5 examples of effective discipline for small agency leaders

In a small agency, the police leader may work shoulder-to-shoulder with officers on the street, and kinship felt among officers and leaders in such cases must be managed as an asset and not a liability

The distant leader who lives in the luxury of layers of personnel between the chief’s desk and the squad room may not identify with the small agency leader’s discomfort with disciplining team members who are like family. Decisions on discipline, scheduling, and promotion are inevitably emotionally charged in ways that cannot be resolved by transfer to another shift or station. 

How does a leader in a small agency balance their personal feelings with the agency mission? For the police leader who may often be shoulder to shoulder with officers on the front lines, how does comradery affect correction? 

Here are five guideposts to consider, along with examples of how you might communicate them to your troops. 

1. Keep the Mission First
When employees know that your first priority is taking care of the public’s needs and not their own, an uncomfortable decision is less likely to be questioned when it is clearly in the public interest. It is always in the public interest to have confident and motivated officers, so this mission mandate should never crush the need for officers to feel valued and cared for. 

“I know your daughter’s recital is Thursday, but we need the manpower for the parade.”

2. Care for Them, Don’t Carry Them
It is often easier and quicker to just cover a shift, make a small report correction, or make a schedule adjustment as a favor to a team member than to press them to fix all of their own problems. Team members should not be conditioned to expect favors. 

Small irritations like leaving a patrol car with low fuel or a break area dirty need to result in accountability, not forgiveness. As petty as it may sound, breaches of common courtesy and routine should be noted by leaders and addressed quickly. Don’t clutter up the books with a new policy to address one officer’s bad behavior. Just deal with it. 

“Mary, I’ve noticed you haven’t cleaned the patrol car since Tuesday, get it done today and I’m making a note of it.”

3. Trust, But Verify
Trust is a great sign of friendship. Trust is not good public policy. Review, evaluation, inspection, and observation must be documented to assure the public that its police officers are efficient and mission-focused. Regular processes need to be in place to assure leaders that their team members are fulfilling their mission. This is an opportunity for correction and, importantly, an opportunity to provide positive reinforcement for consistent, policy-driven behavior. 


“Mark, I was monitoring the radio traffic early this morning. Nice job covering the perimeters on that alarm call, but I’m not seeing your 10-8 time entered on your activity log.”

4. Think ‘Big Picture’
Self-preservation is not a selfish pursuit. It is a reality of leadership in law enforcement. Think investigative reporters. Think depositions. Think subpoena. Think lawsuit. Think policy. 

Leaders in collegial relationships with city leaders and their own department team members tend to think the quality of those relationships will last forever. There are plenty of leaders who can tell you how quickly loyalties can twist in a crisis. 

“It doesn’t matter that he’s your brother-in-law. Book him like anybody else.”

5. Document, Document, Document
Nothing seems more petty and paranoid than constantly recording every employee contact, conversation, and correction. Consistent record keeping, however, can be a powerful tool for finding behavior patterns that leaders may otherwise overlook as incidental or rare. 

Establishing a regular routine of reflection on team members’ performance and attitude will enhance your ability to reward and to correct. 

“Sgt. Marquez, we need to schedule regular one-on-one reviews. We’ll start with weekly meetings and see how that goes.”

Small Agency, Big Challenges
Small agency executives seldom get the credit they deserve for juggling the many facets of leadership and management with limited resources and staffing. The satisfaction of personal relationships is a key decision for many choosing to work in those challenging environments. The kinship felt among officers and leaders in small agencies must be managed as an asset and not a liability. 

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