The Sergeant

The role of the police sergeant is arguably one of the most important and perhaps least understood aspects of police management. Historically, sergeants have performed not only first-line supervisory practices in terms of oversight of uniformed patrol officers (Gocke and Stallings 1955) but have also been responsible for ensuring efficient street level implementation of departmental policies in an effort to interdict crime and control patrol officers’ behaviors (Engel 2001).

Given the traditional quasi-military structure of most U.S. police departments, sergeants have historically been engaged in oversight and discipline, as advisers to new officers, leadership and morale builders, information processors, and policy change agents (Gocke and Stallings 1955), with other duties depending upon the structure and culture of the police organization and the community in which it is anchored and that it serves (Wilson 1968). These types of responsibilities require sergeants to possess myriad skills and abilities and a great deal of knowledge, some of which can be taught but much of which has accumulated after years of experience, training, and additional education.

Attaining the rank of sergeant in a medium- to large-sized police department in the United States will depend on the specific police organization’s internal rules governing promotion. However, most sergeants have normally served as a uniformed patrol officer for a specified period of time prior to taking any qualifying promotional examinations.

Although many officers may be well qualified to become sergeants, it is quite common for some to not pursue this career path. Some of the reasons for avoiding the sergeant’s position may be personal, professional, or organizational. The prevailing personal reason cited is loss of income, since some officers feel more comfortable remaining at a relatively stable pay grade. Other officers want more control of their duty assignments, but many have concerns about their organizations’ sincerity and commitment to them; this is most notable among female and African American officers, who sometimes perceive the testing and selection process as disingenuous and unfair. Furthermore, many officers do not want the added burden of possibly supervising their former street-level colleagues; nor do they wish to be possibly characterized as part of administration (Whetstone 2001).

Nevertheless, there is still considerable fierce competition for the limited number of openings for sergeants’ positions, and the promotional opportunities, requirements, and conditions for selection vary widely among police departments in the United States. Even the length-of-service requirements are in stark contrast. In some departments a patrol officer may be promoted to sergeant in less than three years, while in others it could take more than fifteen.

Street Sergeants versus Station Sergeants

Depending in part on the culture of upper and middle management and their philosophy of policing, patrol officers with extensive patrol experience may not be the most viable candidates for sergeant. There is often concern about them being too street oriented, thus making it difficult for them to support policing reform. However, these potential sergeants are often popular among rank-and-file street-level cops because of the vast knowledge they have accumulated, thereby earning them the right to be a sergeant.

Stationhouse or desk sergeants, however, may not have had significant street experience, or they may have been out of the uniformed division for an extended period. Thus, they are sometimes unfamiliar with current street-level activities and cultures of policing and often receive qualified respect from their subordinates.

Both street and station sergeants have strengths and weaknesses. The former are very good street-level arbiters and can more easily direct the activities of street officers; the latter are often administratively astute and able to understand budget concerns and administrative procedures necessary for planning and development; they are also, in many respects, more likely to be promoted to middle management because they have acquired more managerial skills because of their presence in the stationhouse. But they may not be as savvy as street-level sergeants. If there is an advantage to either, it would probably favor the stationhouse sergeant from the perspective of middle and upper management and the street-level sergeant from the beat officer’s view (Van Maanen 1985).

As a practical matter it is very difficult to generalize because of the divergent types of police organizations and the nature of their embedded cultures, not only within departments as a whole but also within discreet street-level units among various platoons. It is quite possible, and in many cases the rule, to have sergeants that possess both stationhouse and street-level expertise. Variations in community social conditions of policing require well rounded, balanced sergeants who are capable of adapting to dynamic conditions wherein change is the norm and uncertainty is guaranteed.

As a result, the nature and scope of responsibilities of sergeants could range from supervising patrol officers in specialized SWAT units to proactive problem solving requiring prolonged community engagement and substantial commitment of time for training, direction, and supervision. But in some communities the role of the sergeant, and middle managers, is more public relations and community service oriented. Thus, in some regards, demographic socioeconomic conditions and sergeant socialization may affect both style of policing and style of supervisory practices.

