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Preparing for a promotion: A patrol commander’s guide to success

For you to come out on top, you will be a blend of having the chops and showing up as your best-presented self

DALL·E 2024-01-30 09.25.14 - A horizontal image of a police officer being interviewed for a promotion in a more positive setting. The officer, in full uniform, stands confidentl.png

Whether it’s commander, lieutenant or captain, determine your “why.”


Recruitment and retention continues to be a top concern for police departments around the country. And while some agencies are gaining ground on this issue, many others are still struggling to develop traction.

Whether your organization is finding strength in hiring numbers or having to galvanize the remaining personnel and resources you have, leadership is going to make or break your agency.

If you are reading this, then you are likely one of two people.

First, you are or have been on the trajectory with a desire to promote. You seek to develop yourself and your team to advance the mission. Good on you, you’re in the right place.

The second group might be dipping their toes. They ponder what promotion would mean and what it would look like. They may be questioning the timing. Is it too soon? Are they too young? For those folks, preparing a mindset is critical; doing some soul-searching will inform heavily, so I urge you to continue reading as it may help you among your other inputs for consideration.

Why do you want to be in your command staff?

Whether it’s commander, lieutenant or captain, determine your “why.”

You must know this for yourself, but this can be foundational to prepping for your test process. By now, you are already an organizational leader; where are you stalled in your growth – personally or organizationally – with your current role or rank? Where is your influence or sphere of control limited with your assignment? How would promotion help you get there?

If your main reasons have to do with enhancing department culture, then you’re on the right track. The strength of a department is derived from line-level officers and employees. However, leadership (or a lack thereof) is of critical importance to officializing positive practice, methods and innovative advancement.

Preparing for a promotion

First things first: You need to learn the test.

Any responsible agency or civil service entity will detail what will be expected of you regarding the written, interview and presentation components. At the higher levels of police promotion, tests tend to lean away from the written and concrete information regarding points of evaluation. Think how corporal and sergeant roles test you on policies and procedures. By now, that is an assumed requisite that you understand and can apply those.

[READ: How to prepare for the sergeant promotional process]

In command-level roles, it becomes more about the “bigger picture,” which is relevant to the role. It becomes more about leadership style, ideology and practice. It becomes how you communicate, play diplomat, recognize how agencies and stakeholders interact, interplay and make progress together. It’s about reading the landscape and forecasting the ripples that can expand significantly in different directions from a singular event or issue. It’s about coordinating projects and programs with various people and their innumerable prerogatives for meaningful results and solutions.

For instance, rather than talking through a problem employee situation or role-play scenario, a question or prompt may be more about recognition of how different routes can create larger consequences for that employee, team and culture. It’s not just having a direct conversation with a subordinate while citing policy. It’s about recognizing the impact of that conversation and how if done correctly or incorrectly can affect (negatively or positively) not only that employee, but their unit, your whole department and portions of the community you serve.

By carefully and thoroughly reading the test components and instructions, you can start making notes and drafting some of your main strengths, examples and goals that contribute toward your leadership intent.

Now that you’ve learned the test, it’s time to learn outside of the test.

How can you speak clearly on leadership if you don’t actively learn about leadership? How can you navigate awkward communication if you don’t actively learn about team dynamics and effective messaging?

Strong leaders don’t reinvent the wheel. Leadership has existed since the first coordination of social groups and societies. Find an effective leader and cite figures from the military, business, education, tech start-ups, politics and sports. Every industry has game-changers, trendsetters and prolific success stories in cultivating organizational excellence. Find examples that resonate with your style, passions and interests.

When you consider your areas of improvement, you can focus on where you can maximize your growth. Focus on your areas of passion, leaders in fields that resonate with you and start reading their books (or books about them), listening (interviews or podcasts) or watching them (their interviews, performance, after-action reviews and analysis).

Finally, don’t forget to solicit feedback.

Earlier, I referenced deficiencies. How do you know what they are? Write them down. If you’re stalled, write what you perceive other people you work with would identify as areas for improvement. Pick people who are your advocates. Ask leaders who you look up to in your circles. Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them to give you critical feedback.

Next, pick people who are your critics. Maybe you don’t want to have a cup of coffee with them, but you may be able to easily identify what gripes they may have based on prior disagreements, conflicts or other discourse. Sometimes, perception is reality, and with the subjective nature of leadership and influence, recognizing what your objectors may think can be useful so you can extinguish their critiques.

How do you know your leadership style? Take in the notes provided to you and reflect on where you shine and where your efforts feel a bit labored. Lean into the strong areas, but don’t neglect the weaker ones where you’re not as proficient. They should be a continual work in progress but don’t force those aspects. Instead, reflect on how you can leverage your resources and relationships to identify and exact the best solution possible.

What do “they” want?

Now that we have discussed your learning of the test and reflecting on your characteristics and qualities, we can get to the heart of preparation. What does every test assessor want from you?

The test assessors want to get a realistic view of who you are as an officer and leadership candidate. They want to know what you have done in your assignments (resume), but also what you have done in practice (examples). They want to get a strong sense of what makes you tick as a person, officer and leader.

They want you to compile and summarize all this information and let it shine in different interview questions, scenarios or problem-solving exercises with presentation.

What to expect: Questions, issues and presentation

You should expect to be able to cite how you would handle a problem, project, situation or other issue. A thorough answer may include a bit of your leadership style (either by definition or description), an example of how you’ve handled something similar and your awareness of different factors.

Structure your response like you would in writing. Recap part of the question if it helps you re-frame and stay on point. Just like a paper, a good response will have a beginning, middle and end.

