The New Commander – Problems and Solutions
“Congratulations, Lieutenant. You are hereby promoted and assigned to the 7th District as the commander of that unit. Good luck!”
These can be exciting words at the promotion ceremony, but both the agency and the new commander might be surprised at what he/she may be facing after receiving those new stripes or bars. The phrase “good luck!” can have a very positive meaning when the preconceived ideas of becoming a new commander meet the realities of that job. However, that same phrase can also be spun around to be a sarcastic prediction of mistakes and misfortune.
For the benefit of everyone involved in the department, and particularly those responsible for the promotional process and the individual being promoted, some understanding of the problems of taking on a new command can help everyone succeed – from sergeant to chief. By understanding the problems that new commanders will face, superior officers can better prepare new bosses for their new positions. At the same time, this information can help the new commanders face the realities of their new positions.
So, to help everyone involved, here are a few of the problems which new commanders often face. And, since we try to never present a problem without also presenting reasonable solutions, we have given you ways of better preparing your people when their time for promotion comes.
New Command Problem #1: Lack of Training
We’ve talked about this before. Every officer gets basic training. Some agencies provide supervisory training, but very few departments provide any management level training. Why not? Because it costs money! However, settling a multimillion dollar lawsuit for “failure to train” costs money, too. Intentionally putting your officers in a position to perform a task which they have not been trained to perform creates lots of problems. You wouldn’t appoint an officer to a K-9 or SWAT assignment without training. Yet, too many agencies appoint officers to supervisory and management positions without any instruction.
Putting officers in a command position without training, knowing the impact of vicarious liability, could make these officers hesitate to make the right decision in a critical situation. In addition, the lack of command level training makes these officers rely on “common sense” (which isn’t “common”) or past experience (which might not be correct or positive) to deal with discipline, motivation and the basics of creating an effective and cohesive team.
So, how will a police chief or command level officer respond to the following question from a defense attorney in testifying in a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the agency: “Chief, can you explain to the jury why you did not train your sergeant (lieutenant, captain, etc.) when you assigned him to that new position?”
Of course, many chiefs and command level officers think that will never happen. Unfortunately, research shows that law enforcement agencies face approximately 30,000 lawsuits a year! In one of the more famous cases involving police liability and training (Canton v. Harris), the courts made it quite clear that the training of police personnel (on all levels) is the agency’s responsibility.
The solution: It’s simple! Anytime an officer gets a new assignment or a promotion (whether it is K-9 or captain), make sure he/she is trained before he/she begins that assignment. Just because your state may not mandate training for supervisors or command level officers does not mean that you are free and clear from liability. It is not your state or your POST or whoever sets your state’s standards which will be sued – it is your agency. The good news is that there are training opportunities out there for officers of all ranks and responsibilities – from the newly hired police officer to the 35 year veteran police chief.
New Command Problem #2 – Know Your Policies
The backbone of any agency is the policy and procedure manual. It tells officers and bosses what to do and how to do it. Of course, there are many reasons why agencies should have a current and complete manual. (You do have a current and up-to-date and complete manual, don’t you?) One of the best reasons is that it tells officers and bosses how things should be done without anyone guessing.
Typically, what happens when a new officer gets appointed is that, during his/her orientation, he/she is handed a 400-500 page policy manual and someone says, “Here…sign this form and take this book. From now on, this is how things are done.” However, often, that officer takes that big book, puts it in his/her locker and never opens it again. The exception to that is when the policy manual is listed as a study resource for promotions. If that is the case, an officer may look at some of the newer revisions to the use-of-force policy just before taking the test, but, often, not much more.
Knowledge of policies is one issue, but it is also recognized that even the most professionally written policy and procedure manual can leave room for interpretation. And, sometimes, interpreting the “gray” areas of such policies and procedures is the job of a supervisor or commander.
Two questions come to mind: “What has the chief or sheriff done to make certain that the newly promoted individual knows what the agency expects of their officers or commanders in the middle of a critical incident?” and the newly promoted commander might ask, “Will I get the backing I need from my bosses when I make a command level decision?”
