I had just finished a long run. As I leaned against the couch catching my breath, my 12-year-old son entered and sat down beside me. He turned on the TV, and began the slow drawn-out process of watching 10-second intervals of every channel.
As he flipped through the channels, he paused when he saw Southland (a police series). One of the characters in the series was addressing his field training officer (FTO). He stated that the FTO had once told the recruit to “look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.” Shortly thereafter, my son lost interest and turned to another network.
I sat there lingering on the words and reminiscing about when I was in field training. I recalled a training officer telling me: “If you look good, you feel good.” Then he made me wash our squad car so that it looked good too.
Command presence is an important part of policing. It’s all about how others perceive us as officers. Here are some tips on how to improve your command presence.
As soon as you arrive on a call, the general public begins to judge you and assess what kind of officer you are. Most people will form an impression of you within the first 30 seconds, and these initial judgments are based on visual cues.
Take advantage of this. How you carry yourself and wear your uniform will weigh in on the assessment. Looking sharp includes being well-groomed and wearing a clean-pressed uniform. Take a few minutes before your shift to polish your badge, collar brass and shoes. Don’t be the guy or gal that appears to have slept in their uniform. Wear the uniform with pride.
In short: If you look sharp, people will assume you are sharp. If you look sloppy, people will assume you perform sloppy work.
Carry yourself with professionalism and authority. Know your job. Being confident in your abilities generally reflects in your body language. Walk tall, speak clearly and stand up straight just like your mother told you. Doing so will reflect your command presence and help project authority. Always keep in mind that with modern technology, you could end up on YouTube within minutes of any given call. Always act as if someone is video taping you, because the reality is that they probably are.
Acting sharp is sometimes tougher than looking sharp. To act sharp, an officer must try to be professional and respectful, which is not always easy. It’s like Patrick Swazey said in the movie Road House, “Be nice until it’s time not to be nice.” Keep your temper in check. When you lose your temper, you can lose control of the situation. The idea is to be the voice of reason in the midst of chaos.
Think before you speak, and remember that people are always watching you. Years ago when I was a new officer, I assisted the tactical team as a perimeter unit on a high-risk drug warrant. When the team made entry, one of the suspects tried to flee. To make a long story short, a team member tackled the suspect and both crashed through a sliding glass door on the back of the house. The suspect was bleeding profusely, with lacerations that required medical attention. At some point that night, I made a tasteless remark to another officer, saying the guy shouldn’t have ran and that he’d gotten what he deserved. This comment was overheard through an open window by a next-door neighbor who promptly filed a complaint the following day. I had not acted sharp. Lesson learned.
Most cops would tell you that being sharp is common sense officer safety skills. Don’t underestimate anyone. Expect the unexpected. Keep yourself well-rested, exercise regularly, watch the hands and search for weapons. When you find a weapon, search for more. Utilize contact and cover, fasten your seat belt, wear your vest and practice your skills (shooting, defensive tactics, handcuffing, etc.). This is all good advice for staying sharp in the tactics arena.
However, being sharp is more than just skills and tactics. It’s about walking the path of the warrior: Displaying honor, possessing integrity and demonstrating teamwork. Build trust with your community and with your subordinates. To do this, you must play by the rules and treat people fairly.
Physical presence is the first level of force in the use of force continuum. Because physical presence is a factor in nearly every call for service, it’s important to make a positive first impression, or at least a professional one, depending on the nature of the contact. Remember that first impressions last, and that the impression will be based upon the person’s perception of you. Whether the perception is true or not, is a moot point because perception is reality.
Know that people are judging you based upon your appearance, language and behaviors. Make it a goal to set professional standards for yourself to look sharp, act sharp and be sharp. By doing so, you will instill confidence in yourself, your officers and the public that you serve. Keep in mind: The person who saw you today could be a juror in a trial tomorrow. How do you want to be remembered?