The Police Leader’s Role

A male police officer head shot.

Gerald W. Garner

There is nothing the law enforcement leader does which is more important than working to assure the well-being of his (or her) employees. Once they know that they have that backing from leadership, most will be willing to go out and do a job which may be more dangerous today than it has been in years.

Policing has never been easy, but today’s challenges have further complicated an already convoluted public safety scenario. Leading a law enforcement organization has never been tougher, either. Protecting his (or her) people is only another of the leader’s challenges. But, it is one that the leader must do well if his (or her) officers are to do their difficult jobs both safely and effectively. The leader’s key tasks are significant.

The Leader as a Role Model

Regardless of his rank, the leader must demonstrate exceptional safety and risk management practices at all times. He scrupulously follows the rules. He wears his body armor on the street. He wears his seat belt and operates his police vehicle in a safe and controlled manner. If he participates in on the street police work, he follows only the best safety tactics on such assignments as traffic stops, pedestrian contacts, building searches, and physical arrests. He never displays careless or lazy conduct when it comes to officer safety. If he realizes that he has made a safety error, he owns up to it and lets his people know that he realizes what he did wrong. He recognizes that his officers are watching and may emulate what they see. In the process, the safety conscious leader develops a group of safety conscious officers around him.

Training Responsibilities

The law enforcement leader must resist the temptation to cut training, especially officer survival training, when budgets are tight. The leader will assess the safety quotient of his officers by talking with them, listening to them and watching how they function on the street. The leader will assure that, where an individual falls short, he will receive extra instruction or counseling from a more safety-wise colleague.

The leader will look to the safety training needs of all of his employees – not just the most inexperienced. Indeed, real-life experience has shown that, sometimes, it is the senior officer who needs the most refresher schooling in how to stay safe on the street. Many worthwhile officer safety and survival courses are available today. Training needs will change as new threats appear and new equipment and tactics are developed to counter them. The wise leader will remain abreast of both new challenges and appropriate safety training responses.

Policies and Procedures

The responsible law enforcement leader will work to protect his agency and his employees from civil or criminal liability in an increasingly critical and litigious society. The leader will collaborate with his employer’s legal and/or risk management specialists in an effort to assure that police practices executed in the name of officer safety pass muster – both constitutionally and in the eyes of an ever attentive body of plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Use of force is always a topic for litigation. Of late, revised guidance on the appropriate use of force by law enforcement has been forthcoming from organizations such as the Police Executive Research Forum and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Every law enforcement CEO should be aware of the findings and recommendations of such groups. Furthermore, he (or she) should make certain that the information is disseminated throughout the leadership structure of the organization. Where indicated, policy and procedure revisions should be effected to align the organization with recommended practices to the extent that they meet local needs.

A simple example will suffice to demonstrate the value of updated thinking when it comes to safety practices. Generations of police officers have been taught to issue loud, firm commands to gain control of a stressful situation. That advice remains valid in many instances, such as interdicting a robbery in progress. But, when police are dealing with an autistic or emotionally disturbed person, this approach may only aggravate the situation. The de-escalation tactics being taught and implemented by an increasing number of law enforcement agencies today is most often the appropriate response. Policies, procedures and tactics should be modified, where necessary, to encourage such practices.

Reviewing and revising policy and procedure to emphasize officer safety and risk management must be a continuing function of every law enforcement agency’s leadership staff. Doing so will help protect officers and citizens alike from unnecessary risks.

Safety-related Equipment

It is the leader’s job to assure that his (or her) officers have the best equipment the department can provide for their difficult and, sometimes, hazardous job. A good leader peruses the professional publications and Web sites to remain abreast of the latest proven equipment designed to improve the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of police officers. He asks his subordinates for their ideas regarding equipment needs. He involves them in fielding and evaluating new equipment for its contributions to officer safety.

When he goes to his own supervisor or elected body seeking funding for safety-related equipment, the well-prepared leader is ready to furnish facts beyond emotional arguments. If the equipment will reduce the organizations liability at the same time it increases officer safety and morale, the leader will include that argument in his justification message.

The Leader as a Risk Manager

Every streetwise law enforcement leader knows that his (or her) chosen profession can be a high-risk, high liability one. The responsible leader also knows that he (or she) is ethically obliged to do everything within reason, not only to reduce the physical risk to officers, but minimize the liability exposure to the greater organization, too. The leader accomplishes this by working closely with other subject matter experts such as human resource specialists and the organization’s attorneys. In doing so, the police leader will identify the diverse legal risks which police operations might bring to the local government. The potential threats may range from false arrest to unlawful searches to excessive force or racial discrimination complaints. It is the responsibility of the leadership staff to see that rules, policies and procedures are developed and enforced to minimize the opportunity for malpractice to occur. That, too, is a vital task of ethical and effective leadership.

Responsibility to Intervene

Officer safety, of course, is not just about equipment, policies and procedures. It includes the responsibility to deal effectively with the careless officer or “cowboy cop” who cannot, or will not, grasp the importance of commonsense safety practices. This individual, who is almost certainly endangering peers and citizens (in addition to himself), must be promptly confronted and held accountable for his unsafe behavior. This holds equally true for the novice cop and the grizzled veteran. A leader at any level of the organization who shields or turns a blind eye to the unsafe actions of such an employee is endangering other officers while, at the same time, he is helping set up the offending employee for personal disaster.

Remedial training and earnest counseling hopefully will successfully address the chronically unsafe officer. That failing, progressive discipline must be applied. In the end, the police employee unwilling or unable to change his unsafe ways must for the good of all be separated from the police service.

