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Faux Pas for Sergeants

Faux Pas for Sergeants

Studying for the upcoming assessment center? Or are you on a promotional list? Perhaps you've taken that first step up the departmental ladder and are already sporting a freshly starched set of chevrons on your sleeves.

Or maybe you infrequently ponder testing and are happily chugging along as a line officer. There's no shame in that, by the way. Departments are awash in climbers, people who make a career of seeking the next promotion. The LE community often fails to recognize the value in cultivating career cops, veteran street officers and detectives who mark their passage by gaining expertise in the two core functions of all agencies: pro-active patrol and investigations.

But I digress.

The crux of what follows is an attempt to give the new or prospective sergeant a handful of hints not on how to succeed as a first line supervisor, but on how to blow it. Hence, six steps to guarantee your failure:

Forget Where You Came From

We've all seen officers attain that first promotion and mysteriously lose their DNA, forgetting they used to hump a cruiser like the cops they answer for as a new supervisor. A cruel or severe response to procedural minutia or minor performance lapses committed by line officers, or a sanctimonious attitude toward peers-turned-subordinates are but two of several negative manifestations this amnesia can take on.

With rank can come an artificial sense of superiority and intellect. Memo: your cops are inherently intuitive. Your highbrow tone or demeanor won't go unnoticed and resentment builds quickly. Yes, take pride in your promotion and show enthusiasm for the challenges you're set to take on, but don't forget your goals are to mentor, empower and encourage.

Abdicate Your Duty

Leadership sometimes requires you enforce policy you don't agree with. Sorry, it comes with the territory. When communicating controversial internal protocol to your officers, avoid the mistake of debasing the authority of those above you in the chain of command. Doing so fosters discontent, encourages insubordination, and makes your job more difficult in the end.

Don't misunderstand. "Company man" is not the manner in which I'm typically described. Ten years a union representative, four more as the activist editor of our union's monthly newspaper, and a stint as chairman of the executive board forged an alternative reputation.

Nevertheless, I avoid questioning the chief's ancestry every time he makes an unpopular policy decision. It's poor form, and the chief is well outside my span of control. Thus, I busy myself with what I can control: my crew of nine during our eight-hour shift. So be a good soldier, do your job as a sergeant, and don't whine about it.

Take Yourself Too Seriously

A newly promoted sergeant almost cannot take his or her responsibilities too seriously. It's easy to take yourself too seriously though. This is an important distinction.

Don't get stuffy about constantly being addressed as "Sergeant (insert your last name here)." My crew addresses me by first name or the general moniker of "Sarge" when the media and/or public aren't in earshot. They're adults and are professional enough to use formal designations when appropriate.

Remember, no one is indispensable. You will curry more favor with the troops and you'll enjoy your new duties more if you relax and take it all in stride. This job is enough of a meat grinder the way it is no reason to add to it with self induced stress.

Lounge in the Office

Little breeds contempt for sergeants like sloth. I once worked for a sergeant who had absolutely no work ethic. On busy weekend nights, he could normally be found at the precinct with his feet perched on a desk and the remote control for the television in his paw.

Fact: my job is easier today than when I was in a radio car going from call to call. I'm not encumbered with a daily activity log; I don't have to direct traffic during inclement weather when a bad accident occurs; I get to take lunch when I am inclined; and I'm salaried at a rate higher than the officers under my command. The last thing I should be doing is taking advantage of these "benefits" associated with my rank.

It's true, sergeants today are busier with clerical work and administrative drudgery than they used to be. Phone calls, e-mail, bulletins, in-baskets, CompStat, inventory/equipment issues, and reviewing reports sometimes confine us to the building, but there is no excuse other than laziness for not making a few calls each day. You can't really be a supervisor if you're not supervising.

Sleep in Your Uniform

When asked about his candle-polished boots and sharply creased uniform, a now retired OPD sergeant quipped, "You look good, you feel good you feel good, you do good!" Fit well into his fifties and a commanding presence walking onto a crime scene, he knew the worth of taking pride in himself, his appearance, and his physical health.

I know sergeants who couldn't run across the street to save their own life. I know one whose shirt and trousers are so wrinkled, I'm left to imagine he saves time in the morning by going to bed in his uniform the night before. No, I'm not kidding.

If you look like a slob, chances are it will be reflected in the quality of your work and the level of professionalism your officers display. Yes, you can go too far the other way (see #3 above), but for the most part, staying in shape, being well groomed, and having your uniform squared up demonstrates certitude and is a confidence booster for those around you.

Retire on Duty

Even at 11+ years in class, I reject the arrogant position I no longer get my hands dirty, or that I don't work among the officers, or that I'm not a cop anymore, but a manager instead.

Unless you're a coward who drives the other way when trouble brews, making grade is no insurance policy against being caught up in the fray during a domestic disturbance or being engaged in a gunfight for the ages with robbery suspects. You're still a police officer. The nuance is, you're an officer whom others look to as arbiter and leader. Know ahead of time, your troops will emulate both good and bad behavior, so engage once in awhile!

Remember: You can't be a leader if no one is willing to follow.

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