Why street-level leadership is critical for effective policing

An effective team-level police leader needs a very specific and completely different skillset during a critical incident than the one needed for day-to-day operations

Think about the worst incidents you can imagine. Chain-reaction crashes on the interstate, overturned HazMat trucks, tornado destruction, active shooter incidents, multi-pronged terrorist attacks,  and ambush attacks against our officers.

We have many so-called police leadership schools — the FBI National Academy, the Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command, and the Southern Police Institute, to name just a few. While these schools are excellent and proven career builders, they are management schools, not hands-on leadership training tailored for effective response to incidents such as those mentioned above. Military-style “leading your troops into combat” training for police officers is almost non-existent. 

When I compare my U.S. Army days to civilian police experience, there is one huge, glaring difference during a large-scale police response. Instead of a cohesive team, police operations usually involve several officers each doing what they think is most important at that moment. That disjointed effort will eventually work. But think how much better we could do with a team of officers all working toward a specific goal? A well-led team will always outperform even the bravest single hero.

Developing Quarterbacks
A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to put together a true hands-on leadership course and see the difference it has made in young street-level police leaders.

Much of my experience comes from managing a state-wide critical incident training program under license from BowMac Educational Services. The BowMac training uses a bottom-up philosophy, teaching the first arriving officer to assume command and start building a team response. BowMac’s lead instructor, Vincent Faggiano, relates their training to a football game, saying they strive to develop coaches, not players.

While the BowMac program is great stuff, described by most participants as “the best training I’ve ever attended,” I see a need for pushing leadership down one more level. Sticking with the football analogy, there is one crucially important position we still aren’t training — the quarterback.

We need to train police quarterbacks to assemble a team of officers under high-stress conditions and lead them into the hot zone. Assembling a team from a dozen cops — all driving like maniacs to a reported school shooting — is no easy task. The team leader’s job (this could be senior officer, sergeant, or chief — rank means little) is to break the normal balls-to-the-wall, independent-action response pattern and force officers to work together with one single plan of action. 

Just like a quarterback, the team leader must call the play and then adapt it on-the-fly, depending on how the event develops. The QB must make an instant decision to either pass or run, there is no time to look to the coach on the sidelines for guidance.

An effective team-level police leader needs a very specific and completely different skillset during a critical incident than the one needed for day-to-day operations. 

Get Out of the Classroom
The leadership course we now use for newly promoted sergeants breaks each class into teams of six — a sergeant and five officers. We get out of classroom and stress the teams on BowMac’s Model City Simulator, where each will become the incident commander.  Then we spend a full day in the field running “red gun” scenarios where the sergeant must assess the available information, decide on a hasty plan, and lead their team into harm’s way. 

Every student rotates through the team leader role several times, gaining experience at critical decision making under stress, taking input from the team, and control/communication of the team during the event. They quickly learn the old truth that communication is the first thing to fail under stress. Unless they have prior military experience, few new police sergeants are comfortable shifting into “drill sergeant” mode — barking out sharp, concise orders to direct the actions of their team under fire. Watching young leaders learn those new skills and show dramatic improvement in their second rotation as team leader is truly gratifying.

We need strong, unflinching street-level police leaders. In my humble opinion, this is the issue which can turn around the spiraling cycle of violence our officers face today.

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