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HEY SARGE!

Congratulations. You made sergeant. At last, the end of police stress.

If it suits you, it is potentially the best job in law enforcement. You probably are still in the union, you have status and responsibility over and above what you used to have. You can finally exercise your leadership with the credibility of those stripes, which you worked long and hard to get. You’ve just “lost” your first name with your buddies and you may never hear it again, but that’s okay with you. Now you’re “Hey, Sarge!”. It will never be the same again. That’s the good news. It’s also may be the bad news. Police stress, you thought your problems were over? But sometimes the “monster” rears it’s ugly head.

Welcome to what can sometimes be the worst and second hardest job in law enforcement. The hardest job is being a “super chief”, one who really cares. (It’s easy being a bad chief, you just make everyone else’s lives miserable.) But your’s can be the worst because at least the chief has ultimate power. You are in the middle virtually all the time. And if your bosses are poor leaders, and you end up caught in the middle between him and your subordinates, those stripes can feel mighty oppressive at times.

If your bosses are good, then you may actually function as a manager, but frequently the last word in “middle mangement” is a joke, because while you have tremendous day to day responsibility, you aren’t really in on management decisions that effect policy and procedure.

If you’re a sergeant on road patrol at least you’ll be on your own. If you are based in the station in a large department or work in corrections, you’ll almost always have a superior officer around and your job will depend on that relationship. It could be hell or it could be great.

As a sergeant, especially a new one, you may have to cope with the jealousy of colleagues, though this isn’t as common as having friendships gradually fall by the wayside the more you exercise authority on the job with former peers. It takes a great deal of maturity to put aside on-the-job status differences off-duty and maintain friendships that began when your sergeant was "one of the guys (ladies: protest not, whenever I write “guys” this is meant to be gender neutral). Like it or not, you may not be able to overcome this with everyone and will have to accept it. Your gain may involve the loss of easy give and take with some of your subordinates.

You, after all, are responsible for virtually all of their actions while they are under your immediate command, and you are expected to know what they are doing and how well they are doing it. If they screw up you may be held partially accountable. If there is a major screw-up and there is any way you might have possibly intervened, you better believe the press will be out to get you even if your bosses support you.

Departments with chiefs who aren’t respected by the troops usually end up having a few officers who develop a biting sacrcastic and often rather amusing repertoire of anti-authority jokes. In my “Chiefs” article I even recommend doing this to keep your own sanity with a bad chief. But the officers who may be best at this can also use their wit to undermine your authority. If they do this, unfairly or not, have a non-confrontational talk with them, ideally out of uniform in a neutral place. Show them you will listen and try to change if appropriate. Remember, they may have had bad experiences with those in authority and have trouble believing you can be any different. If they are unoffical leaders themselves, you will really have to address the problem but it will be difficult because your “official” status and leadership may make them feel undercut.

Virtually all of the job related problems I hear from sergeants have to do with superior officers who lack leadership skills. I rarely hear about problems with sergeants from officers unless those sergeants are in bed with their own bosses (figuratively speaking of course). There are always a few sergeant who try to get on the fast track to move further up in management. In corrections in particular, at least in Massachuessetts, there are really two levels of middle management since correction officers, sergeants and lieutentants are all in the same union, and captains and above are non-union. More than occassionally a captain will opt for a “demotion” to lieutentant, and a lieutentant will decide to move down to sergeant, because of hassles with the higher-ups.

I won’t insult your intelligence with pat answers and tired old police counseling advice about how to handle any stress that develops out of your role in middle management. Again,most sergeants move into their jobs smoothly and work for years without undue stress. And when “sergeant’s police stress” does develop it is almost always because they get caught between their bosses and their subordinates in some dispute.

Then, I have to be frank with you, there isn’t much you can do except muddle through trying to think over each decision, every comment you make, as to the long range consequences. Try not to jump in with a short term “out” that you will regret later. After all, these are all people you’ll be working with closely and who you will be counting on to back you up. That’s what makes law enforcement middle management conflicts different from similar conflicts in other organizations: in law enforcement safety can depend on not making enemies among the ranks.

As I say all the time, but will say again: talk things through with your spouse and close friends, don’t stuff your feelings. If you get overwhelmed, talk to a professional law enforcement shrink.


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