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Strengthening the Chain of Command

Emphasizing the chain of command in leading law enforcement officers can improve teamwork and communication between supervisors and field officers.

April 04, 2018  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

Photo: San Diego Harbor Police
Photo: San Diego Harbor Police
After 31 years of military service from enlisted to officer, I have often considered that my military leadership training and experiences have served me well throughout my law enforcement career. There were pitfalls, but I also implemented lessons which continue to help me as a leader of police officers.

One obvious, but often overlooked, consideration is that at a police department I was no longer leading Marines (or service of your choice), who by training tend to immediately obey orders and abide by a strict chain of command. Not to say service personnel don't ask why, or give opinions or alternate choices, but generally (especially in tactical situations) they rely on their immediate leader and use them to convey their concerns up the chain.

Service members live, train, and sleep as units. They start to understand how each other thinks and moves, so over time, minor issues are shrugged off and major issues can be addressed through training, planning, and debriefings in quieter times.

As military leaders, we are close to our troops in the field through the company and captain level. The disconnect in law enforcement is that the first promotion to police sergeant means we see our troops in roll call or line-up, but then it is hit or miss as to how much time we will interact with them in the field. So while law enforcement personnel are initially trained as a unit in the police academy, they are taught to be patrol officers, often acting alone or in pairs for the most part.

Once out in the street, they are conditioned to think and act independently and they have time to consider many questions, situations, and possible scenarios, which they are happy to bring back to anyone who will listen in the locker room, lunch room, or coffee shop. Sometimes these people are not their immediate supervisors, who could maybe address their needs. Police officers are not generally trained to understand and use their "chain of command" the way military troops are conditioned. Civilian professional staff are even less chain-of-command oriented.

Strengthening the chain of command in the law enforcement units I have led has helped me to keep connected to issues the officers are facing in the street. I explain to my front-line supervisors, generally sergeants and lieutenants, that the chain of command works three ways: down, up and across. Giving orders down the chain and assuming they will be understood and carried out is perilous. Unless our employees are giving feedback up the chain of command and the front-line supervisors are comfortable telling truth to power, senior law enforcement leaders are living in a fantasy land. We are just too far from the realities of our officers' daily lives to think it is "just like when we were patrol officers."

No one leads alone; we lead in teams. Front-line supervisors must talk to each other across the chain of command to truly understand the complex, ever changing managerial and leadership environment that is 21st Century policing. We have every possible communication method at our disposal (memo, letter, cell phone, text, email, social media, Internet, in-person, etc.) and there are still knowledge gaps.

As a police chief at a medium sized department, I get to visit roll call/line-up a few times a months for about 10 to 15 minutes. I let my officers know that the command staff wants to help them with any issues, but we have to know about them. They can come to me or the command staff directly if they are not getting satisfaction from the immediate supervisors. While this is inefficient, it also puts the front-line supervisors on notice that I expect them to take the officers' requests, problems, and complaints seriously. We have implemented processes for employees to take common administrative or technical issues to Human Resources or the IT Help Desk.

In supervisor meetings, I stress that the command staff wants to know about current trends, needed training, or projects forwarded from the line level. Our job, I remind my leaders, is to get the police officers and civilian professionals the equipment, training, and resources they need to be successful. If they come up with a good idea, let's see how we can make it happen. If we cannot do it, due to funding or timing issues, we need to give feedback so employees know someone at least listened. I would much rather handle requests and complaints via the chain of command than from the union via grievances.

Organizational charts can be arranged in different configurations to facilitate communication flow for your agency so you can strengthen and use your chain of command!

Mark Stainbrook is the chief of the San Diego Harbor (CA) Police Department. He is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.


Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

Mark Tarte @ 4/7/2018 8:32 AM

Chief, a well written article, and one I agree with, especially about the differences between military personnel and police officers and their respective duties. I heard much of the same talk about bringing directly to the chief and his open door policy, but what you didn't factor in is the pettiness of some supervisors and managers who would retaliate in small ways to make your life more difficult. If a chief that treats everyone the same from the second in command to the newest rookie as far as discipline and expectations, I applaud that. However, if a chief plays favorites, especially in discipline, you lose the line personnel forever and become ineffective and morale suffers. I've seen the latter, rarely the former in the past 40+ years of policing and teaching policing. I would hope that POST would use your article as a model for the command college.

kevcopaz @ 4/13/2018 2:34 PM

GREAT article Chief/Co.! What a concept, where the chain of command works in 3 directions and not ONLY top down and shut the hell up and do as you are told?? Allowing input and concerns of ALL to be heard yet chain of command (orders) followed). LOVE IT! This is why I have NEVER trained nor found a LEO with former military experience not to be the best officers I have ever worked with in 40 years (yes 40) and I am NOT a former military member but call it as I see it. GREAT article.

Jon Retired LEO @ 4/19/2018 8:15 PM

Super article Chief. Well written and thought out!

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