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Back to Archives | Back to March 2008 Contents 

The Ten Deadly Errors of Leadership

By Scott Barlow, Chief of Police, Culpeper, Virginia; and Captain (Retired), Newport News, Virginia, Police Department

any officers, looking back several years to their basic academy days, can still remember officer survival classes that highlighted the “10 deadly errors” an officer can make. Any of these errors can lead to the death, or serious injury, of law enforcement officers or their partners. Regardless of how they were presented, these errors are clearly based on the model established originally by Pierce Brooks.

Brooks, a retired captain from the Los Angeles Police Department, was ahead of his time. He conceived of the 10 deadly errors while still a homicide detective. Detective Brooks held a firm belief that most police killings could be avoided, which motivated him to write “. . . Officer Down, Code Three.1 In this book, he discussed the 10 deadly errors that he felt contributed to the death of many law enforcement officers.

Many young police officers took his writings to heart. Brooks’s list better prepared them to perform their jobs as street beat cops. As a result of the influence of this list, over the years, various agencies and academies have presented these errors in many ways to reemphasize their importance. By adapting Brooks’s 10 deadly errors to a leadership model, police leaders can benefit from the list as well.

As police officers progress through the ranks of leadership positions, they can find themselves behind a desk far more often than the wheel of a patrol car. This can hold true for many different positions of leadership, from field training officer, first-line supervisor, narcotics commander, tactical team commander, or precinct commander all the way to chief of police. Many leaders have found themselves in positions of disadvantage while still learning the “leadership trade.”

It is the nature of many leaders to share what they have learned in their career path through various leadership positions. These lessons learned, while sometimes painful, make for stronger leaders. The lessons included in this article are not only the result of the author’s personal experience but are also shared by a variety of leaders in the law enforcement and military communities.

Preoccupation, or Lack of Concentration

You are stuck in the office behind a mound of paperwork. You finally have a few moments to attack the pile. One of your subordinate leaders comes in and presents you with a problem, which requires you to make a decision. Without looking up from your computer, you listen, evaluate, and render a decision. Several days later this “decision” blows up in your face. Frankly, it should never come as too great a surprise when this happens.

By making a decision when you are preoccupied, it is unlikely that you gave it the thought it deserved. Among the various issues that can arise in this scenario, many would consider it quite rude to deal with your team members in this manner. If someone seeks you out, they deserve your undivided attention.

Tombstone Courage

In the real estate profession, the common mantra is “location, location, location.” Good leaders share a similar mantra: “decision making, decision making, decision making.” Have the courage to make a decision—this is what leaders are paid to do. Poor leaders are infamous for their ability to avoid making any and all decisions.

Strong leaders are willing to step up to the plate and make decisions. Many of them will be put in many situations where “peer leaders” avoid making a decision. Unfortunately, by stepping up and making a decision for these peer leaders, strong leaders successfully allow them to disengage from their responsibilities. This also increases the odds of making a poor decision (which we all do from time to time) or the odds of making a good decision in an untenable situation. In other words, even strong leaders can find themselves in a lose-lose situation. Even the correct decision can turn out badly.

Do not allow other leaders to force your hand to make decisions out of your area of responsibility. In many of these cases, you might not have the resources or the information to make a successful, informed decision.

Not Enough Rest

Many individuals in leadership positions spend numerous extra hours at work and, in many cases, are on call continuously. Mistakes made due to fatigue may not have fatal consequences, but they will certainly affect careers and the health of the agency as a whole.

Try to avoid making crucial decisions while exhausted or upset. These choices will frequently come back to haunt you. If you must make a decision in these circumstances, consult with another leader or a veteran officer whom you trust.

Taking a Bad Position

All too often, police leaders find themselves in situations where they make a decision “in a vacuum” and then defend their decision to the death. Unfortunately, this is a behavior common to police of all ranks. Beat cops are forced into difficult positions on the street and learn to make the best of them. Leaders do the same. The difference is that leaders are held to a higher standard.

This certainly does not mean that leaders must be infallible. It does mean that when they take a bad position, they should admit it and then modify it. Refusing to change because an agency has handled an issue a certain way in the past and needs to be consistent is an unreasonable philosophy. Positions can be consistent but also poor; leaders should strive for better.

A simple admission of error can help an agency escape its self-perceived need for consistency: “We realize that the decision made was not in the best interest of the organization, so we have modified future decision making.” Such an admission is hard to dispute.

Not Heeding Danger Signs

Poor morale, a kill-the-messenger philosophy, plausible-deniability tactics, a large number of grievances, and a culture of distrust are some of the danger signs within any organization. Leaders can become so caught up in the everyday minutiae of running organizations that they forget the big picture. Agency personnel and the relationships leaders form are the most important aspects of a successful organization.

