To Change Police Behavior, Start With the Sergeants

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Today there is increased tension between the police and the community served by law enforcement. Compounding the tension is the belief by many in the community that police and prosecutors are incapable of investigating and adjudicating out-of-policy actions by police officers.

Most police administrators have responded to this tension by increasing training, adopting more rigid policies, and by stepping up monitoring of field operations. Such a process, however, amounts to “top-down” change— with chiefs dictating policy and tasking subordinates to carry out their mandate.

But the fact is, any change in police policy or behavior is doomed to fail unless a police department gets the full buy-in and cooperation of its most important rank: The sergeant.

The sergeant is the only ranking officer in the field who exercises hands-on supervision on a continuing basis. It’s the sergeant who decides whether or not a patrol officer is conducting himself in a professional manner. He or she must train, critique and, on occasion, discipline subordinates. And it is the sergeant who ensures that department policy is implemented.

Many sergeants in police agencies around the U.S. are capable of fulfilling this task. However, there are too many who fail. And when they fail, the organization fails.

The sergeant’s importance to the future of police reform has been overlooked too long. Police agencies must take a closer look at the process by which an officer is promoted to this position.

In most jurisdictions, a written and oral examination is conducted in order to establish a promotion pool. The primary factor considered is the applicant’s record and performance as a field patrol officer. Those who excel are given the highest score and, eventually, the promotion.

Does this system guarantee that the new sergeant will be a competent supervisor? Sometimes.

But more often than not, the answer is no.

Many excellent police officers become sergeants for the wrong reasons. Instead of having a desire to lead, they seek promotion to increase their pay. Of course, no would argue with anyone who is seeking more money. But when I speak with many sergeants, they reveal frankly that they loved their previous assignment as a patrol officer, and would have preferred to stay in that position if not for the additional pressures of family and budget that made them seek a higher income.

Many officers thrust into the sergeant ranks have no desire or inclination to give orders to their previous peers, don’t want to administer discipline, and would prefer to remain popular with their subordinates. As a result, the entire department’s performance and reputation suffers.

One way to address the problem is to establish two hiring tracks in all police departments. One would be for police officers, and the other would be for management, including the ranks of sergeant and above. Such a system, which has been used by the military, would ensure that supervision and management of police officers is executed at the highest level.

Let’s examine the management track first.

Applicants would be selected based on their desire and capability to lead. Training should be extensive, and while the core concepts of field patrol would be taught, a more intensive block of instruction would highlight supervisory and management techniques including leadership, training, discipline, and administrative responsibilities. Successful candidates would immediately begin their employment as a sergeant.

Do Sergeants Need Beat Experience?

Critics will insist that you cannot be a sergeant without field police officer experience. I disagree. It is not necessary to have the skills of a seasoned patrol officer. It is only necessary to recognize those skills, to be able to supervise by monitoring an officer’s actions, and to offer constructive advice, training and, in some cases, discipline.

Sergeants who excel will then be given the opportunity to rise up through the ranks through competitive examinations. West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy have utilized this system exceptionally well and they graduate only those who desire to lead and serve.

The field patrol officer track must also radically change. It must be greatly enhanced to attract and retain the most qualified officers. A field patrol officer should be able to attain, based on tenure, expertise and competency, a salary which would be on par with a Lieutenant, all without having to leave to leave his or her field assignment.

This will ensure that the best officers remain in the job they love and excel. Officer morale will improve, and the benefit to the department and the community is enormous.

Field patrol officers should also be given an opportunity to join the Management Track if they desire. This would be equivalent to the Army’s Officer Candidate School. A field patrol officer must be motivated to lead and this trait must be recognized by management before they would be allowed to cross over. These officers must attend training to enhance their leadership skills before being allowed to serve in a supervisory position.

My proposal to initiate a two-track system will be expensive. But the cost will be offset by a presumed reduction in the millions of dollars that a city pays out because of police errors or misconduct. Having a trained sergeant in the field should greatly decrease these awards.

More important, how do you measure the contribution that increased police efficiency will make towards strengthening public safety and public confidence?

A two-track system is a radical change, but I’m confident it will elevate the public’s trust. It would represent a clear start towards getting the men and women who not only are best qualified to play a critical role in reducing the tensions between police and communities-—but who really want to be there.

Joe Gunn is a retired commander of the Los Angeles Police Department. He has also served as former Assistant Deputy Mayor for Law Enforcement Policy, former Executive Director, Los Angeles Police Commission, former Executive Director of the California Corrections Independent Review Panel, and as former Police Commissioner of Burbank, CA. He welcomes comments from readers.


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