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Phoenix Forward magazine

4 ways to show police leadership

While rank-and-file police officers who are thrust into managerial roles may have some clues about their new responsibilities, becoming an effective department leader can take a bit of trial and error.

“One of the interesting things about law enforcement is that when someone gets promoted to a supervisory position, it’s kind of like you’re real good at your old job, but now you’ve got a new one and no one told you how to do it,” says James Ness, PhD, dean of the University of Phoenix® College of Criminal Justice and Security.

“It’s like if you’re a frequent flier and all of a sudden they say, ‘We’re going to make you the pilot today.’ You’re learning by the seat of your pants. You make a lot of mistakes.”

So while you won’t become a true leader in law enforcement overnight, you can learn and then hone specific skills to be a successful manager. Here, Ness offers four ways to demonstrate police leadership skills:


Acknowledge your employees.

Everyone appreciates a pat on the back, and law enforcement officers are no exception. An effective leader recognizes good work and gives due credit, which can help boost morale.

“If an officer does well on an investigation or comes up with an innovative idea that saves mileage on a patrol car, you need to recognize that,” says Ness, who worked as a police chief in Illinois. “A nice letter from the chief that says, ‘Thank you for being a part of this organization,’ does more for morale than anything else.”

Embrace teachable moments.

Making mistakes is human nature, Ness notes, but good police leaders can turn negative occurrences into positives.

“When I took over as chief, my officers came to me and said, ‘The state attorney won’t prosecute our cases,’” Ness recalls. He asked what was going on, he says, and the state attorney told him that the reports were so terse and lacking in detail that the documents didn’t provide enough information — probable cause — to proceed with prosecutions.

“I started looking at the reports, and he was right,” Ness says. “So we looked at the supervisors and told them they needed to kick reports back to the officers. And at the officer level, we said, ‘You need to work on your report-writing skills.’

“The officers ended up writing better reports — the supervisors were more aware of what they needed to do, and the officers were more aware of what was required” to meet the state attorney’s needs.

Champion technology.

Since newer officers tend to be more tech-savvy than officers of previous generations, good leaders need to recognize this, adapt and put in place ways to use social media and other means to communicate with the public and journalists.

For example, more than 770 state and local police departments have Twitter® handles, and that number is expected to grow.

“You’re dealing with a generation gap, and any good administrator will be aware of that,” Ness says. “Police leaders need to be the ones who set the bar and say, ‘We’ve got to have this in order to communicate with the public.’”

Manage the media.

When police leaders are called on to comment on cases for the news media, it’s critical that they present a unified message to the public and to the rest of department, Ness emphasizes.

“A lot of times, press conferences [are reduced to] sound bites, and things are taken out of context,” he says. “You have to learn to either not answer the question or to be very specific so there’s no mistake in what you are going to do.

“If you are up there and stumbling and don’t have a presence that conveys knowledge, or if you say one thing and do another, your officers will lose confidence in you.”