Officers’ Emotional Health

As important as it is, it is not enough that a police officer remain physically healthy at work. It is not enough that an officer survives the physical trauma of a critical incident only to later fall victim to a career- or life-ending emotional breakdown. Even absent a critical incident, a law enforcement officer can be seriously harmed by the cumulative and pent-up stresses from an everyday diet of crime and mayhem. Even if they survive, some of these officers will flee law enforcement in search of a less emotionally demanding career. The profession loses when such trained and experienced people leave the field.

Responsible leaders will provide their people with every opportunity to remain mentally and emotionally healthy. This often will include encouraging the funding of peer support groups, easily accessed law enforcement psychologists and other mental health services. More and more law enforcement agencies are offering their employees a free annual mental health checkup with a psychologist, akin to the recommended annual physical health checkup. This voluntary and confidential visit is intended to help the officer identify and treat problems ranging from alcohol dependency to depression before they become aggravated.

Explaining Officer Safety

The law enforcement leader has yet another responsibility in promoting safety and risk reduction throughout his (or her) organization. If the line level law enforcement officer is to rigorously adhere to safe practices, he has to know that the agency’s leadership will back him when his safety appropriate tactics upset a citizen or bring questions from the news media or local officials. He has to know that his boss will support him for “doing it the right way.” The courageous and responsible leader is absolutely required to do this, but there is more.

The leader must seek every opportunity to discuss the dangers of the job, as well as reasonable officer safety practices in every public presentation or interaction he conducts. This effort at educating the general public should pay off in dividends of increased public understanding of the law enforcement officer’s difficult job. By spreading the word at every opportunity, the leader will give his (or her) officers the confidence to do what they lawfully and ethically must do to stay safe.


There is not a single task among a law enforcement leader’s responsibilities more vital than the duty to assure that his (or her) people are as safe as it is possible for policies, procedures, equipment, and leadership support to make them. The effective leader serves as an exceptional role model for officer safety and risk management. He assures that appropriate and adequate training is made available. He sees that relevant safety and risk management policies and procedures are developed and enforced. He intervenes when unsafe practices are noted. He looks to his officers’ emotional health. He ensures that good risk management guidelines are followed. He advocates publicly for reasonable officer survival practices and defends his people as necessary.

The true law enforcement leader’s most earnest wish is that his (or her) officers go home safely at the end of each shift. By remaining personally involved in the officer safety and risk management process, the effective leader will help make that happen.

Chief Gerald W. Garner is a veteran of 49 years in law enforcement. Chief Garner holds a Master’s Degree in Administration of Justice. His instructional experience includes appearances as a guest speaker for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the FBI National Academy. He has authored 12 books and over 200 articles on law enforcement leadership and officer safety.

An Example of Excellence in Officer Safety and Risk Management

What does a highly professional law enforcement agency look like? The department’s leadership staff seeks to bolster officer safety and risk management efforts in a number of ways:

  1. Leader as role model –Each member of the department’s leadership team is expected to demonstrate safe practices and exceptional risk management skills. It is recognized that sergeants and Field Training Officers (FTOs) have a particularly strong influence with other officers and are vital to positive role modeling. Leaders are evaluated in their annual performance review for their endeavors as positive safety role models.
  2. Training – The department emphasizes the importance of officer safety training and provides a steady regimen of officer survival updates. One example would be implementing de-escalation training which could result in “saves” of individuals planning “suicide by cop” via application of de-escalation techniques combined with tactical awareness.
  3. Policies and procedures – When the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was published in 2015, the leadership staff in many law enforcement agencies examined their organization’s own guidelines as compared to the Report’s recommendations and made adjustments, where indicated. The same review took place following the studies and recommendations governing police use of force found in the reports of the Police Executive Research Forum. Presently, some leaders are comparing their agency’s existing policies, procedures and orders with the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement professional groups.
  4. Safety-related equipment – The department involves first-line supervisors and patrol officers in examining requests and recommendations for new or additional safety-related equipment. The agency’s practice should be to purchase safety equipment over other demands when sufficient funding does not exist to cover all needs.
  5. Leader as risk manager – Leaders, including first-line supervisors, are tasked with examining the agency’s operational guidelines and actual on the street operations for any practice which increases potential liability for the greater organization. Supervisors are expected to take a leadership role in addressing unacceptable risks by modifying both policies and practices accordingly. Leaders are expected to implement significant corrective action for safety lapses, such as failure to wear seat belts while the police vehicle is in motion.
  6. Responsibility to intervene – The department attempts to instill a culture of safety and risk management throughout the organization. As an element of that effort, every employee, regardless of rank, is entitled and expected to call a “time out” in training (or on the street, when appropriate) if he (or she) becomes aware of unsafe behavior, whether in progress or anticipated. That expectation is heightened for supervisory personnel.
  7. Officers’ emotional health –In addition to providing peer support and critical incident psychological counseling, the department implements an annual emotional health checkup program for its sworn personnel. Much like annual physical health checkups, the free and voluntary emotional health program is intended to serve as an early warning system for officers experiencing emotional or mental health issues. The meetings with a police psychologist are considered confidential. Leaders are encouraged to sign up for an appointment to serve as examples for other employees to follow.
  8. Explaining officer safety – The chief of police makes regular appearances on local radio stations or writes a guest column for the local newspaper. Officer safety and why officers do what they do are frequent topics covered. This information is also disseminated at the twice a year Citizens Police Academy and through the leadership’s presentations in front of school and civic groups.