This came out of a scratch gathering of sergeants, discussing the drumbeat of petty details, the constant “white noise” and perpetual distractions that plague the job, and their worst effect: distracting them from the core elements of their responsibilities. One of their suggestions was to write up a simple “bullet list” to help re-ground them; something they could tape up inside their locker door, to reflect on at the beginning of every shift. Hence the following list.

Never apologize for being in command: Never preface an order with “I’m sorry to ask you to do this,” or “I know this is bullshit,” or “It’s a crappy job, but…” As long as the task falls within their job description (and for cops, very little does not), is lawful and you’re paying them to do it, why should you ever apologize for it? All this can do is demean the assignment and poison the officer’s mind toward the work. And, while much is made of the concept of “gaining consensus,” if doing so becomes your norm, good luck when it comes time to give tough orders and have them carried out with alacrity.

Be the rock: Whether you’re dealing with a fairly routine occurrence or a true disaster, an armed robbery turned hostage situation or an earthquake, a jumbo jet plunging into downtown or an oil tank farm detonating like an atomic bomb, your immediate response is critical, and should be the same each time. You know or should know your first orders and first steps — gathering intelligence, establishing comms, marshaling resources — so do it, firmly and calmly. Confusion and chaos or calm and confidence are all contagious, and you are the “vector” for the troops. You can be jelly and ice water inside, as long as those who count on you for leadership can’t see that on your face or hear it in your voice. And remember, you don’t need the best plan, just a good plan, executed decisively. Purposeful movement tends to override fear and inject determination. Get things moving!

Apply the L-E-M litmus test to every order: Subject every order you give, and every one you’re given to carry out, to this test: Is it legal, is it ethical and is it moral? Sometimes orders cannot be all three, or at least not immediately discernible as such. It’s not easy — you’re not paid to be an automaton, or to do the easy things. Many people in leadership positions, greater and lesser, have carried out orders with horrific results and their only sad, sorry defense was, “It was legal.” It’s up to you to accept, question, modify or reject, and to do so articulately.

Evaluate constantly: Annual evaluations are critical to a cop’s career, and they should never contain surprises. Once a month, sit down with each officer and a blank copy of the annual eval. Tell them, “If I were writing this right now, here’s how I would rate you and why.” Give them specifics, and use it as a development tool. Tell them how they can advance from a “Needs Improvement” to “Satisfactory,” and from there, to “Highly Satisfactory” or “Superior.” Know their goals and give guidance on how to achieve them. Share what worked — or didn’t work — for you. Create a situation in which they “write their own evaluation” with their deeds and behaviors.

“Leading by example,” means being exemplary: Leading by example is a mantra chanted so frequently its meaning is often lost. Yes, you should be exemplary in appearance, demeanor and behavior. It doesn’t mean you have to be the neatest or most fit, the paragon of recruiting-poster perfection. It means never being deficient, but consistently behaving in such a manner that if your officers emulated you, they’d be good, solid, skilled and respected cops. If your performance and accomplishments lack spectacular highlights that’s okay; superstars are less important and influential than being the supervisor who is remembered as “a real sergeant; a great boss.”

Discipline fairly and thoughtfully: Never hesitate or shrink from imposing discipline when necessary, bearing in mind that correction is the goal, and acceptance is key. “Mistakes of the head” occur when an officer acted from a wrong assumption, with faulty information or they simply chose an option that went wrong. These should not be punished per se, but retrained, informed and corrected.

“Mistakes of the heart” occur when an officer knows what they are about to do is wrong: criminally, civilly, morally and has even a moment to reflect on that, and does it anyway. Pointed punishment — or termination and prosecution — are in order. “Mistakes of the hormones” include mistakes made by ordinarily excellent officers, in rare moments of rage, confusion, fear or depression. By the time discipline is meted out, they’ve usually kicked their own asses harder than you ever could. If mandated, punishment should be delivered supportively, emphasizing the message “You’re a good cop. What you did in this instance was wrong. That doesn’t change what you are.”
By John Morrison