Example: One of your officers has been complaining about community members coming on ridealongs. Your chief has told you the sergeant is not addressing it and it is creating a toxic environment within the ranks. Your chief recognizes the benefit of strong community member relations and his goal is for officers to embrace these opportunities; it is your job to address all parties involved. Please detail your thought process and the conversations you need to have.

First, let’s explore some poor answers. We don’t want to jump to conclusions and go straight to discipline. The question is not likely trying to evoke a candidate saying, “Yup, I can deliver discipline.” On the other hand, you can imagine how some candidates lacking experience and confidence will talk in circles without any real results and direct conflict with anyone involved.

Here’s a sample response, incorporating the notes and suggestions through this article:

This is a situation that will require me to reach out and learn more. I feel strongly about community relations, especially from my time teaching at a community academy. However, I am also a leader who resists jumping to conclusions and I do so by asking questions.

First, I would speak with my chief. I need to iron out exactly what he or she either heard or directly observed. I want my details to be accurate, as departmental culture is also of extreme importance and I have been working to rebuild that in my peer support involvement. After speaking with my chief, I will know what specific, accurate information I have. I need to know if the comments were simply venting or egregious before I make contact with my sergeant.

Also, in the prompt, it says the sergeant has not been doing anything about the officer’s comments. I would explore this to see what the chief perceives or knows directly. In my experience, sometimes it is simply miscommunication. I have found that, generally, officers (supervisors included) try to do the right thing, so I want to connect with my sergeant and explore what his thoughts and efforts have been.

If the sergeant is oblivious, that could be a learning opportunity to explain the importance and “why” behind making sure roll call is positive, but also that officers do not become resentful of our community advocates. If the sergeant has been trying to address it, this is an opportunity for me to build teamwork with him as a leadership partnership, to provide advice and insight. Further, I can then relay back to the chief, which is helpful for leadership awareness and cohesion.

I am a leader who wants to utilize the chain of command effectively. With that, I want to build trust in my sergeant and not undermine him. The best case scenario is he continues the counseling and tracking progress with the officers. If my sergeant is not receptive to the discussions with me, then, ultimately, I know accountability is crucial. If he is not receptive to the department mission or directives, then I will explain to him he is forcing my hand to formally counsel or discipline him, which would also potentially need to be addressed with the officer if the sergeant has been ineffective in this capacity.

This may be a lot and it may be more than most candidates will say. However, the point is it illustrates how this candidate is being thoughtful to the potential landscape and implications of a rushed or incomplete approach. By examining this candidate’s response, you can see the adaptable mindset and nature. You also get a sense of how this person leads, personality-wise and some of the things he has done (without going on long tangents).

Key points for promotion success

  1. Act “as if”: This is a classic sales theme that forms and bolsters confidence. Act as if you have this sale. Act as if you aren’t brand new at this job. I tell younger officers and cops in new roles: act as if you have. This doesn’t mean over-inflating your ego. Don’t be cocky or standoffish. It means recognizing you have what it takes to take on the challenge. It also means answering the questions, prompts and scenarios like you have that role already. It means taking off your sarge hat or first-line persona and integrating your command-level style.
  2. Don’t make assumptions: Often, you are being evaluated by people who don’t know you. And if they do, they are instructed to base scoring on what you say explicitly. Don’t assume they read your cover letter, resume or essay responses. Assume they know nothing! Provide detail. In addition to what you’ve done, use clear details in your responses. For example, if you talk about a time you disagreed with someone in your chain, it would be helpful to give enough context so that they know you weren’t being unreasonable or brash. If you are asked about one of your flaws, take the time to relay how you came to recognize and actively work on said flaw (with examples, tracked progress and resolution).
  3. Pay attention to detail: Read prompts carefully and multiple times. Listen carefully as well. Make sure you hit all parts of a multi-part question. There is nothing wrong with pausing – it means you are thinking conscientiously. Also, I have never seen or heard of someone being marked down for asking a question to be repeated or being reminded of the last part of the question.
  4. Be aware of time: Some responses are only allotted specific metrics (like five minutes per question or 20 minutes to get through several questions). Budget your time by not over-explaining any one response. Practice what five, 10 or 20 minutes of talking feels like. Some assessors are instructed to give you warnings when you are close to running out of time.
  5. Be mindful of expressions but not distracted: Finding and alternating eye contact with assessors helps keep people engaged. Some are instructed not to give any cues (positive or negative) for feedback, but this does not mean you can’t earn some nods and soft smiles for good answers. However, don’t get distracted or derailed if someone is staring back at you like they are in a trance – or worse like they hate you. Keep focus!
  6. Prepare ahead of time: Do you say “um” a lot? Do you instantly start sweating when you’re in business formal attire? Do you speed up your speaking and start to trip over your own words? Do you look stern or even frown when nervous? Practice and mental preparation can help with all of these. Even for the attire – try it on ahead of time. Make sure it’s comfortable (enough) and go through the motions so it isn’t the first time on “the day.”

Coming out on top

Showing up well on test day is about being you. However, it is more than smooth-talking and a perfectly written resume.

For you to come out on top, you will be a blend of having the chops and showing up as your best-presented self. This means you prepared your mindset, potential responses, test-taking and interview skills, and all things related to presentation to the best of your ability.

By taking advantage of your passion to lead and willingness to polish your preparatory efforts – and coupling them with your impressive policing career resume – you will certainly bolster your opportunities to serve in the capacity where you will be most effective as a leader.

NEXT: Watch these YouTube videos before a promotional interview

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.