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New academy focuses on foundational leadership skills to achieve consistency in supervision

Investing in supervisors is an investment in law enforcement’s future

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The benefits of the academy are numerous and go beyond helping current supervisors grow.

Photo/David Pearson

These are interesting times for law enforcement. In addition to the stress of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been several incidents around the country that have started large movements that are challenging law enforcement agencies to examine how they do business. Good training and leadership have never been more important to address the public’s desire for police reform. Police leaders must objectively look at our practices and make changes. If we don’t, we risk losing relationships and community trust many of us have worked so hard to gain over the years.

In-service training reviews societal issues

Fort Collins Police Services in Northern Colorado is a mid-sized agency of approximately 340 employees. One of the hallmarks of the organization is providing quality training to its members. Every sworn officer receives approximately 120 hours of training on a variety of topics each year to include legal updates, policy, use of force, victim services and POST-required training. When possible, we use scenario-based integrated training to help drive home important topics.

After an in-depth look at our culture in 2018, we added several topics to our in-service training calendar to address issues facing our agency and society at large. Work began on developing classes on ethics, fair and impartial policing, and implicit bias and diversity training. Instructors, both sworn and civilian, were identified and chosen for their interest and skills in the topics, as well as their credibility as instructors in the organization.

Supervisor academy addresses culture, ethical decision-making

When Chief Jeff Swoboda joined Fort Collins in the summer of 2018, he wanted to expand the training offered to the agency to include more leadership development. He knew that our mission to provide professional and compassionate police services was best reinforced, not at the executive staff level, but a supervisory level. Investing in our supervisors is an investment in the future. Consequently, Chief Swoboda directed the training staff to develop a week-long supervisor academy. Our inaugural academy was in November 2019 with 15 supervisors from the organization.

The goal of the academy is to provide a solid foundation of leadership concepts to develop balanced leaders who can handle not only day-to-day procedural tasks and crisis events, but also the personnel issues that challenge many supervisors. Because there was support at the executive level, there was a clear agency expectation that supervisors attend the class. This top-down support ensured that supervisors got the time away from their normal duties to attend. This support was vital and appreciated by the students. As one attendee said, “I liked that the program was a full week and that it all ran consecutively, this gave us all a chance to immerse ourselves in the class.”

The program focuses on the following areas:

1. Using early warning systems to detect potential issues

One critical part of the academy is focused on internal affairs and our early warning system. Leaders need to understand how to properly investigate allegations of misconduct. Having this discussion in a group setting, hearing one consistent message, with both sworn and professional staff leaders, reinforces Chief Swoboda’s belief that, “We need consistent expectations of integrity, equity and accountability at every level of the organization.”

This expectation includes the tracking of all complaints in our early warning system and rendering a “finding” on the complaint. This procedure helps identify potential employee issues before they become major problems that might discredit the agency and undermine the relationship with our community. It also helps develop trust with the community and shows that their concerns are listened to and addressed.

2. Implementing ethical leadership

Additionally, instructors emphasize the importance of having crucial conversations and living ethical leadership. Supervisors are trained on how to approach an employee to have a difficult conversation about behavior, ethics, values and community expectations.

The academy setting provided an opportunity to have group discussions with colleagues from diverse backgrounds and experiences. This collaboration helped students develop and learn multiple ways to craft difficult messages and add tools to their coaching toolbox. As one supervisor said, “I found benefit from the group discussions as it helped me look at an issue from many different perspectives and helped broaden my view.”

3. Employee development through fair evaluations

Another tool for employee development is conducting fair and accurate evaluations. This responsibility can be one of the most daunting and difficult for new supervisors; therefore, we spend significant time educating supervisors about how to provide an effective evaluation that does not just describe behavior but improves it.

By discussing this in a group setting, clear expectations can be established that ensure consistency across sworn and non-sworn employees. One newly appointed supervisor was excited knowing she was “part of a new, bigger team that was all on the same page with PD expectations and standards.”

4. Community engagement expectations

The leader’s role in community engagement is another focus of the academy. The agency’s true desire to connect with and listen to the community starts with support from our leaders. Chief Swoboda’s expectation that all employees, regardless of assignment, should make time away from normal daily duties to get involved with the community is reinforced for these supervisors.

Whether visiting with the community about elder abuse or ID scams, walking the parks or trailheads to discuss ideas for mitigating vehicle break-ins, or walking the neighborhoods and just talking with people to see what their concerns are, all employees are encouraged to get involved. Finding creative and fun ways to get every employee connected with the community takes collaboration and intentional decisions.

building a foundation of skills

Woven into many discussions is the importance of agency values and culture, as well as the need for organizational justice, diversity of thought, leading by example, and being a good role model, coach and mentor. At the end of the week, supervisors leave with a much better foundation of skills and ideas for successfully navigating their new role in the organization. One supervisor summed it up when she said, “It was great to be able to have a starting point that provided me with so many useful new tools to help me get started in this new position.” She also thought she “walked away with a better understanding of agency culture and how I could do my part in helping build that culture.”

The benefits of the academy are numerous and go beyond helping current supervisors grow. The training helps with the recruitment of new supervisors and retention of seasoned supervisors. One supervisor commented, “I finished the academy with new ideas on being a leader and even more importantly, was refreshed in a position that had become stale.”

Consistency in supervision across the entire organization has its own reward. In addition, the investment in this training helps demonstrate to our community our commitment to professional growth, good character, accountability, ethical leadership and customer service.

NEXT: 4 changes every LE agency should make ahead of police reform

David Pearson recently retired as a lieutenant with the Fort Collins Police Services in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has been a police officer since 1990 and held several assignments as a sergeant and lieutenant. He has been a law enforcement instructor since 1996 and has taught a variety of topics to include officer safety, SWAT tactics, active shooter and incident command.

Since 2005, David has been an instructor for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and has taught classes on several disciplines. David’s focus has been in less lethal technology and tactics and he is the main instructor for the NTOA’s Less Lethal Instructor course. David has certified over 1,000 instructors in the United States and Canada in the less lethal course. Since 2013, he has served in the role of Less Lethal Section Chair for the NTOA.

In 2017, David started his company, Rocky Mountain Blue Line Consulting, LLC, and provides expert witness assistance and consulting. David has presented at the annual conferences for APCO, NSA, IACP, California Chiefs, Utah Chief’s and Utah Sheriff’s Association.

David is a two-time Medal of Valor recipient for his actions on patrol and SWAT. He also earned a Medal of Merit for his life-saving efforts during a major flood. He holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership.