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How to be an effective police leader before, during and after the call

SHOT Show 2018 Law Enforcement Education Program session outlined how true law enforcement leadership begins well before a call for service is received

Every January I’m fortunate to attend the Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) at SHOT Show on behalf of Police1, and learn from some of the best instructors in the business. This year, I was particularly fortunate to attend the “Top 20 Concepts – Mindset, Philosophy, Tactics” session presented by David Pearson, a lieutenant with Fort Collins (Colorado) Police Services.

Pearson serves as the Less Lethal Section Chair for the National Tactical Officer’s Association (NTOA), which is the principal sponsor of the LEEP presentations. Police1 readers unfamiliar with the NTOA might be tempted to dismiss it as a “SWAT-only” organization, but the NTOA doesn’t draw that distinction, believing every mission-oriented officer on the street is a “tactical officer” regardless of his or her assignment. To that end, the NTOA provides training and instruction that is equally valuable to officers in patrol, investigative, traffic, or tactical assignments.

Pearson’s 2018 LEEP session was a wide-ranging study of concepts critical to the development, maintenance and operation of effective law enforcement teams. I’d attended the parent course that it was adopted from two years ago at the NTOA Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and it was a tight fit to cover all the material in a full day. Trying to hit the highlights in a 2-hour session at SHOT was an almost impossible task, but Pearson pulled it off with a dynamic and humorous presentation that kept attendees engaged.

Choosing just one highlight from the action-packed briefing is difficult, but I’d like to share some of Pearson’s insight on a critical area that applies to all Police1 readers regardless of assignment or rank: Leadership.

Before the call

Pearson correctly noted that true leadership begins well before a call for service is received by the police. It’s the responsibility of agency leaders – both formal and informal – to ensure the team is appropriately prepared for their mission. To that end, Pearson suggests focusing on the following:

  • Building the right team identity. How do we view ourselves? How do others view us? What are we known for? What are the core values that motivate us and influence the way we do our job?
  • Be a student. Are you a student of your craft? Do you understand the history of where we’ve been, and continuously seek to increase your knowledge? Do you know what the current best practices are?
  • Pick the right people for the team. Special assignments, in particular, require people with a certain mix of skills, attributes and qualities. Do we have a rigorous process for selecting the right people for the job?
  • Provide good training. This may require you to go outside your agency, or perhaps improve your in-house capabilities, but there is no substitute for frequent, rigorous, realistic training.
  • Get the best equipment. Equipment is no substitute for skill, but having access to the best equipment will improve your capability. Invest in technologies like less lethal, communications, protective equipment, surveillance and intelligence gathering, transportation and lethal force.
  • Mentor. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to grow and foster other leaders in your organization, including people who are capable of replacing you when it’s time for you to leave.
  • Get the support of administration. It’s your responsibility to get the administration on board with the tactics and tools that your troops will use in the field BEFORE they are used.
  • Ensure practices match policies and the law. Deviations will cause heartache in the end.
  • Insist on good mission planning. Develop good habits, and ensure that all relevant aspects are considered and addressed before execution to avoid nasty surprises.

During a call

When it’s time for action, leaders need to demonstrate good control, judgment and awareness.

  • Use the safety priorities model. The NTOA’s model prioritizes welfare and personal safety in the following order: Hostages, innocent civilians, law enforcement and suspect. A good leader makes tactical decisions with this hierarchy in mind, ensuring that a lower priority is never allowed to corrupt the decision-making process.
  • Control emotions. A good leader maintains personal control, and sets the example for the team. A team often takes important cues from its leader, so model the behavior you want your team to display.
  • Be in charge. A good leader is confident in taking control and making decisions. The team looks to you for guidance and leadership, and your job is to give it to them. Be in charge.
  • Be a professional. Use good interpersonal skills, be respectful, communicate clearly, resolve conflicts in a mature way, make good and thoughtful decisions, and demonstrate emotional intelligence.
  • Trust your people. If you have adequately trained and prepared your people, then you should be able to trust them to execute the mission without your interference. Tell them the objective, issue appropriate guidance, and trust them to do their job without micromanaging them.
  • Listen to other ideas. Your people are your greatest resource, and they have a lot they can contribute. Be smart enough to listen to them. Build a culture where constructive feedback is encouraged.
  • If you’re doing, you’re not leading. Perhaps the hardest thing for a new leader is to remain hands off. If your attentions are focused on helping with the task, then you don’t have the head space necessary to monitor and manage the larger situation for the benefit of the team.

After the call

The job of a leader doesn’t stop after the action is over, it’s just begun. A good leader takes stock of what happened, implementing the necessary steps to correct, improve and maintain the team, to wit:

  • After Action Reporting (AAR). An honest evaluation of the action is a necessary starting point for continuous improvement. Honesty and integrity is encouraged when rank or position is not allowed to influence the AAR. What went right? What went wrong? What needs to be done differently next time? Future success is built on the answers to these questions.
  • Change the things that need changing. This might include personnel, tactics, equipment, policies, or myriad other things. A good leader will make it happen.
  • Update training. Training needs to keep pace with current mission requirements, policies and the law. Update your training based on operational failures and mistakes.
  • Support your people. Ensure they have what they need to succeed. Stand up for them when they’re targeted.
  • Pass on what you’ve learned. Continue to mentor and grow your leaders within the ranks. Share the valuable experience that you’ve earned.

But wait, there’s more!

This topic of leadership was just 1 of 20 Pearson addressed during his presentation. I’m still not sure how he managed to get through all of them in the short time we had together, while providing such a thoughtful and meaningful coverage of these critical topics. If there was an award for cramming 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag, Pearson would have one…plus another for backup.

To learn more about learning opportunities with David and the cadre of world-class instructors assembled by the NTOA, visit The NTOA’s annual conference will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 16-21, 2018, so mark your calendars!

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.