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4 lessons for any good police leader (current, new or aspiring)

If there is no direction or continuity from the top, the rest of the organization suffers

By Rebecca Volent

I have been a police chief for over 10 years. I have learned so much during my time leading our agency. I did not have an “on the job” training period, unless you count the conversation I had with the retiring chief during his last day on the job. Part of the conversation was, “here is a copy of the budget.”

During my first year as a police chief, I was lost. I just tried to do the best I could, based on right and wrong. I slowly moved the department forward and started implementing programs and new policy. We had four homicides during that first year. As tragic as these were, those incidents and a few others sort of galvanized the department into more of a team. Prior to the murders, we were sort of disjointed and on our own. Afterward, we all shared a common set of tragedies. Odd, but relevant.

Looking back, I stepped in numerous pits as we attempted to change the culture of the department. The culture was one of apathy and indifference. Many of the officers had been through four police chiefs in six years. If there is no direction or continuity from the top, the rest of the organization suffers. I wasn’t helping as we got started. I was trying to lead by knocking people on the head instead of explaining the direction we were going and why we were going that direction.

I eventually learned that people have different motivators and reasons for going over and above. I also learned quickly that what one person considers adequate job performance could be another person’s definition of terrible. I soon realized that some people are motivated by pride, some by competition and others because working hard for positive results is the right way to live. There were some early shouting matches and confrontations and some officers left the department. We slowly assembled the crew we have today, which I believe is one of the best in the business. Below are four lessons I’ve learned over the years. Every officer who is, or desires to be, a leader should adopt these ideas.

1. Do not lead from inside the department
Your officers need to see you out in the field. I suggest a marked vehicle. You may even want to perform a traffic stop or two while you are out.Catching bad guys is fun, remember?

2. Do not criticize performance or attitude in public
In public not only means outside of the department, but it also means inside of the department, in the presence of other officers or staff. Praise in public, criticize in private is a good thing to remember.

3. Do not say anything about an officer that you would not say in the presence of that same officer
A best practice is to keep your mouth shut, period. As a police leader, you cannot get caught up in inter-office drama. If officers start gossiping, be a leader and shut it down. I know it is shocking, but cops like to gossip. Remember, if they will talk with you, they will talk about you. Police leaders have to be above it.

4. Surround yourself with good people, tell them your expectations….and then get the heck out of the way and let them perform
Looking over their shoulder and checking up on them constantly will give officers the impression they are not doing things correctly. Make sure they have clear instructions and expectations from you, and then turn them loose. If you trust them to carry a gun and drive fast, you should be able to trust them with shift work and goals. If not, you have a bigger problem than you think.

Let’s do away with practices that hurt law enforcement and engage in solid leadership behavior.

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