Supervisory Style

Because of the large amount of discretion afforded police officers in general and management in particular, the range of activities performed by sergeants varies considerably across jurisdictions. In some smaller departments sergeants may perform patrol functions in addition to their supervisory responsibilities, while in others they may be far removed from street-level activities. Consequently, the notion of routine activities of police sergeants is a fiction, but the focal activity of most first-line supervisors concerns controlling patrol officers’ behavior. Four supervisory styles have been identified as impacting behavior: (1) traditional, (2) innovative, (3) supportive, and (4) active supervisors (Engel 2001, 2003).

Traditional Supervision

Traditional supervisors tend to support aggressive enforcement techniques of their officers as opposed to focusing on problem solving inherent in community-oriented policing. These types of supervisors are more likely to employ a micromanagement style wherein they will “take over” an incident—addressing both the citizen’s concerns and directing the officer on how to handle various situations. Accordingly, they are task oriented and focus on quantitative evaluative assessments such as number of arrests and citations issued. They also are comfortable with considerable paperwork detailing the nature of their subordinates’ actions.

Additionally, these types of sergeants and lieutenants tend to be more directive and punitive toward their patrol officers and are less likely to reward them or to form personal relationships. Their primary goal is control over their officers’ behavior, but they are likely to support new innovations such as community policing if it is anchored in and compatible with aggressive, proactive policing. In fact, a little more than 60% of these types of supervisors believe strict law enforcement is the primary objective of their patrol officers (Engel 2003).

Innovative Supervision

Innovative supervisors tend to develop relationships with their officers and are not merely task oriented. They generally embrace new innovations in policing such as problem solving and community-oriented policing. They are also more in tune with community norms and expectations and encourage and help their officers achieve success in these areas. Typically, these supervisors may assist their subordinates in implementing community policing using a variety of strategies ranging from mentoring to coaching. They also are more likely to delegate authority, not focus too heavily on rules or report writing, require their officers to come up with innovative strategies for problem solving, and spend considerably more time personally interacting with both citizens and patrol personnel (Engel 2003).

Supportive Supervision

Supportive supervisors are likely to support subordinate officers, and they often attempt to shield them from upper management scrutiny and discipline. As a result, they may not have strong ties with upper-level command staff managers. This type of supervisory gatekeeping is more in line with a process of protecting rather than supporting. Furthermore, these supervisors seem to care less about strict enforcement of departmental rules and more about bestowing frequent praise upon their officers (Engel 2003).

Active Supervisors

Sergeants who are active tend to “lead by example” and, thus, provide subordinates with a model of expected behavior. Under this style it is common for supervisors to be engaged in patrol activities including car stops and traffic enforcement. However, this type of supervisory style is very hands-on and borders on micromanag-ing. Under this style supervisors tend not to encourage team building and are generally not concerned with mentoring or coaching. In many regards, these types of supervisors are relics of the traditional quasi-military models of the professional era of policing retrofitted for community-oriented or problem-solving policing (Engel 2003).

Supervisory Styles and Impact

The four supervisory styles yielded differential impacts on arrests and issuing of citations, use of force, self-initiated activities, community policing and problem solving, administrative activities, and personal business. The likelihood of an officer making an arrest or issuing a citation was not affected by supervisory style. In non-traffic instances, a supervisor’s presence had minimal influence on officer behavior, yet the longer a supervisor remained at the scene, the more likely an arrest would be made.

Use of force was twice as likely to occur when patrol officers are supervised by active supervisors as opposed to other supervisory styles, and active supervisors are more likely to employ force themselves, but their presence at the scene, standing alone, had no significant impact on the use of force by patrol officers.

Self-initiated proactive activities of patrol officers were more prevalent with active supervisors. The degree of proactivity excluded time spent for handling radio-dispatched assignments or activities directed by the supervisor, routine patrol, administrative functions and personal business, or traveling to specific locations.

In the area of community policing and problem solving, officers working for active supervisors spent more time per shift on problem solving and community-based initiatives than with other types of supervisors. However, in terms of administrative activities, patrol officers with active supervisors spent considerably less time per shift on administrative functions.

In the area of non-work related functions, supervisory style had minimal effect on patrol officers’ time spent conducting personal business. The style that appears to have the most significant impact is that of active supervisor. Those supervisors that tend to lead by example may provide the best chance for implementing new innovations such as community and problem-solving policing on the one hand, but they may also impede effective and efficient supervision on the other.

