based on “favoritism” will lead to divisiveness, dissension and poor morale and damage the team’s effectiveness.

how to establish a selection process

The selection process could include generating a list of qualified officers, conducting a brief review of personnel issues, and perhaps requesting a recommendation by one or more supervisors. The “list” may include officers who expressed an interest in the position, especially any that may be either on an existing promotional list or are studying for a promotional exam.

Note: With an extended assignment, consider rotating other candidates into the position.

Consider this an opportunity to develop a “leadership pipeline.” This could include officers volunteering or being nominated by their supervisor. A key factor in the decision-making process may be that the person has demonstrated a level of readiness to perform at the new level. Another is to consider their “acceptance” by the unit members. While some officers may be smart and have the skills, they also have to be able to maintain a seamless transition, without rancor or dissension.

There may be other officers who either were not considered, or were considered, but not chosen. They may be divisive and even sabotage the acting supervisor’s efforts. This is a critical issue, as managing people is the biggest challenge for any supervisor. An acting supervisor’s character must be strong enough and confident enough to handle resistance to their authority. They need to make their position and expectations clear and hold others accountable for their actions. These are the key strengths of any supervisor, but especially those in a temporary role.

Supervisory responsibilities clarified for candidates

Expectations must be clearly conveyed. Another supervisor should be available for advice or assistance prior to and after the assignment. The returning supervisor should be appraised of the person’s performance during the temporary assignment.

Candidate selection

In deciding who to select for an acting position, consider these steps:

  • Decide how to initiate such a process. Is there an existing process? Consider model programs from other agencies.
  • Create an entry point into the “pipeline” that could include candidates expressing an interest in the process and nominations from supervisors.
  • Consider written tests and an interview process similar to promotions.
  • Consider supervisors either sponsoring or nominating candidates.
  • Consider using a 360° evaluation process.
  • Develop a “pool” of candidates and an objective selection process.
  • Review candidates’ annual evaluations for the past 2-3 years.
  • Education level: Does it relate to the profession? Does it include supervisory or management principles?
  • Past assignments and responsibilities that are related to supervisory or management positions sought, particularly as the head of a unit, project or program.
  • Review the past three years of internal investigations and dispositions.
  • Review use of force reports.
  • Review reports of Injury to prisoners/inmates.
  • Review any citizen complaints/internal affairs reports.
  • Review any civil or criminal litigation.
  • Review attendance issues.

Note: These are not all-inclusive points. Candidates should understand that the acting position does not guarantee their long-term success as a supervisor.

Experience counts

A candidate should demonstrate their readiness for the job in the following areas:

  • Involvement with community engagement activities such as meeting with citizen groups, local community leaders and organizations.
  • Training record; particularly supervisory or leadership courses.
  • Military leadership experience: Non-Commissioned (NCO) or Commissioned Officer.
  • Leadership positions in volunteer or professional organizations.
  • Well-versed in policies and procedures.
  • Know how to complete a use of force with an injury while in custody report.
  • Know how to complete internal and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Agency) injury or death report.
  • Know how to complete a formal inspection or audit of supplies/equipment.
  • Know how to requisition supplies and equipment and be familiar with the unit’s budget.
  • Understanding the impact of scheduling issues such as requests for time off, vacation, sick leave and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), balanced with the need to maintain adequate coverage.
  • Be familiar with agency policy and procedures on Employee Assistance Programs.
  • Be able to manage higher risk, lower occurrence incidents.
  • Experience in managing officers/units in crowd control/mobile field force situations.
  • Ability to look for personnel issue “red flags.”
  • Have a high degree of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and an ability to lead.
  • Not have an arrogant, overbearing, or demeaning personality.
  • Have an ability to learn and expand their knowledge base.

Linking KSAs (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) to tasks

It’s one thing to identify a KSA, but linking it to an actual task may help in the selection process. Since the candidate will be in a supervisory or management positing, look for transferable skills that are similar to the KSA’s of the position. Look for past successes in leadership roles:

  • Demonstrated leadership qualities: Are you able to quantify that the person selected can actually perform in a leadership role? Have they demonstrated their leadership skills? Some candidates have been in the military and served as NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) or Officers. These skills may also be found in professional organizations or volunteer work. Does the candidate have to ability to work as a team leader? Can they motivate others?

