The Need for Leadership Training in Law Enforcement

With the next retirement bubble fast approaching, many law enforcement officers from the baby-boom generation will soon be handing off the future of the profession to the next generation of officers. Departments have been anticipating this for some time now, but it’s been difficult for many of them to fill the void left by retiring officers. This can partly be attributed to underfunded and underdeveloped recruitment programs. For many agencies, officers from Generation X and the current millennial era will be the ones who will naturally rise through the ranks to fill leadership positions — but are they ready? Has there been enough formal leadership and management training for them to undertake such roles?

Leadership isn’t something that can be learned overnight; it’s cultivated through continual personal and professional learning that requires on-the-job experience in addition to formal training. Good leaders in law enforcement can make the difference in life-or-death situations by using situational leadership skills to quickly assess and defuse incidents. They can also employ transformational leadership skills to share their knowledge with officers under their command. When leaders mentor young officers, they are doing two things: preparing the younger officers for leadership positions and ensuring the success of the agency long after they have retired.

Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that leadership training is lacking. Criminal justice programs and police academies often focus little on leadership and more on developing skills to solve and reduce crime, reserving leadership training for senior-level officers. “If we want to groom officers and agencies for success, we need to abandon this hierarchal approach to leadership training,” says LAAPOA Vice President Rodolfo Bojorquez. “Leadership skills need to be developed early on to give officers time to grow into senior roles. This means training needs to be offered to officers of all levels.”

However, this is all easier said than done. Granted, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) training includes leadership development courses, but they may not be enough, and some courses may be outdated. Studies have shown that the next generation approaches learning differently; it places an emphasis on incorporating technology and questions “the way we have always done it.” This may be a sign that we should consider making these courses more interdisciplinary, but the lack of funding and investment in law enforcement makes it immensely difficult to broach such issues.

Fortunately, longstanding leadership traits for law enforcement officers that have stood the test of time can be practiced on their own, outside of the classroom. Below are a few key characteristics that will help officers to promote and advance in their careers and to make a positive impact on their departments, colleagues and the people they serve.

  1. Servant leadership. As the name implies, being a servant leader means that you focus on the needs of your team before your own. This allows for “higher engagement, more trust and stronger relationships with team members” and can potentially break down some barriers created by leadership hierarchy.
  2. Accountability. Leaders need to be responsible for their actions and decisions, regardless if they’re successes or failures. This accountability must be exhibited within the department and outside to the public. Given the volatile climate in law enforcement, this is an important trait to have, because it promotes transparency during critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings.
  3. Values. Leading with a strong moral compass that’s guided by the ethics put forth by your department helps leaders guide their teams with a clear vision and standards based on service and integrity.
  4. Service. The very nature of the job is to protect and serve. Leaders need to promote this objective daily to their officers “to motivate others to work to their greatest potential toward preventing crime, ensuring professional and compassionate service to the public and apprehending those who prey upon others,” according to the FBI Training Division. Officers’ actions should be selfless and benefit the greater good.
  5. Trust. It’s impossible to be an effective leader without first developing trust between your colleagues and the people you serve. Leaders build trust over time by putting forth their character, contributing to the team, showing compassion, commitment, consistency and more. Once you develop the trust of your team, it creates loyalty, a strong work ethic and may potentially increase retention rates.
  6. Mentoring. As we have discussed, mentorship is key in developing the leaders of tomorrow. It’s imperative that leaders continually find ways to develop and train younger officers and promote growth, both personally and professionally.