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Dick Fairburn

As a part of my retirement from a position as the Director of Public safety for a municipality, I made recommendations to the Mayor for my replacements. The state law had changed since my appointment, making public safety directors essentially a thing of the past in our state, so we went back to the traditional police chief/fire chief structure.

Looking at the next level of command in each department, shift commanders – Lieutenants in the Police Department and Assistant Chiefs in the Fire Department - I assessed the leadership qualities of the candidates and made my recommendations. The Mayor agreed and I think I left both departments in good hands. I’ve already heard from some of the folks that the new Chiefs are doing things differently. That is how it should be. Every department head must have the latitude to “repaint the office” and do things their way.

My version of leadership has always been a little outside the norm. I see the department head’s role as primarily support, not dictatorial. When you have competent professionals working for you, let them do what they know how to do. I have been terribly micromanaged in several of my career steps and I hated it. I hated it so much I vowed never to behave that way if I managed to reach a command position.

In a major critical incident, the top dog must assume command and serve as the Incident Commander, but 99% of the time, the shift commanders can handle almost anything they encounter. That leaves the top dog free of detailed work, allowing them to step back, see the overall picture and suggest course corrections the shift commander might have missed. For this management style to work, the shift commanders must trust you to back their decisions. They came to trust my backing because I trusted them to make good decisions, it creates an upward spiraling circle.

Of course, you rarely inherit the “A” team. There will be some personnel who cannot do their job properly or refuse to adapt to your new philosophy. These will need some retraining or, if things do not improve, may need to be replaced. Still, I have found most will respond to a sincere effort to bring them in line with your standards. Which brings up what the military calls the Commander’s Intent. In order for your people to meet your standards, you must first tell them your standards. I have been amazed over the course of my career how few leaders tell their people what is expected of them. Almost without exception, your people will respond to your expectations and try to meet or exceed them, if they know them.

I also feel that merely following established policy is not necessarily leadership, it is simply running a pre-written checklist. Real leaders are willing to crawl out to the end of shaky limbs when a situation doesn’t fit the policy checklist. Some of the best leadership examples I have are when someone exceeded their authority or even totally ignored written policy because the situation didn’t fit any checklist.

I once had the opportunity to be in charge of firearms training for a state police agency. I made several changes I thought would make the program more gunfight oriented, thereby making the Troopers more likely to survive a gunfight. Some of the range officers did not agree with my ideas and the one put in “acting” command when I left that job threw one of my iron-clad safety rules out the window and created a disaster.

We had a running man target system that was both poorly designed and poorly installed, years ago. If you ran the targets all the way to the left side of the track and had the shooters on the right side of that range, there was literally no berm behind the targets – nothing to stop the bullets. So, I had barricades built blocking view of the targets when they ran to the left side of the range and required the shooters to fire from a centered position. That made sure all the rounds launched at the moving targets would impact the backstop berm.

Not long after I assumed my new job at the main academy, the commander ran into my office and said “come with me, our bullets are hitting a facility almost a half mile from the range.” As we sped south to the satellite facility where the academy trained firearms, emergency vehicle operations and canine officers, I explained how the problem could only happen if someone was using the running man range the opposite of how I had designed the safety improvements. I called up a mapping app on my phone as we drove and saw that the Natural Gas training facility north and west of our main range lined up perfectly with the running man target system. The Commander doubted pistol bullets could travel the half-mile distance to the other facility, but I assured him that launched at the proper upward angle, the other building was in range.

The acting range commander had unblocked the left side of the running man mechanism, positioned the shooters on the right side of the line and had them firing from a kneeling position – an upward angle, the exact situation needed to drop several dozen .40 caliber pistol bullets into the cars on the other facility’s parking lot. But this is not my leadership example, obviously.

The Master Sergeant in charge of our satellite facility immediately halted live fire training on all of the ranges and drove to the gas training facility to assess the situation. He found several vehicles with bullet wounds, including shattered glass and about 50 thoroughly terrified gas utility workers. This was the same time frame when the beltway snipers were killing people on the east coast and they thought the same thing was happening to them.

The Master Sergeant immediately took full responsibility for the mishap, telling the victims that the bullets came from our range, and that he was thankful to God for only having vehicular casualties. He also told them the shattered windshields and side glass would be replaced before they left the lot today. He had three trainers on the phone calling every auto glass store in the city ordering what was needed.

When the academy commander heard that the Master Sergeant had admitted culpability and ordered glass replacement without authorization, he blew a gasket. He claimed we couldn’t own up to the bullets coming from our range without a full investigation. And, he couldn’t authorize spending that much money on repairs without calling the Director’s office and getting approval from the fiscal office, which could take weeks.

I took the academy commander off to the side and politely told him the Master Sergeant had just saved him and the agency countless dollars in lawsuits and mountains of bad press. Handling this incident the commander’s way, which he was very used to having spent most of his years in administrative assignments, was the exact opposite of the best course of action. By instantly admitting blame (who else within 100 miles was firing a lot of .40 caliber ammo that day?), and by assuring the victims that compensation would be immediate, the situation was instantly defused.

People understand that tragic “accidents” can happen. But they are used to government agencies denying blame until the inevitable investigation is complete and, even then, the governments often try to dodge compensation. My buddy Mark Whitley, the Master Sergeant in charge that day, exceeded his authority, admitted blame , which was obvious to everyone, and kept his promise of getting the glass in every vehicle repaired by close of business. The terrible situation made the news for a day and was quickly forgotten. Doing things the “normal” way - denying and delaying – would have become a scandal putting the agency in a bad light for a long time to come.

The academy commander reluctantly understood how Mark had saved him from a huge mess by doing the right thing, even he had no authority to do what he had done. Then the commander showed some leadership himself, immediately putting the range officer on administrative leave during the investigation of his knuckle-headed safety decisions.

The missions we face in public safety are so varied the number of possible iterations is infinite. There is no way we can write policy to cover every potential situation. We must trust our field supervisors to make snap decisions based on insufficient information. Their decisions will not always be perfect, but nothing ever is. Senior commanders CANNOT make good tactical decisions from their office across town or across the country. Only people at ground zero, who have their eyes directly on the problem, can even hope to choose a good course of action. When there is no policy to dictate how to handle a unique problem, one that has never before been encountered or anticipated, you must have a culture of trust that will empower your field supervisors to MSU.

Early in my years at ISP I worked for the best natural leader I have ever encountered. He threw me to the wolves one day to brief the “colonels” in ISP on a proposed new training program that had not yet even been put on paper. He said, “Dick, just MSU, nobody knows this stuff like you do.” My quizzical look when he said MSU got a whispered response, “just Make Shit Up, MSU.” He trusted me to sell our big idea on the fly.

I learned that day that leadership can be summed up in one word: Trust.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BowMac Educational Services / RSI Inc.

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