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The First Line Supervisor: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
By William Sturgeon
Published: 07/26/2010

Youngofficer In the field of criminal justice, there is a group of dedicated men and women who receive very little recognition for their hard work - and they are The First Line Supervisors. The first line supervisor is the first rung on the supervisory ladder and most often leads to management positions in the future. It is the first line supervisors who ensure that the agency’s policies are followed by their subordinates and that the agency’s procedures for conducting business are adhered to by everyone working in the field.

The first line supervisor is the bridge between the line staff and management. The first line supervisor is the person who communicates with both of these groups on a continuous basis. It is the first line supervisor who is first to be able to sense the morale of the line staff, find a policy or procedure that is not working as written, improve incorrect staffing patterns, or to observe changes in the make-up of the offenders, etc.

In the majority of emergency situations, it is the first line supervisor who is first on the scene and the one who has to take immediate action. While these incidents are taking place, the first line supervisors will need to depend on their training, education, and experience. Whether it is a law enforcement or correctional situation it is the first line supervisor who must direct his/her subordinates as to what actions they should take. For a period of time, the weight and future implication of the incidents fall upon the shoulders of the first line supervisors.

In the military, the importance of maintaining a strong, well trained and educated Non-Commissioned Officer Corps is extremely important. Most agencies, in my opinion, do not fully appreciate the importance of its first line supervisors as much as the military does. It has been my experience that agencies that have experienced and well trained first line supervisors have few internal and external problems, and the morale is higher.

How Are Great Supervisors Developed

I believe that developing first line supervisors is a process through which a person must progress. There are several crucial steps that, I believe, compose a detailed first line supervisor training program:
  • Communication skills:
    Communication skills for first line supervisors cannot be stressed enough.

  • Report writing skills:
    First line supervisors have to not only write reports; they must approve reports from their subordinates as they move up the chain-of-command.

  • How to administrator discipline:
    Disciplining staff with whom they work so closely can be a difficult process for first line supervisors, but one that they must do.

  • Well versed in policies and procedures:
    It is the first line supervisor who has to see to it that the agency’s policies and procedures are followed by their subordinates in the performance of their duties.

  • A comprehensive understanding of the agency’s Mission and Goals:
    It is the duty of the first line supervisor to constantly reinforce the Mission and Goals of the agency.

    • How to manage an emergency situation (s): When emergencies take place, it is customary for the first line supervisor to be the first representative of the agency on the scene. Therefore, the first line supervisor must be well trained in all aspects of the agency’s emergency /contingency plans.
    • Conflict Resolution skills: Personally, I believe that conflict resolution skills are essential for all supervisors and managers.
    • On-the-job training of subordinates: Every first line supervisor must be accountable for training their subordinates to perform their duties and to ensure that they follow the policies and procedures of the agency.
    • Delegation Skills: Eventually, every first line supervisor will come to the realization that they will have to delegate some of their duties to their subordinates.
    • Planning skills: The first line supervisor has to plan how he/she will consistently operate their area. Consistency is the key in developing a supervisory style.
The Spark in the Engine: Is the First Line Supervisor

It is important for management to understand that its first line supervisors are “The Spark in the Engine” that keeps an agency performing at its highest level. Management should do everything possible:
  • To keep the first line supervisors up-to-date with changes in the agency
  • To keep their training current
  • To ask for feedback on new or amended policies, procedures and/or other major changes
  • To listen to their concerns and respond to them
  • To meet with them quarterly

Unpleasant: But Absolutely Necessary

While it is unpleasant, it is absolutely necessary to deal with ineffective, burned-out, or disruptive first line supervisors. A first line supervisor who is out of touch with the agency’s Mission and Goals and who breeds discontent is like a cancer within the agency.

It is also important for management to replace first line supervisors who are not:
  • Following the agency’s policies and procedures
  • Disciplining subordinates when necessary
  • Adhering to the agency’s policies and procedures
  • Performing their duties at an above average level
  • Acting as leaders
  • Training their subordinates
  • Supervising in a consistent manner

Possible Symptoms of a Breakdown in First Line Supervision

If management is having issues with a certain unit or division, it might be a symptom of a breakdown in First Line Supervision. It is not unusual for a unit whose first line supervisor is not doing his or her job to start having operational problems such as these:
  • Poor morale
  • Excessive sick time usage
  • Increase in offenders complaints
  • Increases in Use of Force situations
  • Officers requesting transfers

Some of these symptoms can also be attributed to:
  • Understaffing
  • Poorly trained staff
  • Excessive number of new “Green” staff
  • Change in offender make-up


As budgets tighten and the public demands more “measurable productivity” from criminal justice agencies, the importance of first line supervisors will become more evident and these positions more demanding.

I believe that management has a special duty to its first line supervisors to understand the many difficulties associated with their positions. Additionally, many of these first line supervisors will become the managers in the future. The better these first line supervisors are prepared, the better managers they will become.

A personal note to all first line supervisors - Thank you!

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page

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  2. drivas on 07/27/2010:

    Excellent article Bill. I developed a Professional Development Leadership Seminar for my facility and also stress the point that first line supervisors are "where the rubber meets the road." They also, through your mentoring and leadership, carry forward those philosophies that you want to instill. I'm sending a copy of your article to my management team!

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