By Ernie Stephens | September 1, 2008
Prior to going into the aviation section, I had as my first official partner the field training officer I was assigned to when I got out of the academy. I doubt if any sworn officer thinks back on that experience as a "partnership." We may have shared the same 1979 Chevy Nova police cruiser, but Joe was master and commander of that ship and I got along with him because I was ordered to. Once I was cut loose, I worked patrol — and pretty much all future assignments — as a one-man car.
It took many years and a transfer into the aviation section before I’d have a traditional partner. As luck would have it, he and I got along exceptionally well. We had the same work ethic, the same burning desire to catch bad guys, and the same love of altitude.
Of course, once in awhile replacements had to be found for those who transferred to other units, got promoted out or retired. We always had some pretty talented people interview for those openings, but some weren’t necessarily the kind of people you would want to be stuck in a hangar and a helicopter with night after night.
Transfers always raise a ticklish question: Is it ethical to reject a prospective crewmember with solid experience and promising potential because their personality seems like it won’t mesh with the people already in the unit?
The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron rejects people based on personality all the time. They openly admit that it’s just as important as an applicant’s flying skills. The belief is that team members work better together when they fit in with one another on a mental level. Personally, I’m okay with that idea.
As a 17-year sergeant, I saw how well the various units I supervised ran when there was a happy, family-like atmosphere among its members. Sure, there would be little squabbles here and there, but most were quickly resolved and didn’t leave any visible bruises. Contrast that with one patrol squad I was given whose members wouldn’t even speak to each other, let alone back each other up on the street. It made for a dysfunctional mess that I struggled hard to correct.
Even though I always wanted to learn as much as I could about an applicant’s personality, the personnel law in my county prohibited me from asking them anything outside of a predetermined set of questions that dealt with a person’s knowledge, skills and abilities. Any inspection of their personality had to come from looking at past evaluations and talking to their former supervisors. Even then, I had to be wary of the weight I put on their "nice person" quotient, because the law was written to remove most personality issues from the process.
On one hand, I’m good with the idea of taking away the potential for choosing someone whose only plus is that they’re liked. Goodness knows, those kinds of decisions can trash a unit’s morale. But I’m not in favor of completely removing the "like factor" from the equation either. When people don’t like someone they have to work with, they call in sick more, communicate less and lose their efficiency as it pertains to their job.
For the purposes of a police aviation unit, where a tactical flight officer (TFO) and pilot are cooped up together in either a helicopter or a hangar 40 hr a week, the need to mesh on a personal level can be especially important. If one person calls in sick or uses leave to get a break from their partner, the shift is shorthanded and can’t fly unless other people are juggled into the empty slot. If the animosity is so high the partners don’t communicate well with each other, things can get downright nasty and can create a dangerous situation in the air.
As a supervisor, I could intervene. If I was lucky or skillful, I could identify the problem, find a happy medium and have everyone kiss and make up. If I was unlucky or less than skillful, the hard feelings increased, because in each partner’s eyes — and it’s always the other person — caused the ill feelings that I had to fix.
But let’s say that things degenerate into a situation where personnel changes have to be made. If one of the players is the kind of person nobody wants to work with, moving him or her to another shift only relocates the problem. Transferring a problem child out of the entire unit is a possibility, but that’s easier said than done when that person is a pilot. No offense intended to my TFO pals, but pilots are much harder to find, which often gives them a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
What do you think the easiest way is to reduce interpersonal conflicts in an aviation unit? Is it to recruit new members based equally on their personalities and skills or, for fairness sake, leave personality out of the process and hammer folks who won’t play nice with each other after their arrival?
Me? I say do both…and in that order.