Middle Managers

The role of police middle manager, just like that of the sergeant, varies among jurisdictions. Middle managers typically could include sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, depending on the jurisdiction, and their activities may range from actual patrol work to largely administrative review, rarely interacting with their subordinate sergeants, officers, and citizens. However, their traditional role has focused largely on supervisory control and efficiency, but they also carry a significant leadership role that is important for implementing policy.

It is well known that successful implementation of departmental policies requires considerable support from police middle managers, who are often uniquely attuned to the culture of their organization. Their understanding of the embedded mores of their departments helps them to accelerate or impede policy changes. Hence, police middle managers have been much maligned in that they have sometimes been characterized as obstructionists to organizational reform (Angell 1971). This was evident during many of the early team policing innovations of the 1970s. In fact, some commentators have advocated for the elimination of police middle managers due to their alleged obsession with control and their tendency to obfuscate new ideas, thereby frustrating meaningful change.

Middle managers have been accused of not providing real leadership by not inspiring subordinates, acting creatively, or leading innovative change. Yet in many police organizations, middle managers have varied responsibilities that are not always organizationally compatible. For example, most middle managers are lieutenants, captains, or civilian middle managers who are normally assigned to three functional areas: patrol management in the form of watch commanders, specialized units such as tactical operations or chief of detectives, and internal affairs, police academy training, or other strictly administrative roles in the form of research development (Reuss-Ianni 1983).

The uniformed street-level middle manager, for example, is responsible for a range of activities such as establishing operational priorities within the unit; supervising subordinates, coordinating with other departmental units such as patrol and detectives, scheduling assignments including shift and work days, preparing precinct budgets, managing complex crime scenes, responding to news media inquiries, and reviewing and evaluating data from early warning systems to address problematic officers.

Consequently, depending on the size and scope of police operations and the competing demands placed on middle managers, it is sometimes difficult to ensure harmonious and focused supervisory practices. In some very large police organizations anchored in communities that are steeped in crime and disorder and immersed in intractable socioeconomic issues such as lack of education, adequate housing, and health care—both physical and mental—the challenge for middle managers is daunting.

Nevertheless, the role of the police middle manager is now viewed as a source of strength and positive innovation—if utilized correctly (Sherman 1975; Geller and Swanger 1995). This is especially important for successful implementation of community-oriented and problem-solving policing wherein middle managers must focus on two dimensions of executive leadership—police culture and community cultures—and four related functions:

(1) the socialization process of officers, (2) administrative techniques that directly affect efficient police operations, (3) positive and negative reinforcement of police officers, and (4) education of the community and the news media.

These types of responsibilities are considerably different from previous middle management responsibilities that focused largely on maintaining the status quo through strict command and control techniques (Gocke and Stallings 1955). The major emphasis for middle mangers is now participatory management and focuses on community-based problem solving in addition to their traditional responsibilities.

Scholarly studies on police management vary considerably. Large departments such as those in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago are considerably different from the 9,594 police departments with fewer than twenty-five officers (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003). There are differences in demographics, organizational cultures, political and fiscal environments, law, and executive leadership—all of which make if difficult to generalize about the role of sergeants and middle management in a very precise manner.

This is particularly evident in today’s modern police departments, wherein regardless of size, there is generally a commitment to community-oriented or problem-solving philosophies, focusing on officer behaviors and attitudes (Engel and Worden 2003). Yet, while the role of sergeants and middle managers may have commonalities across jurisdictions, their activities may be unique and customized to fit differing approaches to policing (Sparrow 1992).

Middle Management Implications

Police middle manager in the twenty-first century in the United States must be astute in dealing with complex issues involving race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, not only in the context of the public served but also within their own police organizations (Goldstein 1990). Sergeants and middle mangers must also be cognizant of increased intergovernmental interdependence. This is most evident following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in August 2005.

Finally, a major factor that both sergeants and middle managers must now confront concerns supervising a changing workforce and the expectations of new generations of officers and the communities they serve. Those born since around 1970 are significantly different from preceding generations, and they are moving into the workforce, including policing, during a time of unprecedented demographic change. Sergeants’ and middle managers’ expectations for these individuals may require rethinking. These individuals may or may not have the same level of commitment as prior police recruit generations, thus requiring new strategies of supervision and management.

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