About twenty-five years ago, I had taken a police supervision class that had been taught by a local former police chief. Yes, one class every night for sixteen weeks is no substitute for actual experience as a supervisor, or even as a subordinate. However, the situations and scenarios that were covered in that class, as well as those that I had learned in the supervision classes that followed, have helped me realize what is expected of me as either a subordinate or leader in my time in the Armed Forces, and in the private sector.
I have either met or worked under just about every type of manager: task master, country club manager, wishy-washy, and the rare diamond cutter. And, I have also been fortunate enough to have met many police officers and police supervisors.
From thirty-plus year veterans who lived every day with the enthusiasm that they probably felt their first day on the job, to new officers who were burnt-out and bitter – this being a result of learning under burnt-out and bitter field training officers – the personality spectrum is just as varied in law enforcement as it is in every other line of work.
It was my time with those officers that I had learned the politics that contaminate the act of promoting patrolmen up the chain of command.
Once a former patrolman is promoted above the rank of sergeant, it becomes easy for some to abandon the police officer mentality for that of a bureaucrat, since the higher ranks are heavily influenced by politics. Supervisors who were willing to exercise discretion, despite political opposition to their decisions, had earned the respect of their subordinates. Unfortunately, those who were promoted as a result of politics tend to treat hypocrisy as part of the job, not a character flaw.
It is the transition from law enforcement officer to bureaucrat that is a threat to law enforcement. If a high ranking boss within a police department’s chain of command is willing to sacrifice his or her power of discretion in the name of keeping their job by pleasing a mayor or city/village manager, or in the name of future promotions, then one important link that all members of the chain of command must share, is broken.
One of the most important assets that an officer has is discretion. No two situations that an officer may be involved in are identical. The biggest priority for a police officer is his or her safety, since a dead officer cannot protect others.
Hearing McKinney, Texas Police Chief Greg Conley openly discuss his opinion regarding the actions of former police Corporal Eric Casebolt during the disturbance at a local swimming pool, it was clear that Chief Conley had made the transition from being a police officer to becoming a bureaucrat.
First of all, and most important, everything that the chief had stated in public regarding his interpretation of the actions of former Corporal Casebolt should have been confined within the walls of his police department. By making such statements in public, Chief Conley appears as though he is seeking public approval for a decision that was made in the hope of winning public approval.
Second, with such a public criticism of a former subordinate, the chief sounds as if he is an outsider, not the top of the chain of command.
Third, the words that were chosen by the chief describe the incident in hindsight, not according to what Corporal Casebolt probably knew or didn’t know as the incident unfolded. It takes no effort to second-guess the actions of an individual once a formerly-unknown situation has played out; it’s known as being an armchair quarterback.
Fourth, if what has been reported in the media and what actually happened at the pool are two different creatures, and Chief Conley modified his words to fit the popular story, the end result may resemble what is happening at departments that have been infected with anti-police oversight: Morale breakdown over the fear that the bottom of the chain of command has no support from the top levels of a publicity-governed bureaucracy.
Making decisions based on what may or may not be public opinion may end up as an unfortunate reminder that nobody is above the laws of unintended consequences. And, making those decisions may result in the legacy of a chief of police taking the form of another example of poor leadership that future students will read about in their textbooks.