Trickle-down leadership: When officers become the boss

When a police agency fails to protect its community, the failure can almost always be traced to the head of that agency

February 14, 2018, is another of those days that will live in infamy. A year ago, 17 were killed and 17 were wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office did nothing to stop it, either before the event or during the shooting.

Before the event, numerous people reported the shooter as a potential threat to the school, but both the school district and the Sheriff’s Office apparently did the least they could to make the complaints go away (as did the FBI). During the event, the response of the Incident Commander, SRO and responding officers make me want to use the word cowardice…there, I said it.

Several Broward officers have been forced out or remain on investigative suspension for NOT entering the building or engaging the shooter, despite many of them reporting on the radio they heard shots fired. When I was in Florida a week ago a local news station said one officer, who was only a block away when the call went out, turned and drove AWAY from the school – according to his cell phone track.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaking before a CNN town hall broadcast, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaking before a CNN town hall broadcast, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

Who is to blame for such behavior by experienced police officers? Certainly, these officers should be disciplined harshly for their failure to respond properly, but I think the ultimate blame – the underlying cause – lies elsewhere.

An agency’s culture comes from its CEO

After more than 40 years of studying police leadership and developing leadership training programs during my tenure at the Illinois State Police Academy, I have come to believe the “culture” of an agency comes almost totally from its CEO, be they a chief, sheriff, director, superintendent or commissioner.

When a department gets a new chief, most of the officers will quickly “become the boss.” Many years ago in my home agency, a chief brought in from a larger neighboring department was very professorial. He wore expensive suits and smoked a pipe all day. Before long the detectives all dressed much better and one of the senior commanders started smoking a pipe. They became the boss.

So how did a 2,800-officer-strong sheriff’s department become the nation’s worst example of how to handle an active shooter at a high school? The simple answer is that the officers became the boss. That boss was Sheriff Scott Israel, who was recently suspended by the Governor of Florida for the incompetent performance of his agency at the Parkland massacre. In his January 11, 2019, order suspending Sheriff Israel, Governor DeSantis stated that Israel “egregiously failed in his duties” by not properly training deputies and not maintaining “a culture of vigilance and thoroughness,” according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

To back up my argument, I submit the Fort Lauderdale airport active shooter event the previous year, where five were killed, six were wounded and 36 more were injured during the ensuing panic. And panic it was! The analysis of that airport shooting reveals several hours of almost total chaos.

You would think the Broward County Sheriff’s Office would have implemented some lessons learned from the airport shooting to improve their response to any subsequent critical incidents. Did they seek out any Incident Command training to better prepare commanders for a large-scale response? Did they institute refresher training on rapid deployment tactics for patrol deputies? But why would they when Sheriff Israel bragged to the media about their excellent handling of the airport shooting? After their even worse performance at the high school in Parkland, Sheriff Israel stated on CNN, “I have given amazing leadership to this agency.”

Scott Israel had more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, through the rank of police chief prior to being elected sheriff in 2012. He may have been a fine officer, even a good chief in those years. But the self-serving political creature we saw on TV demonstrated exactly the attitude I expected to see based on the horrible performance of his deputies. Leadership trickles down to the lowest levels of an agency and it can happen in a very short time.

We have all known someone like Scott Israel in our careers. There will always be self-serving cops who manage to float to the top, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. I believe we can improve ourselves by changing the way we train our leaders.

We need a military approach to leadership

When the U.S. military trains new NCOs and Commissioned Officers, it prepares a young leader to take their team into combat and, hopefully, to bring them back home.

The hands-on training teaches leaders to make difficult decisions under extreme stress. It drives home the need to get your team the best possible training and helps leaders learn they need to prepare their people for worst-case scenarios.

At the Illinois State Police (ISP) Academy, I was tasked with developing a military-style leadership course for new street-level supervisors, sort of a "boot camp" for sergeants. We standardized a four-day curriculum that placed all the students into teams of six. All the training evolutions were done in these teams, which had each student rotating through the team leader role. 

Each team handled a role-playing incident on the BowMac Model City Simulator. The critical incidents they faced were a barricaded gunman incident with officers pinned down, a hazmat tanker vs. school bus crash, a domestic gone bad with an officer taken hostage inside a home at gunpoint, and an active gunman firing from the third floor of a hotel into a heavily populated urban area. One day of the training was a field training exercise (FTX) in which the teams had to use red guns to handle four more scenarios – an indoor active shooter, a suicide-by-cop standoff with an armed individual, an outdoor active shooter and an officer-down rescue from an ambush situation.

In all the exercises, the scenarios were short but very intense. Each evolution was debriefed from the leader's point of view asking, “What would you do differently next time?” Like in the real world, communication failures are often the most common problem. We ran each scenario 3-4 times so the last leader in each scenario could get as close to perfection as possible. The program was based on a training concept called "coaching forward" where we only presented positive coaching.

If you don’t have a military background, study the subject and train yourself. Prepare your people and yourself for the worst day you can imagine. NEVER fail to back your officers when they do their best. Understand that perfection is never possible when officers must make snap decisions based on imperfect information. Make sure they understand what you expect of them, and most will exceed your expectations.

Hope in the next generation

When a police agency fails to protect its community, the failure can almost always be traced to the head of that agency.  But there is hope. After several decades of seeing fewer and fewer police recruits hire on with military experience, the numbers are reversing. More and more cops are climbing their way through the police ranks with military leadership experience in their resume. We face a violent future in this country. The population is severely divided and the potential for some degree of civil war is not out of the question. We will need these excellent young leaders to prepare their officers for the worst-case scenarios and protect their communities like sheepdogs.

Leadership – both good and bad – trickles down to the lowest levels of an agency and it can happen in a very short time.

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