In previous blogs, we have talked about the role that the community, mission statements and accountability have in driving police reform in the United States. But we have yet to discuss first-line police supervisors with the attention the topic deserves. These supervisors often have the most contact with officers and therefore an immense responsibility to the community and for forging strong, positive relationships with that community.

First-Line Police Supervisors’ Critical and Complex Role

Police officers often encounter people during their toughest moments and have become the go-to resource for a variety of community concerns. They respond to calls dealing not only with criminal activity but also homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

First-line supervisors lead officers through these immense challenges. They guide officers in building community trust and legitimacy and impart in them the ability to prevent and respond to crime successfully, safely and efficiently. In addition to being a support system for their officers, first-line supervisors must clearly communicate expectations to their subordinates and evaluate their job performance based on those expectations. They are tasked with overseeing a span of control often ranging from five to 20 officers, while also managing patrol response and other assigned duties.

A baseline resource that I have found valuable for leaders to truly understand how supervisory styles impact officer behavior is the 2003 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) publication How Police Supervisory Styles Influence Patrol Officer Behavior. Because first-line supervisors have the most contact with officers, they often have the most impact on officers’ behavior and perceptions, and they play a major role in the development of the department culture. They set the tone for the level of their colleagues’ professionalism, serving as role models, trainers, counselors, and coaches, all the while developing and holding their officers accountable. In our experience, consulting departments across the country, there are certain key qualities that indicate a strong first-line supervisor.

It comes as no surprise that when we are engaged with departments – whether for strategic assessments, staffing studies or independent investigations – first-line supervisors are invaluable in painting a picture of a department’s practices.

Ten Qualities of a Strong First-Line Supervisor

Excellent first-line supervisors:

  1. Demonstrate proficiency in a variety of areas ranging from the law and department policies and procedures to leadership and supervision
  2. Show openness and honesty to the communities they serve
  3. Treat the community and personnel with dignity and respect
  4. Have cultural competency with knowledge and understanding of the communities served
  5. Understand the critical importance of developing positive relationships with the communities served
  6. Have the courage and experience to practice critical – sometimes difficult – decision-making
  7. Are strategic thinkers focused on measurable outcomes, achieving goals, assessing resources and openly communicating
  8. Are effective in communicating and listening
  9. Are model internal and external collaborators, striving for teamwork at all levels
  10. Support employee wellness with awareness of resources and guidance when employees could benefit from additional support.

How Police Executives Can Further Develop First-Line Supervisors

While the practices outlined above sometimes reflect more innate traits, we find they must be developed through training, mentorship and experience.

Hillard Heintze developed the Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field guide in collaboration with the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). The guide was developed based on our experiences working in various police departments; assessment work we have conducted in numerous law enforcement agencies; and our ongoing research on what has worked well for agencies in the past and what progressive agencies are developing for the future.

In the guide, we identify practical steps police executives can use to develop desired qualities in first-line supervisors, such as the following.

  • Engage first-line supervisors in the development of the organizational vision and philosophy
  • Lay the foundation for successful, supported first-line supervisors with structured coaching and training
  • Prioritize professional development
  • Establish a norm of accountability with room for dissent and growth
  • Allow room for individuality
  • Engage first-line supervisors when determining formal disciplinary outcomes.

For more ideas on how to develop first-line supervisors, I recommend the 2012 Law Enforcement Executive Forum publication Enhancing the Leadership Capabilities of First-Line Supervisors, which outlines appropriate leadership training for first-line supervisors. In addition, the 2003 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) publication Institutionalizing Mentoring into Police Departments serves as an excellent resource for the mentoring process so critical to the success of first-line supervisors.

Experts at the Ready

As always, our Law Enforcement Consulting experts are also at the ready to help you identify and assess the qualities in a first-line supervisor based on the specific needs of your department and community. We encourage you to review these resources and reach out to us for help you may need implementing them, or to conduct an independent, third-party review of your agencies’ policies, procedures or practices. We are privileged to play an ongoing role in the professional development of so many of our nation’s law enforcement agencies.

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