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First Line Supervisors

Written by Scott Oldham

Sergeants are, by definition, first line supervisors. First line, as in the first line of defense against the evils of the world—the first to respond to cases of trouble and the first to respond to calls for assistance.

While as there are a wide variety of duties that we as sergeants are tasked to accomplish on a daily basis a significant number of us forget we are still part of the first line. It is true that roll call, scheduling, dealing with complaints and other administrative minutia occupy a large portion of the work day but a significant portion of first line supervisors forget what is their true first duty.

Responding to 911 calls and other complaints from the public is one of the routine duties of any police officer. Just as every US Marine is a rifleman first, every supervisor should first be a police officer. Yes, many will eventually migrate away from answering 911 runs due to job assignments and many will move on to deal with specific crimes such as homicide, auto theft, or property crimes as detective supervisors but all need to first be police officers and remember such.

Just because you are not assigned to the traffic division does not mean that you can completely forget how to work a wreck. Just because you are no longer in the blue suit does not mean that you can forget all you ever knew about responding to disturbance runs. Just because you now have stripes on your shoulder does not mean that you can remove yourself from being a police officer first.

Think back when you were a new officer, a boot rookie. How impressed where you when you saw the sarge taking the six-pack-consuming sleaze-of-the-moment to jail for battering his wife? Later, when you were a beat officer, how much did it earn your loyalty that time when you were swamped throughout the entire shift and dispatch assigned you yet another pointless call to the same place you were just at two hours ago—only to have the sergeant wave you off and take the run himself so you could finally go and eat? Or saw them him out in the rain working an accident because you were just now dry from the last one?

As sergeants we should have long ago learned these situations not only breed loyalty, but they are the right thing to do for a wide variety of reasons. For agencies that evaluate officers using a numbers based criteria it is very difficult for a problem officer to argue with those numbers if their supervisors are achieving the same statistics as what they are expected to produce.

It is also good for the public to see that they are dealing with not only the rank and file police officers but supervisors as well. There are many people in the world who believe that they can intimidate an individual police officer and, let’s face it, a goodly number of officers who actually can be intimidated into not doing their jobs by these people.

These people will take advantage of their perceived size, strength, or social status to intimidate officers into not taking appropriate enforcement action. It is vital in dealing with these types of individuals that sergeants in particular stand strong and refuse to be bullied while at the same time not allowing the officers under their command to be so. Here it is absolutely vital that the sergeant be on scene and be the one dealing with this person instead of behind a desk coaching from the sidelines.

Both the person and the officers need to know that this will not be tolerated and that the police department, now embodied by the sergeant, will stand true to the law and professional police practice and will not be dissuaded from taking appropriate action.

It is known as leading from the front for a reason. A very good sergeant was recently transferred to a new command and was heard to comment that he was thrilled with the men and women of his new watch as they were very active and real “go-getters” constantly searching out crime and taking action. He felt that here he was going to be able to more effectively lead the officers rather than having to spend the time trying to motivate the officers of his previous command into doing their assigned jobs.

If you are supervising officers by coaching from the sidelines it is very difficult to motivate them into doing their jobs whereas if you, like this sergeant, are in the trenches and on the calls with them, enduring the same hardships, working the same long hours, dealing with the same day to day pains in the posterior it is relatively easy to pull them forward with you.

Just as when you were an officer you would have much rather heard “follow me!” instead of “go and do this” it is much easier for them to follow leaders who they see doing the job rather than sitting on station telling others how it should be done.

While obviously you should not attempt to answer every call dispatched it is absolutely vital that you participate in the day to day workload, it will earn the respect of those under your command and will foster an atmosphere where officers can grow and learn to be better at what they do. The sergeant’s badge is gold, not broken. It still works and so should you.

Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the City of Bloomington Police Department where he serves as the Tactical team leader for that agency. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.us.


Published in Law and Order, Apr 2005

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