The Call Box: Watch Commander Primer

Ed’s newest post serves several purposes: it helps writers and civilians understand the police hierarchy. For cops, it teaches new Watch Commanders what is expected of them, reminds more senior Watch Commanders of their responsibilities and maybe even illuminates (to field units) the rocky road that Watch Commanders face. Maybe it will give, as Ed said in a much earlier post, perspective. –Thonie

By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD

Watch Commander-The term is not unique to the police. With the accent on the first word, to those in the cop business, no introduction is necessary. To the uninitiated, this will be a primer. “Watch commander” has a militaristic sound to it; “the commander of the watch” brings to mind the quarterdeck of a British frigate or man-o-war, or medieval castle and the changing of the guard.


In cop speak, a “watch” is what the civilians would call a “shift.” In the military, it is “standing a watch.” The police usually have three watches: day, night (I knew it as “swing shift”), and morning, aka; graveyard.


Using logic, the person in charge of said watch is the watch commander, herein after known as the WC. The position is usually filled by a lieutenant or senior sergeant. The term is used throughout the department; however, we will confine this essay to patrol, the people in uniform.


The average big city, for police purposes, divides itself along geographical lines, known as divisions, areas or, zones. Precincts is the popular east coast terminology. Let’s use L.A. divisions for our example.


Each division is carefully laid out and can contain hundreds of thousands of residents, business, etc. Each division has a police station, housing patrol, detectives, traffic, juvenile and what have you.


The uniforms (patrol) are divided by need (usually determined by activity level like calls for service, on view events, etc.) among the three watches and are mostly assigned to “radio cars” aka: black and whites or in some cases to foot beats. (We can consider motors, mounted, K-9 and other specialties, too.)


The average division has a captain as a commanding officer. This is one rank above lieutenant. He/she usually works days and very rarely is concerned with day-to-day police activities. He/she is basically an “administrator” more concerned with the “overall picture” and community relations.


So, with that out of the way, what does the WC do? Who is he/she? What are the duties and responsibilities of the WC?


Hopefully he/she has a solid background with ample field experience to handle any situation. Too often we have seen the “book” supervisors with minimum field time, a staff job, then study, study, and now they have the bars. Some do well and some are in over their heads. That is the time when the people who “run” any organization, be it USMC or LAPD come to the fore.


If the WC has good sergeants, he will have an easier task. Good supervisors can handle most field situations and do it without putting their foot on the necks of the officers.


The WC should be paternal, but authoritative, approachable, informal, but never, ever overly friendly. The WC must be able to make decisions not only calmly but also in times of stress. The WC must never appear indecisive.


The WC is responsible for the health safety and well-being of everyone in his/her division. He/she is also responsible for crime suppression, officer/supervisor training, discipline, traffic, disasters—natural and manmade, citizen complaints, special events, public relations and on and on and on. Whatever happens it’s yours.


In the off hours, the WC is the senior officer on duty and is in effect, a “mini chief of police.”


lapd-lieutenantA sobering thought: think of any and all disasters, riots, plane crashes, fires, floods, mass murders, etc. And think, somewhere there was a WC who had to stand up and do the “right thing.”


I have told you of the things the WC should do, and should not do, but I believe the number one responsibility should be, above all else—


Take care of your troops.



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