If your organization is dysfunctional or becoming dysfunctional, hiding in your office behind a stack of paperwork is a sure way to guarantee a continued path toward organizational failure. The concept of managing by walking around (MBWA) is essential for a healthy organization. If you do not make yourself visible, you will not hear anything important. Take the time to get out of your office and be part of the team.

Failure to Watch the Hands—of a Problem Employee

Every organization has its bad apples. It is amazing how one problem employee can disrupt an organization and take up inordinate amounts of a leader’s time. Problem employees are experts at creating assignments and work for leaders. Fortunately, effective leaders can read these employees like a book. No matter how creative their methods may be, their goals are clear. They have no desire to be productive, and they expect to receive an unfair advantage within the organization.

Learn to read your problem employees, document all their activities as well as your interactions with them, and treat them exactly like the other employees. Most importantly, do not allow problem employees to take up your valuable time, which should be spent MBWA. Remember, problem employees help make an organization dysfunctional only when you let them. If you allow a culture of inappropriate comments and/or unfair treatment in your agency, it will be impossible for you to deal effectively with problem employees.

Relaxing Too Soon

A critical incident is winding down. You have many other pressing matters. You assume the incident is well in hand, and you delegate the wrap-up to a subordinate leader or a senior officer. You are back in your office—“fat, dumb, and happy”—when the panicked phone call comes in.

Remember, leaders can delegate tasks, but they can never delegate responsibility. The trick to this issue is a clear understanding of expectations. What you may have thought was obvious may have been so only to you. It is important to make sure there is no doubt regarding your expectations prior to clearing the incident. This can be done by issuing strict orders as you leave the scene or by simply refusing to leave until the incident is over.

Unfortunately, either of these two approaches can earn you the reputation of a micromanager and a leader who does not trust others. To counteract this effect and to clear up any misunderstanding, you can pose a simple question to the leader to whom you delegate the wrap-up: “What do you think we should do from this point on?” If the leader does not provide an appropriate plan of action, you can “massage” the plan and clear the scene without undue anxiety on either side.

Improper Use of Handcuffs—aka Shotgun Discipline

It is very easy to become frustrated and hand out discipline to officers who make mistakes. There is an old concept still used in some agencies, embodied by the following order: “We don’t want to discipline the problem officer, so make a policy that restricts everyone.” By breaking mistakes (that is, those that are policy violations) into two categories, you can avoid most types of unfair discipline and the “shotgun” approach. These two categories are mistakes of the mind and mistakes of the heart.

Officers who make a mistake of the first sort do so unintentionally. They think they are doing the right thing, but it turns out poorly. These mistakes should be handled, whenever possible, as training issues or minor counseling sessions.

Mistakes of the heart are a different animal altogether. Officers commit such mistakes knowing that they are doing wrong, but they do it anyway. Additional training or minor counseling sessions will do little to dissuade these officers from continuing to make bad mistakes.

No Search or Poor Search—aka Apathy

Perhaps the most deadly of all the 10 errors is apathy. Apathy and disengagement are the primary causes of a dysfunctional culture within any agency. If there is apathy at the leadership level of an organization, that organization is doomed to mediocrity at
best, though more likely to failure.

Dirty or Inoperative Weapon/Failure to Maintain Proficiency and Care of Equipment

It should be obvious to most leaders that their role as leaders is quite different from that of patrol officers or detectives. But those same leaders can remember back to the good old days when they held their bosses in contempt—the boss who showed up for work with old, shabby equipment or no equipment at all. Some of these bosses could barely qualify with their firearms or pass the physical assessment. No matter how good the advice was that they offered, it was never given the attention it may have deserved because of the source.

It is unrealistic to expect police leaders to remain as proficient with equipment as street officers—but basic competence is not an unreal expectation.


Leadership skills come primarily from experience and common sense. Most people learn best by doing and by learning from mistakes. Great leaders are always willing to take a calculated risk and learn from their mistakes. By studying leadership behaviors of those they respect and admire, as well as reading thoughts and concepts that other leaders put to paper, law enforcement personnel can make fewer mistakes and continue to grow into the leaders they would like to become.

In closing, it is essential for leaders to realize that it takes the entire team to take an organization from just good to great. As Jim Collins put it in his book Good to Great, leaders have to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats.2 You might be the best leader since Alexander the Great of Macedonia, but if you do not have the right team in place, the success of your agency will be limited. ■

Scott Barlow is currently chief of police in Culpeper, Virginia. He retired as a captain of the Newport News, Virginia, Police Department. His leadership experience includes serving as commander of the Narcotics Division, the Training and Recruiting Division, the Tactical Team, and a precinct with 100 sworn employees and 10 civilian employees. Barlow holds a master’s degree in government and leadership studies from Christopher Newport University.


1Pierce Brooks, “. . . Officer Down, Code Three” (Motorola Teleprograms, April 1976).
2Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 3, March 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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