Advice For New Sergeants

By: Michael Fernandez

Are you a new sergeant? Or are you thinking of promoting to sergeant? Use this advice. Some is passed from generation to generation and other pieces were gathered from advice current sergeants which they had been given when first promoted.

  • Never assume anything. This is the most important lesson I learned early on as a sergeant. Have your facts straight before you have an adverse conversation with an officer about something. Nothing will wreck your credibility quicker than unnecessary counseling when you’re wrong. Once you learn the facts and they lead you to a decision to document the counseling of an officer, please take some time to think about whether your documentation and the conversation is needed or if a conversation would suffice. You will be surprised how much smaller the documentation becomes after a cooling down period.
  • Be a student of your profession. As soon as you get the third stripe everyone around you thinks you have all of the answers. You will get questions related to case law, policies, procedures, guidelines, etc. You must know as much about all of it as you possibly can. You can only reply “I’m not sure. Let me get back to you” so many times when asked a question before you lose credibility. Read one section of your policy manual and the legal sourcebook every day when you’re new, then once a week after your first year. It will only take you 30 minutes of your shift. You will be on your second reading of both after a year or two. Keep reviewing and stay cutting edge. Know where to get answers in areas in which you are not specialized. Your position demands it, and your superiors and subordinates expect it.
  • You must genuinely care about your people. Officers can quickly tell whether or not you care about them. They can tell if the decisions you make are based on your own self-promotion as opposed to protecting their interests and the interests of the organization. You are their advocate and they must know you genuinely care for their well-being, both professionally and personally. Caring for and advocating for the officers also means holding them accountable for small transgressions so they do not become more serious. As an example, if you do not correct an officer who you discover is tactically unsound or operating outside of policy and the officer later is seriously injured or worse under the same circumstances, it is accurate to say you bear some responsibility. You neither want that on your conscience, nor do you want someone to get hurt.
  • Focus on the performance, not on the person. Stick to principled leadership. You are human. Your personal feelings will creep in, but as long as you are conscious of it and conscious of focusing on the performance, you will be fair and your actions will be more defensible. Once you have addressed an issue, let it go. Treat that officer as you would on any other day, thus reinforcing in their mind it was about the performance. This advice will help ensure you will treat officers the same, whether it’s your best friend or someone you do not know.
  • Your role has changed. You are no longer on the playing field. You are a coach on the sidelines. It is easy for sergeants to do police work; we’ve been doing it for years. Oftentimes, new sergeants who are uncomfortable in their new role will fall back to police work. Resist this urge. You will see sergeants doing car stops and ped checks and running extensive investigations rather than supervising and teaching his or her squad to do those things. Yes, leading by example is useful and cops respect a supervisor who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. However, you will be more valuable to the officers if you are available to guide and coach. Embrace your new role.
  • You don’t have to tell your lieutenant everything. Your watch commander has plenty to deal with. You are entrusted to make decisions. If you discuss with the watch commander every decision you plan to make or already made, the watch commander, your peers and your subordinates will think you’re either incompetent or you’re a sycophant. The watch commander will set the bar for what he or she wants to know about. If your lieutenant is micromanaging you, it is because they either do not trust your judgment or are going back to their comfort zone as a sergeant. Just like my Chief has stated, decisions are supposed to be made at the lowest level. Your team sergeants should be the only resource you need in a bind. You and your peers should have a team attitude and help each other through any problem.
  • Don’t micromanage calls. No sergeant likes their watch commander micromanaging their job, and officers don’t like their sergeants micromanaging their job. The handling of calls belongs to the primary officers. Develop officers through your guidance. That is your role. Drill into your officers you are there to help them, to make sure they have the resources they need and to supervise. The primary officer’s job is to think through situations and come up with a course of action. By controlling every situation, you will train your officers to simply wait until you arrive and tell them what to do. If there is a major incident with many moving parts, such as an active shooter, you will have to coordinate the chaos. Most calls are not at that level and are the exception. If officers ask you questions on the air, ask the primary officer to answer the questions.
  • Eternal optimism is a must. Officers always watch the sergeant for cues on how to behave and being negative is one thing you do not want to teach them. You are not a cheerleader about everything. There are always some things that need to be fixed. Like you, officers are trained investigators and can sense when you are being disingenuous so don’t be. How you discuss these issues with your officers will make a big difference in their careers and your career moving forward.
  • The vast majority of officers do the right thing. Officers for the most part do the right thing and believe in their purpose. If an officer among them is cutting corners, dodging work or worse, they expect you to handle it. If you don’t, officers will think you do not care or are incompetent. The whole team can become apathetic, only watching out for themselves rather than the team. They will not police each other if they see you are not policing them. Why should they care about the team when you apparently do not? Officers will lose respect for you as a leader and likely the department.
  • Set the bar for quality report writing as quickly as possible. Developing officers so they can go to special assignments is an important part of your job. If reviewing and approving officers’ reports are part of your role as a field sergeant, this applies to you. Approving substandard reports to be nice, to avoid confrontation, or because you’re lazy will harm your reputation and their reputation. The officer won’t have a shot at a special assignment, in part, because you didn’t correct reports when you should have. Officers who want to get special assignments will appreciate you tightening up their reports, thus protecting their reputation. They may not appreciate it immediately, but they will when they get those assignments and start reading others’ substandard reports.
  • Beware of having a sense of humor. Know your audience. Humor with the officers especially in a group setting such as briefing is a double edged sword. Sometimes it enables you to discuss a sensitive subject or put the latest issue in perspective. However, your sense of humor can quickly be misunderstood and send mixed messages to anyone who is listening. If humor is one of your strong points and you are confident in knowing the time and place, then use humor. If that is not your style, proceed with caution.
  • Do not be afraid of disparate treatment for disparate performance. It’s not about fairness. It’s about performance. Avoid knee jerk reactions and blanket policies. There is no need to punish everyone for one person’s transgression. If someone is performing outstandingly, the attention given will be different than that given to someone who is performing poorly. If a substandard performance requires more attention, then give that person the attention necessary to correct performance. By the same token, you reserve temporary special assignments for officers who are performing above standards. Do not feel obligated to give everyone temporary special assignments, for example, out of a sense of fairness.

Someone once told me, “Being a sergeant is a great job, but the personnel issues stink.” I disagree. Being a sergeant is all about the personnel. It’s what makes the job so rewarding. If you don’t want to lead, develop, coach, mentor, discipline, and motivate, you should not be a sergeant. If, however, you are committed to the officers you serve, you’ll love this job.