• J.R. Lonsway

Police Department VIPs

Who is the most important person in a police department?


A civilian would most likely respond that it's the chief of police. The chief is the face of the department, its leader, the person who sets policy, issues general orders, and communicates with city hall regarding the ongoings within the agency. But that would be the incorrect answer.


Others might say that the most important person is the officer on the beat, that person in uniform responding to calls for service because he/she is the street level representative of the department, the face the public sees and deals with at a personal level, the young men and women who are the backbone of every police department. In fact, many citizens may only deal with the police once in their lives, perhaps on a traffic stop or reporting a crime, and how that interaction transpires leaves a lasting impression on how they feel about cops. But that would also be the incorrect answer.


So if it's not the top dog or the line officer, who is it? A deputy chief, captain, commander, lieutenant, detective, narco, school cop, K-9 handler? Who? The answer lies in accountability, responsibility, and where that burden is placed in the everyday operations of any agency. The most important person in any police department is the first-line supervisor on patrol, which in most departments is a sergeant, or just plain "Sarge."


Police departments are paramilitary by nature, and just as the military depends on its NCOs (noncommissioned officers) to "get the job done" so does the chain-of-command in a police department rely on its sergeants to ensure that rules, regulations, policies and procedures are followed, and guidelines governing behavior and discipline are maintained.


Patrol sergeants are the eyes and ears on the ground for every agency. They have the responsibility of overseeing officers on patrol, many of whom are young and inexperienced, observing their interactions with the public, directing them at crime scenes, and evaluating their professional capabilities. Sergeants know that the likelihood of a major negative incident involving police officers that has the highest probability of impact on police-community relations starts at the street level, and that is why it is imperative that they be out on the street with their officers and not decorating an office chair with their behinds. "You can't supervise from a desk" is an adage in every PD.


Administrators work Monday through Friday, and when they go home for the weekend it is the patrol sergeant in charge of a shift of officers who runs the city from 5 P.M. Friday until 8 A.M. Monday morning. Granted, the admin types (chief, deputy chief, captain, etc.) are only a phone call away, but make no mistake that it is the sergeant running the police department during those hours. Shifts are commanded by police lieutenants, and while they are present during the week most generally have weekends off.


The lieutenant sets the tone for how the shift is run, but the sergeant monitors its heartbeat. He or she mentors, coaches, listens, advises, knows when to step in to help and when to stand back and observe. The sergeant is the go-between for the line officer and administration, communicating concerns of the beat cop up the chain-of-command and explaining administrative policies and directives coming down it.


The sergeant becomes involved in the personal lives of subordinates. He or she must be concerned when subordinates are having relationship issues, partying a little too hardy, getting burned out, or other telltale signs that may seem insignificant on the surface but carry much greater weight such as being sullen or withdrawn, coming in late, displaying apathy, voicing cynicism, or being badge-heavy. Badge-heavy implies an authoritarian stance when dealing with the public, as in a "my way or the highway" demeanor, and is prevalent in younger officers. The sergeant must pay attention because how the personal life goes directly affects professional comportment.


A relationship of trust is built between a sergeant and subordinates, and often the sergeant becomes their confessor. Confidence is of the utmost importance, but a sergeant has to know when to give advice or recognize that an issue is serious enough that those in the chain-of-command must be informed. First and foremost, the personal problems of a subordinate should never become fodder for gossip.


I was blessed with great sergeants (and lieutenants) when I was a young patrol officer, several of whom went on to achieve higher ranks. There was a time in LCPD history when the rank of corporal was on each shift and they also served as first-line supervisors. One and all they molded us into good police officers, disciplining us when we needed it and praising us when we did well. I modeled my supervision style on a couple of them when I made sergeant in my eleventh year of service.


I spent four of my five years as a sergeant on patrol. Of all the different jobs I had during my 22 years in the LCPD, patrol sergeant was the most fun. It's easy for an uninformed member of the public to believe that all cops are bad, and all departments cover for their officers when they do wrong. They wouldn't think that if they saw the levels of disciplinary actions taken against officers for violations of rules & regulations, which include terminations. A sergeant can't be everywhere at once, but when I observe cops in news video doing bad the first thought that comes to my mind is, "Where was the sergeant?"


Police departments do their best to keep out bad apples, which is why we have a written test, oral interview, polygraph, extensive background check, psychological exam, and a 24-week academy followed by a 14-week field training evaluation program in which three different experienced cops on three different shifts evaluate the performance capabilities of the probationary officer. And all of that is followed by a one-year probationary period.


Imagine if we had that same standard for our politicians?


J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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