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Empowering the future of policing: Navigating staffing shortages through mentorship, collaboration

Silos kill progress and diminish the greater good, and our greater good is a healthy, operational police agency

Police helping man

We need to be calculated and intentional about how we train, expose and allow our newest team members to operate.

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In an era of depleted police forces nationwide, operational ability is a critical issue faced by police leaders. If we don’t have the numbers, we need to make sure we are working effectively with the limited resources we have — and that means being productive.

But that begs the question: Is your team productive?

That might depend on the individual, factoring in qualities regarding work ethic, energy levels and general attitude. But what about your officers’ time on the job?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and wealth of knowledge for all things workplace culture, cited data referencing conversations of hybrid/remote work: “When our colleagues sit nearby, we get more feedback. That builds learning and retention among junior people, but reduces productivity for senior people.”

In policing, it’s tempting for senior officers to move quicker — especially with high call volume and low staffing. They will find they can get more done if they work away from the rookies and let them fumble on their own.

However, we need to recognize that when building (or rebuilding) departmental culture, that can be catastrophic. Just like laying a foundation, we need to be calculated and intentional about how we train, expose and allow our newest team members to operate in this job.

Rookies: The time sponges

We know new officers take longer to get things done correctly. Not only do they utilize more time, but they also utilize the time of other officers (trainers, senior officers and supervisors). Their questions will also engage civilians with adjacent roles (records, evidence and court personnel). Their inevitable mistakes mean more work (and time) spent by all the parties previously mentioned to advise and/or fix potential problems.

Simply put, new officers are time and attention sponges.

But before we keep beating up on the new guys and gals, let’s focus on the positives.

A new officer who is engaging those around him, taking on new challenges, and asking for advice and input is the recipe for success. It shows commitment, humility and drive. A sponge can soak up everything: let’s curate that and make it all the good stuff.

We need to make sure that new officers (and recruits) are around the right people. This means every step of the way. Every person who touches them and has the most time with them should be your positive influences and high performers (recruiters, trainers and peer officers).

This can’t always be ideal, but should be the objective. If you want them to be a model officer, put them around model officers. Distance the negative influences, because they will soak that up too!

We, as a police culture, should not be standoffish to these rookies. Rather, we should invite that attitude. If not, no matter how subtle, our lack of attention and mentorship can develop sharply into unbridled self-management, which is a risk manager’s nightmare. It can also become a breeding ground for anything unfavorable in your organization — like apathy or toxicity.

Senior officers: The coaches

Whether it is a 10-year veteran or someone newly off probation, that is a senior officer. Low tenure is becoming a trend. It may not be the ideal landscape, but the sooner we can recognize it, the sooner we can rise to the challenge.

We need to enable our new officers to be coaches and mentors.

Field trainers used to be veterans — closer to a decade of service (at least!) Not only are those scenarios a rarity at many agencies but making your senior officer a trainer might be the wrong move.

As previously mentioned, attitude and drive are more important than time on. Having an experienced officer who knows what to do, but doesn’t do it, is not an asset. Rather, lean on and empower your eager, newer officers.

Encourage the high performers to be field trainers or teachers in different systems, tools or weapons. Open up roles for them on teams like firearms, defensive tactics, or other modalities like ABLE, patrol tactics and crisis intervention.

If we build up our young talent appropriately, we will feel comfortable (and grateful) when we need to promote them and pass the torch.

We must start fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment that illustrates that their continued commitment to learning and developing themselves will be the difference-maker. We have to credit them on what they do know and invite them to continually seek feedback and mentorship up the personnel seniority ladder and rank structure. Culture building and operational soundness parallel opportunities that will trend upward in sync.

Managers: The open-minded coordinators

Police leaders with rank need to be more flexible than ever. We need to continually self-assess to identify our weaknesses (AKA opportunities for growth). We need to continually analyze our teams and find creative solutions. If we aren’t the ones to generate those ideas, then that’s OK, but we need to create an environment where others feel comfortable and supported to do so.

The best way to kill creativity and engagement is to invite feedback and then ignore it or shut it down.

If you have your people talking to you, then you’re on the right track. It means you have trust and credibility. It means they believe in your care and ability to get the job done.

Engage ideas appropriately, because you can’t do it all or say “yes” to everything. Help bounce the ideas around to flesh them out. Keep the conversation going with tangible action items for the officer to determine and report back on.

In the right scenarios, it may be green-lighting a project or idea where you empower them to run it with your oversight or check-ins. You are allowing them to build ownership and, essentially, their own leadership repetitions.

When we hear ideas, no matter how unconventional, we need to take pause and appreciate that we earned the trust to be provided such feedback or thoughts. We need to challenge ourselves to engage and entertain. It doesn’t mean owning all the ideas; sometimes it means pitching it back for some more homework.

By doing so, you are building a team that is learning to collaborate. You are building cohesion and developing key players in your organization and future leaders. With this level of engagement, you can then be the coordinator or facilitator of your resources. This is how you will best amplify your resources — no matter how constrained or limited for the time being.

A rebuilding phase

Here are three keys to remember as you reorient and bolster your organization:

  1. It’s going to take longer to get things done — from simple calls to overall agency efficiency. This translates over to civilians in administrative roles and the prosecutor’s office. This cannot be lost on bosses and peers alike.
  2. We need to curb the anticipated clunkiness with intentional mentoring. We need to check in and be accessible and available as leaders and role models. It’s not about hovering or micromanaging, but it’s about being close by (phone at worst case) if any need or question arises.
  3. Realize abundantly that policing is a team sport — more than ever. With de-escalation, creative problem-solving and contingencies being more developed on every call, we need resources and people to create those multiple options.

But you may ask: What about the lone wolf — those solo officers, troopers or deputies in rural areas? Maybe you’re the only officer for miles, but you’re not alone. Lean into your community. I know that in some towns your civilians are your backup.
Maybe it’s in fisticuffs or maybe it’s by recording your lawful interaction. Maybe it’s being a good witness to help build a case and justify your probable cause.

It might be easier to focus in and stay in your lane, but silos kill progress and diminish the greater good. And our greater good is a healthy, operational police agency, which translates into a healthier, safer community.

NEXT: What young officers truly desire from their career, written by a truly young officer

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.