The Importance of the First-Line Supervisor in Public Safety Agencies

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here and once again, thanks for reading this ongoing series about “real risk management.” For those of you who are new to these articles, I started off by explaining that all the risks we face in public safety can be put into 10 Families of Risk:

10 Families of Risk

So far, we’ve covered the first three families. We’re spending a lot of time on Family Four – Organizational Risk Management, because it includes the five pillars of high-performing organizations. In previous articles, we looked at the first three pillars:

  1. Getting and keeping good people
  2. Building good policies and keeping them up to date
  3. Providing constant and ongoing training and focusing this training on the “core critical tasks” that are present in each job description in your department

The fourth pillar is the key role of the supervisor in high-risk occupations. Specifically, it addresses the importance of the sergeant in your police department, the company officer in your fire department, or the correctional officer supervisor in your jail.

Show me a tragedy in public safety and I will show you a “proximate cause” of “X”—but the real problem lying in wait is all too often a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor —or alternatively, a supervisor who tried to behave like a supervisor and was not supported by management and/or executive personnel. Either of these scenarios is a problem lying in wait and needs your attention.

In any occupation or profession, the key role of the supervisor is “systems implementation.” Management builds rules (policies) and keeps them up to date. Supervisors enforce rules. Line personnel follow rules. When management, supervisors and line personnel are all doing what they are supposed to be doing, things go right, and when things go right, we avoid nasty consequences.

So, how do you as a chief officer promote people in your department? How do you recruit, select, train, mentor and develop a cadre of women and men who will do their job and enforce your policies?

The real problem lying in wait is all too often a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor—or alternatively, a supervisor who tried to behave like a supervisor and was not supported by management and/or executive personnel.

Here is the scenario that I have seen repeatedly in public safety organizations around America: You promote a line officer or firefighter to the rank of sergeant or company officer. Two months into their tenure in this new position the new sergeant or company officer gets a surprise: “Whoa, I had no idea what this job was all about. I thought it was just a pay raise and a different title. I had no idea that I would actually have to confront people. I did not know that I would have to challenge people. I was unaware that I would have to tell people not to do the things I used to do with them. I don’t feel comfortable telling people they made a mistake. I don’t think I can honestly evaluate my people because they are my friends and I like them. Frankly, I had no idea what the job was all about.”

So with this new knowledge, what does the new supervisor do? Do they come to you and say “Chief, I made a huge mistake in the promotional process. I had no idea what the job entailed and I now know am not capable of doing it. Please give me my old job back and make me look like a fool”? Oddly enough, this occasionally does happen. But if I had to guess, it happens about one time in 1,000!

Most of the time this new supervisor will “stay in grade” and the best we get out of them is mediocrity—and when mediocrity is present, accountability takes a vacation. Without accountability, the cops who work for that sergeant or the firefighters who work for that company officer or the correctional officers who work for that jail supervisor will do what they want to do rather than follow the policies, and the whole house of cards starts to collapse. Sooner or later something bad is going to happen.

Let’s revisit my earlier statement: Show me a tragedy in public safety operations and I will show you a “proximate cause” of “X”—but the real problem lying in wait is all too often a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor—or alternatively, a supervisor who tried to behave like a supervisor and was not supported by management and/or executive personnel. Could that describe your agency? Do you have the needed training and mentoring processes in place to prepare personnel to take on leadership roles—and support them after promotion?

In my next article, I’ll explore strategies for recruitment, selection, training, mentoring and developing your supervisors. Until then, thanks for your kind comments regarding these writings and for all you are doing to make things better in our profession.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—On any given day, no one knows where the Chief is. But every member knows who their immediate supervisor is—and some will modify their behavior based on which supervisor is on duty.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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