  • Directly supervise others: This includes the ability to observe, direct and evaluate the execution of tasks, projects, or activities. Has the candidate demonstrated an aptitude for leading others? Provides functional supervision of employees not directly supervised.

  • Personnel issues: Do they have experience in evaluating the work performance of sworn and non-sworn personnel? Have they had experience in counseling, disciplining, correcting work-related behaviors of others? Have they learned how to delegate effectively?

Other supervisory KSAs could include:

  • Ability to plan, prioritize, organize and schedule assignments/events effectively.
  • Sound judgment and decision-making skills.
  • Oral and written communication skills.
  • Reviews daily activity logs and reports for accuracy and thoroughness
  • Recommends and assists in the implementation of department and division goals and objectives.
  • Possession of an extensive degree of job knowledge. Supervisors are de facto resources for subordinates on policy, procedure, tactics and law.
  • Reads, classifies and approves reports.
  • Receives initial citizen complaints, performs preliminary investigation and referral to Internal Affairs.

Informing officers that the opportunity exists for an acting position

This process could include:

  • Discussing the topic with officers you feel are prepared or skilled enough for the position.
  • Mention upcoming promotional exams during roll call. Supervisors can emphasize the announcement and offer to help prepare candidates.
  • Internal publications/emails.
  • Word of mouth.

Potential risk areas

These may highlight some potential areas for concerns in selecting someone for an acting position. These are not all-inclusive:

  • Biases in the selection process such as not selecting women or minorities, gender/sexual preference or lack of diverse age groups.
  • Ensure other supervisors are available as an immediate resource to provide assistance or advice.
  • Consider negative reactions from unit members.
  • Abuse of power; overbearing, autocratic, insensitive to others, etc.
  • Decisions as a supervisor that are out-of-policy, procedure, or law.
  • Liability issues that could lead to civil or criminal actions, i.e., selecting someone who was not prepared or did not possess the necessary skills.
  • Putting someone in a position who does not have the temperament to handle stress.

How to assess performance after the acting supervisory time is over

Regardless of the length of the temporary assignment, there should be some form of evaluation. Supervisors should realize that that single experience, if successful, may make the difference in that individual’s future success.

Ideas could include:

  • If the agency has a formal rotation process, supervisors should include comments into the acting supervisor’s annual performance evaluation. The use of informal or formal commendations for their leadership would be a bonus for their career.
  • Expectations should be the same for any acting supervisor, as they are for permanent positions. They both involve leading or managing others.
  • Did the individual seek out opportunities to learn, ask questions, volunteer and not shirk responsibilities and decisions?
  • Did the individual approve or deny reports correctly? Also, if they denied reports, did they use it as a teaching moment for the officers whose reports were kicked back? Could a success story be the result, that is due to additional training and corrective actions the officer’s reports were much more thorough, with zero or minimal corrections?
  • Did the candidate manage multiple units successfully? For example, under their direction, did calls for service or crime rates decrease or increase, due to their actions, intervention and direction?
  • Did the individual try to assist officers with issues, questions, or concerns they have?
  • Did they solve problems?
  • Did they show initiative?
  • Did they identify and delegate responsibilities effectively?
  • Did they inform their immediate supervisor of actions/concerns?
  • Did they exercise sound judgment?
  • Did they show solid decision-making skills?
  • Did they have the ability to act as a team-builder or did they cause conflict and dissension?
  • Did they anticipate problems or just respond to them?
  • Did they initiate actions to mitigate problems?
  • After their experience in the acting position, would you feel comfortable recommending them for promotion or do you feel that they need more experience or training?


After considering the ideas in the article, how would you want to select your next acting supervisor? What changes would you want to make now that you may not have thought of earlier? What is it that you wish you had known before you had become a supervisor?

Special thanks to Lt. Jeff Pierce, Phoenix PD; Lt. Donna Robinson, Cincinnati PD; Lt. Eranda Piyasena, Denver PD; Lt. Wes Lott, Little Rock PD; and Josh Whiten, Lt., Milwaukee PD, for your valuable input and experience.

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Fill out the form below to download a list of steps to take to establish an acting supervisor selection process.

Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

As director of KSA Ltd., (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using assessment centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from National University. He was also a Ph.D. candidate for the Union Institute and University.