Thursday, February 16, 2006

Police Supervisors: Officers Need and Deserve a Little Respect

There is an epidemic sweeping the Philadelphia Police Department. Respect is not being shown. Failures in basic communication are affecting police service in many units. I am not speaking here of police officers failing to show respect to supervisors, though there are indeed many instances of that failure.
The epidemic of which I am speaking is one of failure by police supervisors to show their subordinates the proper respect which they deserve simply for being the people that they are, especially in the position that their subordinates find themselves each day.
Folks are being spoken to as if they were adolescents. Small matters are being treated as if they were the end of the world. Second chances are being given less and less frequently. Perhaps most importantly, many Philly cops are growing more and more resentful, and that is directly affecting their performance on the job.
One basic reason for all of this is the poor attitudes of many police supervisors, in particular the poor handling of uniformed officers and detectives by supervisors with very few or no people skills. In some cases this is due to inexperience. In others it is a basic lack of compassion. In still others, you simply have a man or woman on a power trip, constantly needing to feed their over-inflated egos.
People skills refer to the ability to effectively communicate thoughts, needs, and ideas to others in a way that, in the vast majority of situations, results in their willing and often enthusiastic cooperation. It is speaking to others in a way that shows them that you respect their efforts and experience, recognizing their positive contributions to your work environment.
Of course, I am not speaking of every supervisor in the PPD, and in fact am not speaking even to most. But it only takes one supervisor on a low self-esteem driven ego trip, one supervisor with overt prejudices, one supervisor with those poor people skills to bring down the morale of an entire squad. Put a handful in any one district or unit at the same time, and you will sooner or later have a full-blown mutiny on your hands.
My feeling is that this problem begins, as most problems do, at the very beginning. The starting point from which I have observed many of these supervisors working. There are far too many supervisors who begin from a mindset that their officers are trying to “get over on me”, “screw me over”, or “stab me in the back”.
Perhaps they are. And perhaps you have gone a long way towards creating that situation.
Supervisors need to remember this about the vast majority of the officers and detectives who they are leading: these people are adults. In many instances they are heads of families. They have spouses and children. They have homes. They have bills to pay. They have parents to care for. They have school classes to study for, family businesses to help run, community organizations to help manage.
In other words, in the vast majority of situations, the officers under your command have numerous responsibilities outside of their police work. When you speak to these people, you are not speaking to high school students. You are not speaking to your own children. You are speaking to mature, responsible, thinking adults.
The tongue-in-cheek response from many of the violators will be something along the lines of “yeah, if they are adults they ought to start acting like it”. Or “if they are so responsible, they ought to show it more”. Sadly, to many of the violators of officer’s respect these supervisors will be serious when making these comments.
Supervisors ought to be starting from a place of respect for their officers. Every single uniformed Philadelphia police officer, by the very nature of their profession, is a target. Every one of us puts on a uniform, pins on a badge, straps on a gun, gets behind the wheel of a marked vehicle, and takes to the streets to stop crime and save lives, and in doing so we all put our health and possibly our lives on the line every day and night.
This is the place from where every supervisor needs to start when considering their employees.
Right behind this should be empathy for your officers other life responsibilities. Family, home, friends, school, business, finances. If you think that your officers should leave these things at the door when they come to work, and switch into automaton mode, then you are simply being unrealistic. You have your own extra-police matters on your mind, and your empathy towards your officers in this regard should be strong.
I can hear the self-defensive replies of the violators now. “What are we supposed to do, kiss their butts?” or “You can treat some of these people as good as you want, and they will still try to get over on you, or they will be bums, they will walk all over you.”
My response would be that indeed some of your subordinates may take these tacks. But this will not be the case with most of them. It is a large part of your job as a supervisor to manage those employees with short-comings. It is also part of your job as a supervisor to establish a positive work environment. You will never do that if you treat most of your subordinates as if they were your worst problem child.
Start in your own mind, each and every day, from a place that respects the job that your officers are heading out to do each shift at its very nature, taking into account that these men and women are carrying with them the life baggage of family, home and other responsibilities. Start there, rather than from a place that says “I’m gonna watch them, they ain’t gonna bleep me over” and you will find that your group and squad morale will improve. There is no doubt about it.
