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The Leadership Role of the First-Line Supervisor in Police Operations

by Lt. Michael Waters

Published July 2004, The Florida Police Chief Magazine

Michael Waters is a police lieutenant with the City of Clearwater, Florida. He began his career in 1986 and has served as a patrol officer, SWAT team member/leader, detective, patrol sergeant, and as a detective sergeant within the Office of Professional Standards (internal affairs). He has a B.A. degree in Criminology from the University of Saint Leo and is pursuing a Masters Degree in Business Administration from the University of Saint Leo.

Countless books and articles have been written throughout the years about the importance of leadership
within police organizations. Without a doubt, leadership has a crucial role within an organization, and is often the key component in determining a department's success or failure. The leadership of the chief of police down through the ranks to the patrol officer often acts as a catalyst for promoting or devaluing the goals and objectives of a police department. The premise of this article is to stress that - although every position within a police agency presents leadership challenges - the role of the first-line supervisor is often the most crucial.

In order to help explain the leadership emphasis of the first-line supervisor, it is necessary to briefly define the term "leadership" as it relates to the administrative function of a police organization.

Chief and Command Staff

The chief of police and command staff are tasked with providing strategic thinking for the future of the organization. They have to be able to attain their goals and objectives by indirect leadership methods. This is often out of necessity, as their administrative role actually places them outside the normal day-to-day functions of most department personnel. "The chief and senior leaders set the moral tone for the department through personal example, philosophy, and mission/value statements." (Baker, 2000, chap 3, p. 39).

Middle Managers (captains and lieutenants)

The role of middle managers is to provide a logistical balance between managing and leading an organization through strategic goals and objectives. Although middle-mangers most often are desk-bound, they have a tremendous amount of influence on whether strategic goals and objective are obtained. Middle managers usually exert their influence through the first-line supervisory staff, and intermediately have contact with patrol officers.

First-Line Supervisors (sergeants)
The role of the first-line supervisor is to produce the actual departmental product/service to the citizens of the community. The sergeant accomplishes this task by having direct contact with the officers he or she supervises to ensure accountability and performance objectives. Clearly, the work of sergeants - much like that of a symphony conductor - can either enhance or weaken the community's perception of the department's professionalism (Werder, 1996, p. 2). Further, because of the first-line supervisor's close interaction with the patrol officers, they are the key element in identifying and reducing potential misconduct incidents within police organizations.

First-Line Supervisory Leadership Defined
"The importance of sergeants in police organizations is best stated by the old adage: 'Generals win battles, but sergeants win wars' - true of the military and of police departments. A department's meaning to officers on the street and citizens in the community directly results from what sergeants are and do."(Baker, 2000, chap 5, p. 73).

The first-line supervisor leadership role is critical for the stability and future of a police organization. Sergeants must realize that they are a critical part of the management team and, as such, are responsible for maintaining policy and procedure compliance, instilling core values, and "selling" upper management's strategic goals and objectives. Sergeants need to realize that their direct contact with police officers transcends to a great amount of influence. "Sergeants have to be cognizant that with their ability to influence, every comment, gesture or non verbal communication is interpreted by their subordinates as either support for, or rejection of, a management position." (Tully, 2000, p. 9).

Sergeants first and foremost must be knowledgeable both in procedure and operational skills. First-line supervisors should constantly strive to attain more knowledge through a variety of sources, such as college educational courses, law enforcement research articles, legal briefs/updates and training schools. Knowledge is the key to success, especially in the rapidly changing environment of the police profession.

First-line supervisors must establish and promote high ethical behavior from their subordinates. "Sergeants must realize that the best way to protect those individuals under their supervision from mistakes, corruption or abuse of power is to be demanding, tough-minded, and a stickler for rules - there is no other viable option." (Tully, 2000, p. 9). They must "practice what they preach" by setting a high example in their own ethical behavior.

Sergeants need to apply a "hand's on" style of leadership to get to know their subordinates weaknesses and strengths. They must be able to establish a close link with their subordinates that will instill trust and friendship while instituting a strong ethical commitment to their police organization. To do otherwise not only devalues their role as a supervisor but acts as a catalyst for misconduct problems within a police organization. "Show me a law enforcement agency with a serious problem of officer misconduct and I will show you a department staffed with too many sergeants not doing their job." (Tully, 1997, p. 7).

