The Leadership Beat: ‘If officers are confident that I support them, that will impact their behaviors and decision-making process’
Chief Phil Baebenroth discusses how prioritizing safety, technology, equipment and opportunities is key to building officer morale
The following content is part of a new Police1 initiative – the Police Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new law enforcement leaders move beyond basic management and supervision skills and become inspirational leaders with integrity and passion. Through a handful of questions presented by Police1, veteran leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email email@example.com to offer your insights for the Police Leader Playbook.
Chief Phil Baebenroth became chief of the City of North St. Paul in Minnesota in August 2021. The agency has 19 sworn, 2 civilian FTEs and 2 part-time CSOs and handles approximately 9,000 calls for service each year. Chief Phil Baebenroth recently received his Doctorate of Education (EdD) from Concordia University in St. Paul.
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What put you on the path to becoming a chief?
I watched my parents work three jobs at a time to raise me and my three brothers. They engrained in me the values of work ethic, faith, service, courage and selflessness. They showed me that you have to work hard in life, and you do not give up.
I was also very fortunate to have great co-workers and leaders throughout my career who supported and guided me. My FTOs, sergeants, SWAT teammates and commanders, and several other leaders were all instrumental in my development.
Timing was also a critical element in my path – the right opportunity at the right time. I am thankful for a good friend who informed me of the opportunity.
What did you want to accomplish, improve, or make better in your first few months as chief?
First, I wanted to establish relationships. I wanted to get to know my team of cops and I wanted them to get to know me. I also wanted to get to know the community – business owners, school leaders, religious leaders and as many residents as I could. I did a lot of listening and learning. From those conversations, I was able to assess many elements of the department and community and begin a path forward.
After identifying several immediate needs, within the first six months, I presented several items to the city council related to safety, technology, staffing and equipment, and initiated a few trainings, events and programs. Specifically:
- We did not have adequate radio reception in our own police department due to the structure of the building. Council approved my request for a repeater on the roof of city hall.
- We did not have adequate radio reception when we were outside of the building because of our aging radios. Council approved my request for new encrypted radios.
- We were significantly understaffed in the budget and short-staffed on the street from duty-related injuries. Council approved my request for one additional officer.
- We did not have enough patrol sergeants to provide constant coverage and support to the officers and community. Council approved my request for an additional sergeant.
- Our squad car computers were not functional and often disconnected from the network causing emergency information to be delayed or missed. I used forfeiture funding to get new squad computers and cameras in all our cars.
- We started a “Run with the Cops” program to engage the community while promoting physical fitness.
- We restructured monthly department meetings to transition them to monthly trainings on mandated topics and useful information.
- We restructured policies on report writing to stop requiring reports on call types that involved no law enforcement actions.
Within the first year, I continued to advocate for our operational needs and employee wellness strategies. We were able to get approval to replace 15-year-old squad rifles and a soon-to-expire records management system. We improved our department’s physical fitness equipment. I advocated for a wage increase for our records supervisor and supported the addition of a night differential pay for all officers on midnights. I fought to get officers reimbursed for annual accrued time that they were unable to properly use throughout the year due to staffing shortages that they would have forfeited per their contract.
I increased opportunities for officers by adding an officer to our multi-agency SWAT team and enabled two officers to be on the negotiator team, and instituted drone operations with council and community approval. I sent several officers to instructor schools for use of force and firearms, and approved almost all requests for additional training.
We were able to sign a contract for professional mental health services for our officers and created a policy that provided them and their families with four free sessions annually. We participated in numerous community activities and hosted several crime prevention meetings and events. I regularly invited council members to participate in ride-alongs with our officers to increase their understanding of the demands and stressors of our job.
Within the first year, I hosted new officer hiring ceremonies and invited all friends and family members of each officer to attend to formally recognize their new position. I also created a new annual employee award ceremony to formally recognize officers for the great work they had done over the past year.
Over the first year and since then my focus has been on officer wellness, culture, morale, training, equipment, efficiency, trust building, crime-fighting, relationship building, and improving the quality of life and the delivery of professional service in our community.
How are you creating an organizational culture people want to be a part of?
