Preparing Better Police Supervisors

February 7, 2012 – 20:10 pm

SupervisionIf you get a group of cops together, sooner or later the conversation will turn to supervisors and quite often the stories usually aren’t pretty. Why is it that there seems to be a disproportionate number of bad supervisors in law enforcement?

Impact of the Police Personality

Is it because of the personalities that are attracted to the job? Certainly, the law enforcement community is not staffed by shrinking violets. In the article “Just a Typical Cop” published on, Michael Wasilewski and Althea Olson described a 1975 study by researchers Robert Hogan and William Kurtines. The researcher administered the California Personality Inventory (CPI) to a group of police candidates. Of the nineteen different scales on the CPI, nine were significantly different for the candidates who were eventually hired versus the unsuccessful candidates. The successful candidates:

  1. were more assertive (dominance scale)
  2. had greater potential for social mobility (capacity for status scale)
  3. had greater social poise and self-confidence (social presence scale)
  4. had a greater sense of self-worth (self-acceptance scale)
  5. had more need for autonomous achievement (achievement via independence scale)
  6. had more functional intelligence (intellectual efficiency scale)
  7. were more psychological-minded (psychological-mindedness scale)
  8. were more masculine (femininity scale)
  9. possessed greater social acuity (empathy scale)

One could look at this list of personality traits and conclude that they would also serve as a good profile for first-line supervisor candidates. Unfortunately, other studies suggest that the personality of officers may actually evolve as their experience level increases. They suggest that less desirable traits such as distrust of outsiders, cynicism, resistance to change, suspicion and pessimism are often identified in veteran officers. Interestingly, the researchers suggest that these changes may actually enhance the officers’ ability to perform their job as a street officer.

Unfortunately, they are not the ideal traits that we are looking for in a supervisor. When most agencies begin the screening process for first-line supervision candidates, superior performance as a patrol officer normally is one of the fundamental considerations. It is a bit paradoxical that the traits that make an officer effective on the street and qualify him for consideration as a supervisor may actually inhibit him once he is promoted.

Don’t Fail to Prepare

Today’s work environment is considerably more complicated than it was in the not so distant past. In many organizations, new supervisors receive little or no specific training for their additional responsibilities. Many agencies assume that new supervisors will “pick up” what they need to know as they go along.

However in today’s work environment, few agencies have escaped some kind of restructuring. Whether you call it a hiring freeze, downsizing, or layoffs, the effect is the same – fewer workers to do more work.

As a result of this uncertainty, agency loyalty is an obsolete concept. Highly skilled and certified officers jump ship readily when a better offer comes along and it is increasingly difficult to fill entry level jobs requiring only minimal skills. To make matters even more problematical, a plethora of legislation in recent years has dramatically increased the potential for lawsuits filed by employees or job candidates against organizations or prospective employers.

Given the realities of our current economic environment, to put a supervisor on the job without training is to invite disaster. Supervisors today frequently hold down a full or substantial workload in addition to their supervisory responsibilities. Supervision has always been a big job, but it’s a bigger one today. The difference lies in the dramatically expanded scope of supervisory duties in recent years.

There is an old adage about how an agency should determine when to look outside the organization to hire a new police chief. It says if you are happy with what you have, hire from within. If you are looking for change, hire in fresh blood. The basis for this adage is that people tend to draw from their experience when they make decisions. This is very true for new supervisors. Unless something is done to challenge a new supervisor’s attitudes based on his experiences, he or she will supervise in a manner similar to the manner in which they were supervised.

I am a proponent of grooming officers and deputies who demonstrate certain attributes, including an intellectual capability, personality profile and work ethic that are consistent with the goals of the agency. This “grooming” should consist of a combination of specialized training and mentoring. The first step is to send the officer or deputy to a basic instructor certification training course. The reason I suggest this as a first step is most basic instructor courses include blocks of instruction on adult learning, effective communication and methods of instruction – which are critical skills that any good supervisor must master. In addition, this course teaches students how to organize a course of instruction and present it effectively in front of an audience.

The second course that any potential supervisory candidate should attend is a field training officer certification course. This course normally builds on the topics that were presented in the basic instructor class and should also include a block of instruction on conducting effective evaluations. As a field training officer, the officer or deputy will experience the trials and tribulations of supervision, if only on a limited one on one scale. Of course the benefits of participating in a field training officer program can be greatly enhanced if a sergeant or lieutenant uses the opportunity to mentor the field training officer as he guides his new recruit officer through the process.

Next, I believe that any officer or deputy that desires to pursue a career path that includes supervision should be afforded the opportunity to attend an introductory supervision training course before being promoted. In larger departments, this can be quite a lofty goal and a logistical nightmare, particular at the sergeant level where the number of candidates can be substantial. To address this issue, I developed an online training course entitled Essential of Effective Supervision. This course is divided into eight sections that are composed of two to four modules each. One large agency that contracts with my company simply enrolls all of their personnel in the various sections. If an officer wants to take the course, it is available to him. In addition to the obvious training value of the course, completion of a class that isn’t mandatory definitely speaks highly of those who complete the course. This can legitimately be a consideration when deciding which of the similarly qualified candidates to promote.

Next, once a new supervisor is promoted, he or she should be scheduled to attend the next available classroom first-line supervision course. There are a variety of these courses available ranging from a few days in length to multi-week residential courses like the Administrative Officers Management Program (AOMP) in Raleigh, NC. A good first-line supervision course should include instruction on a variety of supervisory topics such as sexual harassment, OSHA standards, managing police organizations and evaluation procedures. It is important to evaluate the instructional curriculum closely to insure that the instructional philosophy is consistent with your organizational goals.

Finally, each new supervisor should be assigned to an experienced supervisory mentor. The first year as a new supervisor can be very challenging. The newly promoted supervisor needs the guidance and support of a trusted mentor to help him or her get off on a good foot and avoid the the mine field of supervision.

If an agency invests the time and money to properly prepare new supervisors to succeed, they will reap many times the cost of their investment from decreased turn over and higher productivity. Remember if you fail to prepare your new supervisors you better prepare for them to fail.

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