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Why police sergeants are an agency’s MVP

A police sergeant plays many different roles in the course of an average day and is expected to excel at all of them

There are some easy steps both line staff and supervisors can take to support their police sergeants. Click here to check them out.

The chief of police or sheriff is undoubtedly the face of a law enforcement agency. Lieutenants and captains are middle managers who oversee assignments and ensure agency rules and regulations are followed. Line police officers and deputies respond to calls for service and whatever comes their way.

California’s Police Officer’s Standards and Training (POST) – similar to law enforcement training programs all across America – describe a sergeant as one who “leads by example, enforces agency policies and procedures, and communicates and supports agency policy.” Further, the “supervisor is [the] linchpin between the community, management and line personnel” with an “effect on morale (positive and negative),” and who strives for “long term vs. short term impact (long term is good for the organization).”

Without question, the sergeant is the most valuable player on the team.

How sergeants take care of personnel

Sergeants oversee personnel – both sworn and civilian – on a daily basis. They are responsible for the morale, discipline and training of each member under their watch. They ensure that personnel are taken care of, are represented and are treated fairly. They are the mediator between line staff and the community, and the insulation between personnel and management. They are responsible for workload parity and they must be watchful for indiscretions as well. They are tasked with putting a cohesive team together to create unity toward a common goal.

It is often the sergeant who notices personnel absences, the deterioration of a subordinate’s work performance, or when things “just don’t seem right.” They may be the savior who reaches out to family or co-workers or, in extreme cases, the Employee Assistance Program or Behavioral Science Office. The sergeant’s role is critical in assessing and responding to officer wellness.

Line officers often see the sergeant as a trusted individual within their organization, and understand the importance of the sergeant in the chain of command. Sergeants understand the need for trust and legitimacy among the members of their department. When asked about their perceptions of leadership in a case study, sergeants overwhelmingly saw themselves as needing to “maintain personal and professional integrity, to model other leaders and individualized consideration” should be part of their responsibilities over officers.

Without question, the sergeant is the backbone of the agency.

What sergeants should know

Sergeants must know the Penal Code, General Orders, Supreme Court decisions and the United States Constitution by heart. They respond to calls from subordinates who may ask for approval for a search or entry into a dwelling. They may be asked to approve booking charges. They are investigations supervisors. They must know which notifications to make at a major crime scene, and in the precise order. They are evidence collection and crime scene experts. They will know recent developments regarding case law and what they mean. Line supervisors know they have a stake in keeping subordinates well-trained and up to date. Once they become aware of a deficient, neglectful officer or of an officer who violates department rules and policies, they too will be exposed to vicarious liability.

An informed front-line supervisor will know the difference between when a criminal or an administrative investigation is in order and when ‘Lybarger’ and ‘Miranda’ rules apply to officers or deputies. They know when an officer may be admonished and when they must be counseled. They know when the next steps need to be taken, including when to contact the captain and internal affairs.

Without question, the sergeant houses the knowledge base for the entire department.

How sergeants should act

Sergeants are pivotal to the success of a new policy or procedure. As a role model and mentor to many, they lead by example. A sergeant who winces, raises an eyebrow and blatantly criticizes a new policy can lead to its disregard by the troops. A sergeant who conveys the positive aspects of a new policy and takes the time to explain the benefits to personnel can ensure its success.

When it comes to officer safety, the sergeant will play the “bad guy” in order to gain compliance with safety regulations. They remind officers to wear body armor, even on the hottest days. They remind officers to wear seat belts and sometimes call off dangerous pursuits for minor traffic violations.

Line supervisors know when it is time to stop playing on the department softball or basketball team. They understand when it is time to stop “hanging out” with the troops after work. Sergeants also know when to mentor an officer or deputy. A sergeant may arrange to go on the occasional ride-along with a problem employee and will know when to go with the exemplary employee as well. A sergeant will generate a meaningful performance evaluation with goals of improving safety for that officer, as well as opportunities for promotion. They often know when a mistake is made as a result of a training failure rather than an act or omission with mal intent. They know when to give a “pep talk,” when to add humor to lighten a mood, or when to be deadly serious when confronting a dangerous situation. A skilled sergeant understands the dynamics of the law enforcement agency and commands respect when a fair balance achieved.

Without question, the sergeant is the most important leader in a law enforcement agency.


  • The International Association of Chiefs of Police Leadership in Police Organizations (IACP LPO) is a leadership training program aimed at front-line supervisors. The three-week program strives to help sergeants understand and apply modern behavioral science and leadership theories that affect human motivation, satisfaction and performance in the achievement of organizational goals. The program is interactive, practical and experience-based.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is an excellent resource for supervisors with information on how to respond to an officer experiencing a crisis post-critical incident, and in creating resiliency.
James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.