The theme of police culture and leadership was one of three components of wellness that I analyzed in my dissertation research, "Understanding Wellness in Law Enforcement: A Crisis." From my research and experiences in law enforcement, I learned to intently focus on the following factors and strategies influencing job enjoyment and organizational culture:
- Treat every officer and community member with respect – build trust and strengthen relationships
- Create opportunities for growth
- Provide relevant and professional training
- Eliminate internal fear and unnecessary stress
- Be clear and consistent in communications, expectations, messaging, policies and accountability
- Check in with everyone on the team often
- Both formally and informally, recognize officers for great work
- Give officers an outlet for stress – physical fitness equipment, professional counseling and days off and let them have a voice in how that stress outlet materializes
- Hire diverse people who align with the culture you want: positive, honest, diligent, smart, compassionate, proven integrity, respectful communicators, team players, selfless
- Fire people who do not align with the culture, do not exemplify department values, and fail to meet the expectations of the team and community
Lead by example in behaviors, attitude and values
- Bring a positive attitude to work, every day
- Trust officers and supervisors to do their jobs – help when asked or ask if they need help
- Work the hardest
- Place the needs of others above mine
- Constantly strive to get better and receive feedback
- Compassionately lead from the heart
Fight for funding for everything that keeps officers safe
- Equipment, staffing, time off, support services and squad cars
From my research, a visual interpretation of the findings demonstrates how an organizational culture of wellness incorporates practice, policy and scholarship:
What’s your process for making major decisions?
My process involves determining the impact of a decision, policy, initiative, or purchase on the department as a whole, on individual officers, and on the community. I gauge alignment with our department values of empathy, respect, integrity and courage. I ask if the decision will make our community safer and keep our officers safe, promote job happiness, recruitment and retention, and I weigh the risks with the goal.
Related to hiring and firing – there are a lot of factors and information that go into those decisions – but it all boils down to one question: Are we better with or without this person?
Related to policies, prior to implementation, I consider if it aligns with officer safety, community safety, our neighboring agency policies and our values. How will the policy be received, interpreted and acted upon by the team? Is it clear, understandable, or too descriptive? Does it allow for necessary officer decisions based on the totality of the circumstances in whatever incident they are in? I also involve other leaders and subject matter experts in my department for policy development.
I also rely on data. If the data show that our caseload assigned to investigations is increasing annually, and doubled in the past four years, that tells me we need more resources in investigations. Factoring in both wellness and the ability to meet the public expectation of professional public service, that data makes decisions like advocating for additional staffing in this area easy. However, convincing elected officials, who may not understand or incorporate these factors into their decision-making processes, can be significantly more challenging.
How do you show your personnel that you are leading with value-based behaviors?
I have always tried to do the right thing, in every situation, in every interaction, and in every role throughout my career. I have absolutely made mistakes and I will make more. When I do, I own up to them, admit I was wrong, and work to be better. However, I don’t make decisions that jeopardize my integrity. I never want any officer to question my integrity because I never want them to think that having questionable integrity is OK. The transferability of honesty and integrity is simple and practical: If the chief does this, then it must be acceptable. If what I do is always honest and ethical, others will do that either implicitly or explicitly.
Showing officers that I sincerely care and support them is extremely important. If officers are confident that I support them, that will impact their behaviors and decision-making process. I want my team of officers to have clear heads to make sound, reasonable and good decisions on the street every single day. If they do not believe that I support them it can hinder their motivation to work, add unnecessary stress, influence poor decision-making, negatively impact public perceptions of police, and diminish morale, recruitment and retention.
I support my officers by asking questions, listening, incorporating their voices and opinions, fighting for the things they need to safely do their jobs, and working alongside them – not just in an office down the hall. I make sure that I never forget what it is like taking calls, responding to emergencies, getting called awful things, or being in intensely stressful and traumatic incidents. I try to praise and thank officers often for doing great work and formally recognize them annually in front of their friends and families. I also make sure that our elected officials stay informed of many of the great things officers do each day in the community.
Leadership lightning round
What is a leadership book, podcast, or seminar you’ve found invaluable?
- "The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business" by Patrick Lencioni
- "Leadership: Theory & Practice" by Peter Northouse
- "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't" by Jim Collins
- "Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance" by Tony Dungy
How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?
I use one platform to schedule everything.
If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?
It would absolutely be staffing: appropriate staffing is the nexus to officer health, happiness, safety, clear thinking, good decision-making and professional public service.
What is one way leaders can show they care about their people?
Listen to them and advocate for them – check in with everyone, ask questions, sincerely listen to their responses and act on their behalf.
At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?
My wife and I have 4 young children (7, 5, 4 and 2). While there is rarely a lull in any day or week with all of their sports and activities, spending time with all of them is my way of recharging. I also wake up early and try to run, lift, or get some type of workout in before the workday begins.