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What a New Sergeant Needs to Know

What a New Sergeant Needs to Know

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster

Gripes Go Up

There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan where the small patrol is walking across the countryside and the members are complaining about the mission.  The unit members attempt to engage the Tom Hanks’ character in griping about the mission.  Hanks won’t have any of it.  He explains that “Gripes go up the chain of command.”  That leader knows that griping and/or complaining with your subordinates only undermines your morale authority.

There are times that you are going to have to announce and implement some unpopular decision or policy.  Griping, complaining or belittling the decision or policy is a disservice to your subordinates.  It doesn’t change the policy or decision, but it does give your subordinates permission to gripe, complain and belittle you, thereby undermining you as well. Remember, gripes go up the chain of command – go see the lieutenant or captain and hash out your concerns.

Here are three things you can do when you are charged with implementing something that might unpopular:

  • Make sure you thoroughly understand what is being done and why it is being done. There is probably a good reason for the change
  • Think through your reservations about the change. Based on your research into the reasons for the change formulate answers for your subordinates
  • Place change in context for your subordinates.

Anchor the change is that which has not changed.

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The Goldfish Bowl

You know from being a cop that people are constantly watching you.  When you were making all those traffic stops hundreds of people watched and they drew conclusions about you, your department and policing in general, based on your actions.  Your subordinates are now watching you.  They are drawing conclusions about you and your department based on your actions.

The average cop doesn’t relate to the chief, the captain or even the lieutenant.  They don’t interact with those people daily.  Your cops aren’t taking leadership cues from your chief; they are taking them from you.  For the most part, how a cop perceives his or her department is based on how they perceive their sergeant.  You represent the department to your officers.  Your officers are going to mimic what you do. 

If you treat your officers with respect, that is what they will take into the streets.  If you value their opinion and engage them in problem-solving, that is what they will take into the streets.  How you treat your officers and whatever actions you take around them they are going to mirror in their contacts with the public and among themselves. 

Leave-alone, Zap

Unfortunately, many supervisors practice “leave-alone, zap” leadership.  For whatever reason, the supervisor has only intermittent contact with subordinates.  Typically, some administrative project has you tied down in the station.  Your police officers are out in the street solving-problems without you.  It doesn’t take long for the cops to get used to being on their own.  Then, one day, you decide to go into the field and roll on a few calls.  You have left them alone, now you see a working and you are a “zap.”

In essence, the “zap” is any intervention.  For the sergeant, just showing up on a radio call is an intervention.  If you leave-alone, zap, they will resent both the zap and being left-alone.  You must be consistent. Get out into the street during each shift.  Roll on a few calls. Roll by a few traffic stops. Have them meet you for coffee.  The purpose is not to “keep them on their toes,” the purpose is to create consistency in their expectations.  If you are consistent in your field time and you have to intervene in a situation, you won’t be fighting their feelings of resentment toward leave-alone, zap. 

Be safe and good hunting!

About the Author

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.) retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.  He is the author or co-author of six books including Police Technology and Leadership: Texas Hold ‘em Style.  He can be contacted through his website at

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