Sergeants must possess a great sense of duty and be able to communicate the essentials of duty to their subordinates. They can accomplish the sense of duty by instilling the core values of the department into their subordinates and by empowering them to have a stake in the future of their department. This sense of duty is also a motivational factor, and if properly channeled, can promote a fun, enjoyable, and challenging learning environment. It is the first-line supervisor's responsibility to create the learning environment that is conducive to growth of the personnel under his or her supervision.

First-line supervisors have to exercise clarity, consistency and accountability every day. They have to be able to lead by example and ensure that their subordinates know precisely what is expected of them. First-line supervisors need to constantly reinforce the "mission" to their subordinates, and then to hold accountable those persons who do not step up to the plate. Sergeants should use corrective action methods to gain conformance, and use discipline only as a last resort. Discipline, by its very meaning, has a negative connotation and unfortunately, the affected employee most often regresses further for a period of time, if not for good. Instilling peer-pressure and constant optimism can be powerful tools for the sergeant in moving subordinates toward goals and objectives.

First-line supervisors have to be responsible not only to the department, but to themselves as well. To borrow a phrase used by U.S. Army General Colin Powell (Ret.), sergeants need to "know when to piss people off." (Harari, 2002, chap 1, p. 17). Part of being a leader is to be willing to step out from the crowd and take a stand, whether it has to do with principles or to accomplish a given goal or task. First-line supervisors must be willing to challenge their subordinates to bring out the very best in them. Their subordinates may not like it very much, but in the end, they will benefit from their leaders' resilience, and may thank them one day for the guidance. Sergeants must be loyal to the department, and should demand loyalty from their subordinates. First-line supervisors may not always agree with management on each and every issue, but they have to set aside their personal thoughts and abide by management's directions. In the same manner, sergeants must demand that their subordinates follow his or her directives without hesitation or rebuff. I can think of no better definition for the meaning of loyalty within a police organization than Colin Powell's quote in The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell:

"When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me
your honest opinion, whether you think I'll like it or not.
Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a
decision is made, the debate ends. From that point on,
loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own."
(Harari, 2002, chap 11, p. 172).

Finally, first-line supervisors have to be fair and impartial in handling all issues related to their subordinates' job performance. They must treat each incident and proposed resolution without bias or preference, and concentrate strictly on the circumstances of the issue. First- line supervisors who take a fair and impartial stance with their subordinates will inevitably encounter fewer issues, and be able to promote a sense of equality among their subordinates. Sergeants who fail to abide by fair and impartial standards will be coined as part of the "good ol' boy system," which tends to devalue the professionalism of an organization.

In conclusion, the first-line supervisor is truly the backbone of a police organization. The leadership - or lack of leadership - shown by a sergeant can have a dramatic effect on how the agency is perceived by the community. Upper management can have the most well thought-out strategic planning initiatives, but without the first-line supervisor's leadership ability to move his or her subordinates toward the implementation of those goals, they will remain just ideas. "Sergeants must be able to organize, plan and evaluate their officers to reach department objects. Frustrated police personnel can lead to negative productivity." (Baker, 2000, chap 5, p. 89). The first-line supervisor has to be able to quickly identify potential problems and seek remedies that will promote growth for the department and the affected employee. Sergeants who subscribed to the leadership principles outlined in this article will not only maintain the well-being of their department's strategic mission, but they will also help train future leaders of their organizations.


Baker, T. (2000). Effective Police Leadership. New York: Looseleaf Law Publications, INC.
Harari, O. (2002). The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. New York: McGraw - Hill.
Tully, E. (2002, May). The Slippery Slope. National Executive Institute Associates, Major cities chiefs association and Major County Sheriff's Association Leadership Bulletin, 1-11.
Tully, E. (1997, December). Misconduct, Corruption, Abuse of Power-What Can the Chief Do? National Executive Institute Associates, Major Cities Chief's Association and Major County Sheriff's Association Leadership Bulletin, 1-8.
Werder, E. (1996, January). The Great Sergeant! National Executive Institute Associates, Major Cities Chief's Association and Major County Sheriff's Association Leadership Bulletin, 1-9.
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