“For the times they are a-changin’…” sang Bob Dylan.
The law enforcement occupation and agency when I was hired isn’t the job or the department I work for today. Things change. The music we listened to as kids and were told by our parents to “Turn that crap down,” isn’t the stuff we hear blaring from the car stereos and headphones of today’s youth. By the way, “Turn that crap down!”
I’ve lived most of my life as a cop in one form or another. I’ve been a member of the law enforcement family for more than 30 years. As my wife once pointed out to me cops are like a big family—a big dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. And there was a time when cops were fully invested in the LE lifestyle.
But over the last few years, I see more and more cops pulling back and a trend of disinvestment taking place. In other words, as a coping mechanism or strategy for staying, cops are devoting less of themselves to their occupation. They may wear the blue uniform 8–12 hours a day, but they’re less committed to their agency. To them, it’s just a job.
How & Why It Happened
Years ago when you worked for an agency, you felt you were part of something bigger than yourself. Your friends were cops, you socialized with cops and it was a family atmosphere. Now, don’t get me wrong—there were still idiots at the officer and supervisor levels. There’s always been cops who worked harder at not doing anything rather than just answering their calls. Or those who just wanted to collect a paycheck. At the supervisory level, there were those bosses who got promoted so they didn’t have to work anymore or those who existed just to screw with their subordinates. But overall, if you did the right thing or if you screwed up but your intent was good, the agency would look out for you. Oh, you may have to face discipline, but it wasn’t malicious and agencies would actively defend the cops who worked for them.
In the politics of today’s age, good luck at having an agency protect an officer even if they did the right thing. Many agencies are run by politicians who travel the country working as chiefs for one department after another or hyper-ambitious supervisors only looking out for themselves and what’s best for their career—so much so that they’re more than willing to throw an officer under the bus regardless of the circumstances. Many chiefs who come from outside an agency have no institutional memory, dedication to the agency or its people. Many are only interested in protecting their cash cows. There are also those in management who lack the “intestinal fortitude” to stand up to those threatening their officers. When you’re so intent on your career and not making any mistakes, you tend to not put yourself out there exposed, to protect your officers.
Agencies are more inclined than ever to consider their officers as expendable labor. These agencies hire poorly trained officers who they invest little-to-no additional money on their training and equipment. Most of the training is now on the job and thrust upon working officers and FTOs. Don’t like it? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out—next! What’s amazing is that 1) Agencies are shocked when something bad happens with these marginally trained officers and 2) Agencies get upset that the police union defends these officers who shouldn’t have been hired by the agency in the first place.
Inconsistent discipline within the agency and the use of the disciplinary system and internal affairs as tools of retribution by supervisors has deteriorated morale within agencies. As a humorous side note, while going through an unmeritorious I.A. investigation several years ago I contacted another police writer who specializes in I.A. investigations. We talked about this type of vendetta, vindictive and retaliatory investigation and he laughed and said he was currently being investigated as well by his agency as payback from his sheriff.
A recent conversation with a union representative and negotiator had me asking him if it was common for agencies to disregard their own policies. It certainly seems true that the only people currently following agency policy and procedure are patrol officers. He responded that it’s currently the bane of law enforcement that supervisors and agencies feel they don’t have to follow their own rules, regulations, policies and procedures. Further, they don’t want to be questioned or called to task for their failures or poor decisions. After all they’re the boss—as if promotion creates omnipotence.
All of this has led to officers disinvesting in their agencies. You don’t care about me, the thinking goes, I don’t care about you or I care less than I used to.
The Dangers of Disinvestment
We want officers to care. We want officers to handle their calls and law-abiding citizens as if they care. Disinvesting or pulling back can manifest itself into not caring, which is a dangerous to take on the streets. A non-caring or disinvested officer tends to pay less attention to the risks and dangers and to the important details, such as preparation and training. Law enforcement is not now nor ever has been just a job.
How to Fix It
Put simply, leaders (and I use the term leaders not managers or supervisors) need to care more about the officers who work for them than they do advancing their own careers.
“The Hawthorne effect is the generation of positive responses that occurs because members of an organization feel that leaders care or are concerned about them. An organization can leverage this effect through a number of organizational and individual-level programs and practices. These include but are not limited to establishing mentor relationships, integrating members into cohesive teams, and well-being and self-awareness programs. In sum, the social and cognitive components that shape the manifestation of stress-related complaints lend themselves to remedies involving the tools of the placebo and Hawthorne effects, simply put, caring and concern, which a leader can use for effective stress management strategies.” James Ness, Denise Jablonski-Kaye, Isabell Obigt, and David M. Lam write in Chapter 3: Understanding and Managing Stress of the excellent book Leadership in Dangerous Situations (Naval Institute Press; 2011), where they quote Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld wrote, “Instead of treating the workers as an appendage to ‘the machine.’ He related “the Hawthorne experiments brought to light ideas concerning motivational influences, job satisfaction, resistance to change, group norms, worker participation, and effective leadership.” (“Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Effect,” Journal of Occupational Behavior, Vol. 6, 1985.)
It may take years to fix some agencies that have become dysfunctional and devoid of caring for their officers but it's possible. It’s an easy fix, but like the substance abuser, the first step is to accept that you have a problem …
“Then you better start swimmin’.
Or you’ll sink like a stone.
For the times they are a-changin’.”