The solution: It is imperative that employees and bosses (on all levels) have a thorough understanding of the critical areas of their responsibility in their agency’s policy and procedure manual. You won’t get this thorough understanding by burying that manual in a locker! Of course, candidates for promotion, at any rank, should be tested to ensure that they have studied and understand these policies and procedures. But what about the years in between studying for promotions? We believe that the solution starts at the bottom and works up. Here is one approach: Sergeants should routinely review critical policies which are appropriate with the officer’s duties at roll call with their officers. Several times a month, lieutenants should routinely review policies with their sergeants which are appropriate with the sergeant’s duties and responsibilities. Command level officers should go over important areas of the manual with their subordinates at monthly staff meetings. By using this method, there is a checks and balance so that each level of the agency knows what is expected of them. And, the chief (or appointee) should annually review every policy in the manual to ensure that each one is current and appropriate.
In addition, senior command staff should reassure new commanders that they will receive the backing and support they need when they make a “field interpretation” at the time and place under the field circumstances they face at the time.
New Command Problem #3: Lack of Direction or Not Knowing the Direction
A new commander is promoted and assigned to take over a new unit. What is he/she supposed to do when he/she arrives? What does the boss expect from him/her for the next six months or a year? Did anyone give him/her any direction? Did anyone explain the goals of his/her new unit? Is he/she supposed to just “keep the lid on things” or reduce traffic accidents by 10% or deal with a problem employee? Too often, newly promoted bosses are left on their own, using their own ideas, which may, or may not, be consistent with senior management’s goals.
How many people within can articulate the goals of the agency for the next year? Can someone list the objectives which will be used to ensure that these goals are met? How many people in the agency are involved in establishing goals and objectives?
The solution: It seems obvious, but, for every promotion, senior command staff – particularly those who will directly oversee and evaluate the performance of the newly promoted officer (regardless of rank) – should meet with him/her to discuss the goals of the unit, the expectations which superiors have of the newly promoted officer and a “game plan” for him/her to follow to succeed. It is not enough to say to someone, “Show up Monday morning for your new assignment and good luck.” An open and frank discussion should be standard for every promotion. Some agreement and consensus should be reached that is understood by both parties to provide direction and performance standards which the new commander should implement at his/her new command.
New Command Problem #4: Preconceived Notions vs. Realities of the Job
Promotional candidates prepare for promotion by studying manuals and procedures. They prepare for oral boards, assessment centers and in-basket exercises. And, those who excel in all of these get promoted.
However, when they take over their new command, they get hit with a heavy dose of reality. Their people don’t necessarily respond to the management theories they may have studied. Subordinates don’t know, understand or care about the nuances of the policy or procedure manual. In addition, they often encounter an air of uncertainty from both subordinates and superiors. In short, they are confused by the realities of their new position.
Every employee has a boss and every employee has some idea of what his/her boss does and a limited idea of how he/she does it, but no employee can understand the full scope of his/her boss’s responsibilities, nor fully understand how the boss carries out his/her duties. So, a new commander gets thrust into a new assignment, maybe a new area of operations (from patrol officer to detective sergeant or from patrol sergeant to administrative lieutenant) and is expected to fully comprehend all of the nuances and subtleties of this new assignment from “day one.” There has to be a learning curve and, most likely, there will be mistakes made which could create immediate problems for the new boss, the employees and the agency. It’s not that the new boss is incompetent; it’s just that he/she doesn’t know and no one took the time to show him/her.
The solution: Does any professional police department put recruit officers on the street without a Field Training Officer (FTO) program? FTOs have been common practice for decades. This type of on-the-job training helps new patrol officers gain their footing by placing them in real-life situations under the guidance of an experienced officer. It helps them to meld the theories of the law and procedures with the stark realities of street life. No one can deny the value of such a program.
Okay, if we all agree that this is a good thing, then why do almost all agencies stop their FTO programs with recruit officers? The value of an FTO program for sergeants, lieutenants and all levels of command officers is the same value as the FTO program for recruits. It allows the new commander a chance to get used to his/her new assignment; to experience all of the subtleties of the job; and to learn how to gain the confidence to handle things before a wrong decision due to inexperience can create havoc.
There are many problems facing a newly promoted police commander. We have listed only a few. Many of those problems can find solutions even before the new commander reaches his/her particular command. Good senior officers help their commanders to succeed. Not so good commanders only give them a chance to “sink or swim” in their new positions. Where do you stand?
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