With the tragic loss of nearly 100 American law enforcement officers in the first half of 2011 and a 42% increase in firearms deaths from the previous year, Law Officer’s Below 100 initiative becomes even more significant for this profession. Officer safety truly is the responsibility of each and every one of us—but consider who in your agency has the most day-to-day contact with those line-level personnel who are the ones most likely to die in a violent incident or tragic accident. Who has enough authority and autonomy to take control and effect change, but is still out there on the street with the troops, living the cop’s life and seeing all that they see, every day, every shift? It’s the sergeants, the first-line supervisors in every department who can have the most significant and immediate impact on the safety and survival of the officers on your department.
Your Move, Sarge!
As an academy recruit in 1981, I remember watching one of those old Motorola films about supervisors and decision-making. I was still trying to wrap my 21-year-old brain around the fact that I’d just been given a badge and a gun, so I was in awe at how difficult it seemed to be sergeant—so much responsibility, so many decisions!
It was both exciting and a little scary to put those chevrons on my collar a decade later. So much had changed since I was a rookie. Generally speaking, sergeants are a bridge between the line personnel and the administration. We must manage to keep one foot on the street and the other in an office. It’s a balancing act to say the least. But it can also be the best job in the police department, and you can literally save your officers’ lives by the way you supervise them.
Too many sergeants, especially new ones, mistakenly believe that supervision means “finding fault.” Nobody likes the nitpicking supervisor who spends the majority of the shift ferreting out others’ little mistakes. Yes, one of a sergeant’s many responsibilities is to make sure things get done correctly, but do you spend as much time assessing their driving behavior as you do needling them about writing more tickets? When you conduct a shift inspection, do you just look for shiny boots and a stain-free tie? Or do you check the soundness of their gear and the functionality of their weapons and tools? When you see them making an officer safety mistake on the street, how do you react?
Feedback needs to be immediate to be most impactful. Here’s the truth that no one likes to talk about, but which we must bring out in the open: Very often, cops die in the line of duty because they make mistakes. These mistakes can be the results of bad habits they’ve developed because no one “corrected” the behavior. Over time, this behavior has become a bad habit.
My husband, legendary police trainer and author Dave “J.D. Buck Savage” Smith, likens sergeants to on-scene “coaches.” We must correct our officers’ errors, do it swiftly, but do it in a way that’s also going to change their long-term behavior, especially when it comes to their survival. Sergeants also must provide immediate feedback when our people handle a call, a traffic stop or any situation really well. Reinforce the positive, sing their praises to everyone else and use them as an example of how to successfully handle a similar situation.
We also need to care about the people we supervise. I was once chastised by one of my managers because I frequently referred to my patrol team as “my officers” or “my guys.” He felt I was being too familiar with them. He thought that a sergeant needed distance to be most effective. What a ridiculous, dangerous mentality. Creating a quality team atmosphere can be essential to officer survival, no matter how large or small your agency.
As a sergeant, you must advocate for your people, empower them and remind them that they have an obligation to themselves, their families, the agency and you to do everything they can to stay safe. If they know you’re counting on them, that you believe in their abilities, and you’re doing everything you can to give them the tools, training and information they need, they’re more likely to return that feeling of commitment and caring by making sure they don’t disappoint you.
We never seem to get enough training, especially in these tough economic times. It may be time to redefine what “training” really is. If you’re “training” someone, you’re either trying to teach them a new skill or you’re trying to modify their behavior. Supervisors are always trainers.
You don’t need an 8-, 24- or 40-hour class to remind your people about officer survival. Sometimes the best training comes in frequent, short bursts. If your officers don’t wear their seatbelts because they worry about getting out of the car quickly and tactically, then get them seatbelt extenders and set up a 15-minute show-and-tell during the shift. The Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org) offers roll call notebooks that can help your shift keep track of how and why officers die in the line of duty. What better legacy for our fallen than helping others learn how to be safer?
Spend time with your people watching a few minutes of dashcam footage via the Internet (or from one of their own cameras) and then discuss the situation in roll call. Ask the hard questions. How would we have handled that traffic stop/pursuit/officer-involved shooting? Could we have done things differently? What did the officers do right? Make the discussions meaningful and constructive, and realize that even a few minutes spent on real-life examples helps “train” your officers how to properly handle a similar event.
Model the Behavior You Want to See
When I was a young cop, my sergeants were aloof and uninvolved in our day-to-day work on the street. I vowed to be different when I got promoted. I loved being a patrol sergeant. In fact, I used to have fun trying to beat my officers to calls.
But I started to rethink that nonsense after I had the beejeezis scared out of me while driving unnecessarily fast to a violent domestic. That near-miss led me to some significant soul-searching. What if one of them got hurt because of me— because I was a lousy role model?
I did a head-to-toe assessment of my own behavior on the street. I slowed down, and I talked to them about doing the same. I went through all of my gear, I spent extra time on the range, and I paid out of my own pocket to take a remedial pistol class. I got a go-bag, made friends with my shotgun and re-read Chuck Remsberg’s Tactical Edge.
It’s just not enough to be a Sgt. Esterhaus and end each roll call with a heartfelt “Let’s be safe out there.” You’ve got to model it, believe in it and teach it—every day, every shift. It really is “Your move, Sergeant” to help get this profession “Below 100.”