The supervisor's role in officer survival
As we mourn the loss of Seattle PD’s Officer Timothy Brenton — an FTO in the midst of doing his job when he was gunned down by cowards in a drive-by shooting — we’re reminded of how essential field trainers, senior officers, and corporals are to any police organization. These are the warriors among us who bridge the gap between supervision and the line personnel. One of their most important roles in any police agency is to do everything they can to help keep their fellow crimefighters safe, and as supervisors we must do all that we can to help them accomplish this mission.
Although we are at a fifty-year low when it comes to officers killed in the line of duty, we need to remember that “officer survival” isn’t just about staying alive. Tens of thousands of police officers are injured and assaulted every year and many of these are life-altering, career-ending events.
There is so much that a good supervisor can do to affect the safety of our personnel.
• Be a model of what you want to see in your people. Monitor your own behavior and your own tactics. If you find yourself developing bad habits that you wouldn’t tolerate in your officers, make some changes. As supervisors, we can get a bit lazy when it comes to our own safety, especially if we’re no longer a first responder or our job has become more administrative than tactical. I know so many patrol sergeants who have stopped wearing their full duty belt, their body armor, and their back up gun because “that’s what the officers are for” or because “by the time I get on the scene everything is usually secure.” Take good care of your gear, wear your seat belt, be the first one on the range and the last one to leave on training days. Expect more from yourself than you do from your personnel.
• Bring something every day to the table that relates to officer survival. We get so bogged down in administrative nonsense that we sometimes lose sight of keeping our people safe until tragedy strikes. Websites like Police1 and the Officer Down Memorial Page are full of tips and stories that you can use at your daily briefing to start a discussion about safety. Relate “officer down” reports to calls that your people are likely to encounter and discuss how they should be handled from a survival perspective.
• Listen to your people. Watch them. Get to know them and how they react in certain situations. Are you seeing hesitation in certain officers? Is there a new use of force policy that has everyone angry and worried about ending up in Internal Affairs? Don’t let these issues fester. Get them out in the open. Give the guys and gals a chance to lament, but then bring the discussion back around to how they can stay safe and still not violate policy; reassure them that no general order is worth their life, and that you will support them when things get dicey.
• Use “Tactical Intervention” and empower your people to do the same. Set ground rules that members of the team (or shift or unit) are encouraged to call each other out when bad officer safety is observed. Give them the verbal tools to be able to do this appropriately and with respect and foster an atmosphere of keeping each other safe, not humiliating or tattling on each other. When someone makes a mistake, focus on “what could we have done better?” instead of how badly someone screwed up.
• Train, Train, Train! Get the officers involved in practicing better traffic stop techniques, moving and shooting, whatever it is that you or your people think you all need to work on. Ask each member of the shift to put together a five minute roll call training on some aspect of their daily function on the street. Be sure that someone is addressing whether that someone is addressing cover/contact, passenger side approaches, and overcoming complacency when responding to the daily deluge of false alarm calls. Make sure you acknowledge their efforts and that management knows about it too. Advocate for them, push management to send them to good training (or bring outside trainers in), and mentor your own trainers and senior officers.
Generally speaking, your people already know what to do. The job of the supervisor and the field training officer is to keep reminding them and encouraging them. This is called the theory of “receptive training.” You don’t necessarily need to teach them new skills, you just have to give them opportunities to remember and use what they already know.
A good supervisor is a role model, a coach, an advocate, and so much more. Go get ‘em Sarge!