Now how do you handle that problem child? Should this employee be given respect? Should they be thought of with empathy? The answer remains a strong “yes”. It is a part of your job to try to turn around an employee who has taken on poor work habits, or has taken on a poor attitude. And the first answer in most situations shouldn’t be to bang them over the head with some type of disciplinary measure.
There is a supervisory measure called counseling. It does not always have to take a formal approach. A simple conversation with an employee who may have slipped up a couple of times, or who may have spoken out of line, or who may have made a small mistake is often all it will take to kick in the self-pride that many already have inside themselves.
Sometimes all it takes is the right word to turn on the light, to shake a person from a temporary slumber. You may want to keep your own private notes when such instances happen, so that you can track repeated incidents of the same nature, but there is not always a need for formal discipline, even a formal memo of the counseling.
If every supervisor stopped to type up a memo relating to every incident of day-to-day supervision of employees, there would be no trees left in the forests for all the paper that would be needed.
Of course, some problem children are worse than others, and discipline needs to be meted out from time to time. Sometimes this discipline should take the informal variety. A less-than-favored work assignment given to a subordinate as an obvious response to a recent public slip-up can not only send the violating employee the message, but can send it to the entire work group or squad. These temporary ‘slap-on-the-wrist’ types of punishment are often the most effective, especially in the event of relatively minor or ‘no-harm, no-foul’ violations of rules or protocol.
Some problem children are going to require formal disciplinary measures. Sometimes a series of events, or some ongoing actions or shortcomings need to be documented, especially when verbal counseling and other informal or less formal methods have failed to achieve a change in performance.
Some events or actions are so egregious by their nature that they must be documented, and often these may even go beyond your scope as a front-line supervisor to a command-level. Still, they should start with your own recognition of the problem, and your own formal advising of the employee that there is a problem.
In no case, however, is there ever a need to show the employee anything less than professional respect. There is never an incidence where an employee needs to be yelled at, cursed at, or demeaned, and there is especially never an incidence, short of self-defense, where an employee needs to be physically grabbed or struck.
If you are going to speak to an employee about a problem, do it. If you are going to discipline an employee formally, do it. But control yourself, act like a professional, act like the mature, responsible adult that you are supposed to be. Speak to people the way you wish to be spoken to, treat them the way you would wish to be treated.
To those who would say that we need to be tough sometimes, that this is a para-military organization and that this sometimes requires you to speak harshly and bluntly, even profanely, I would say that this shows a basic weakness in you, and that it may result in a short-term result that has worse long-term consequences.
We as a police department are para-military, not military. This is not the United States Marine Corps. We are military-like in that we have a rank structure, wear uniforms, carry weapons, keep the peace. But our forces are made up of civilians, the vast majority of whom are not and never have been military personnel.
There will absolutely be times when you cannot speak softly. There will be times under duress, under fire, when the stuff is hitting the fan, when you need to be loud, demanding, and even forceful. Your subordinates absolutely understand this. If you have developed respect and rapport with them, they will respond much more favorably and responsibly to the increased demands of your leadership in these worst of situations.
Oh, and don’t forget your good employees. There are many ways that a good supervisor can find to reward subordinates who regularly show an extra effort, who are consistently your best performers, who strive to regularly put forth a positive attitude. These should include formal commendatory recommendations, lesser but still valued “attaboy” memos, verbal recognition privately and publicly, and other ‘off-the-record’ pats on the back.
From time to time, I have heard of supervisors and managers who don’t want to put employees in for commendations, who deny or ‘shoot down’ a commendatory request that comes across their desks. I can absolutely see downgrading some formal commendation requests, but to outright deny any recognition, including a formal Commendatory letter? That is simply ridiculous.
If front-line supervisors have gone to the trouble of formally requesting recognition for their troops, this should be respected by the managers doing the approving at higher levels. As a front-line supervisor, you simply need to evaluate the commendatory actions of your subordinates, and ensure that they receive some type of recognition.
Always remember the supervisory rule of thumb: commend in public, criticize in private.
The respect that you want from your people will not come simply from your putting on a uniform with stripes or bars or clefs. It will not come from threats and intimidation, from your face turning red and your neck bulging with veins, from profane words and harsh criticism.
No matter your size, age, race, sex, or experience level, the respect that you want from your people will only come from granting them that same respect on an everyday basis, as a basic part of what makes you tick.

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