Nobody will argue that criminal justice professionals face unique challenges and stress associated with the job. Things like shift work, missing holidays and family events, the physical effects of the hypervigilance rollercoaster, the danger of being assaulted, killed in a car accident, being forced to utilize force (and the resulting political fallout), and of course the possibility of being murdered just for wearing a uniform and many many more, are obvious realities. I previously wrote about some of the things that can be done to combat stress in law enforcement, but right now, I want to focus on what I feel is the number one stress in law enforcement:
Politics and Bureaucratic Mismanagement
Politics, bureaucratic incompetence or mismanagement and a toxic political culture are all stresses that can dwarf even the fear of being killed at work. The many different types of stresses encountered by law enforcement can either be lessened or enhanced by your department. Most people who are starting a career in the criminal justice field recognize there is a significant amount of personal danger, both physically, but legally as well in the form of being sued, fired and even arrested. What isn’t widely recognized is the role an administration has on how those stresses impact its employees.
The Truth about the “Thin Blue Line.”
Much has been made over the years about the “Thin Blue Line” in policing and many people in America feel this is a sort of all inclusive brotherhood that somehow means an officer is ALWAYS right. These uninformed people claim there is a divisive culture in law enforcement that is designed to protect cops from personal responsibility. This couldn’t be more false. The concept of the “Thin Blue Line” being a single brotherhood is true in a fashion however. It means regardless of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or even whether you actually like another cop, you are all there for each other in times of emergencies and stress. The Thin Blue Line means cops watch each other’s backs and are willing to do whatever they can to ensure each and every one of them returns home at the end of the shift.
What it does NOT mean is that cops give each other a pass when one of our own steps out of line. I’m going to give you a little known fact about the criminal justice field: Law Enforcement Officers are expected to be PERFECT AT ALL TIMES. The slightest mistake, while human, does not EVER go overlooked by your peers and most assuredly not by a department’s administration. The normal rights enjoyed by most citizens and enforced by the police are often NOT enjoyed by those same officers.
The Culture of each department significantly affects morale and stress levels
Anybody who has ever worked in the criminal justice field can tell you about “Good” departments and “Bad” departments. The differences don’t lie in how much you are paid or who gets the cooler gear (Though those are factors). What distinguishes a good department from a bad department is the culture of the administration. There is no quicker way to take a group of intelligent, motivated cops who do their jobs and throw a hand grenade into the middle of their morale, than by having an admin that either wields too much or too little administrative control.
The myth of the “Thin Blue Line” would have you believe officers can and do behave any way they want and that the “rules” don’t apply to them. The truth of the matter is that a “good” department holds its officers accountable for their actions, guides when possible and hands out discipline when necessary.
A “Bad” department tends to view officers on the streets as problems that have to be dealt with instead of assets to the department. These departments can usually be spotted by the incredibly low morale of it’s officers, the high number of internal investigations and a general apathy from their officers towards performing their duties.
When a department manages it’s employees in a manner similar to a dictatorship, the stresses involved in the job are magnified exponentially.
The poorly managed department and officer performance
One of the dichotomies of the poorly managed department is that they tend to be the ones with the MOST internal investigations and “disciplinary problems.” This should indicate the admin cares MORE about officer performance and is trying extra extra hard to make sure officers are being held accountable, right? Well…no, not really. Many of these poorly managed bureaucratic departments tell themselves that is the case.
The reality is that the message is perverted somewhere along the way and instead of holding officers accountable for legitimate misconduct, it instead tends to morph into a paranoid witch hunt mentality where officers feel less like they are out enforcing the law and are more concerned with trying to avoid the attention of the pen heavy supervisors who at least appear to care more about writing officers up for any real or imagined slights than they do trying to ensure the officers have what they need to successfully perform their duties.
Contributing Factors: Rumors and Office Politics
Cops love to complain. It’s a fact. Many cops also hate change. It doesn’t even matter whether the change is positive or negative. Many officers will dig their heels in and complain even when things are getting better. Another fact is that cops like to know what is going on. This is good because it attracts people who have a need to dig and dig at a problem until they find out the root of what happened. It’s great for a criminal investigation, but not so good when a bunch of cops get together and gossip like a bunch of old village women in a knitting circle.
Taking part in the office gossip and politics is one of the quickest ways to increase your stress. If the admin is going on another round of East German Stasi like “internals” for things that everyone knows are complete bullshit, it is sure to get most cops blood boiling and negatively impact morale.
Ways to mitigate and minimize the stress associated with office politics and poor leadership…
#1 Recognize this too shall pass!
Over the years, I have seen my department change cultures and watched moral ebb and flow significantly. If you are stuck in one of those awful departments where nobody wants to work, just remember….It WILL pass. Eventually you will get a new Chief or Sheriff or even a new direct supervisor. Sometimes the problem members of your admin will retire or take a job at another department. It is amazing how much damage one or two well placed toxic managers can wreak on a department.
#2 Sphere of Control vs Sphere of Concern
I like to remind myself from time to time whether something is actually under my control. If you don’t have any control over the situation, stressing about it is an exercise in futility.
#3 Stay out of the Politics and Gossip
Next time you are roadsiding with a partner and he or she starts telling you about all of the bullshit the admin is doing or how Officer XYZ is being written up for some mind blowingly stupid reason, just stop them. If it isn’t under your control, getting indignant about the situation isn’t going to help you. It is only going to increase your stress.
#4 Get Involved in your union
If you absolutely CAN’T not get involved, at least make sure you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Bitching about the admin isn’t going to help. Getting involved in your union or finding other ways to help is at least working towards fixing the problem.
Another myth of the Thin Blue Line is that the Police Union exists to make sure officers aren’t responsible for their actions. That’s completely wrong. If it wasn’t for the Union, most officers would soon find themselves working 24 hours a day, being paid minimum wage, refused training while being forced to purchase their own gear and vehicle and fired any time they upset a member of the admin or made a member of the public angry. The union is important for the rights of the officers.
#5 Be a leader…even if you aren’t
So you work for a shitty department? So what? Being an angry “retired on duty” officer isn’t going to help the moral problem. You also can’t change how effective the admin and supervisors are at their jobs. What you CAN do is always make sure you are professional and behave in a manner you wish your admin would emulate. Be a leader, even if you aren’t a supervisor for your department.
#6 Do the Job for the sake of doing the job
Spending your shift worrying about being written up for everything is the path of madness. You can’t control what your supervisor does, but you CAN control how you do your job. Be the best officer you can each and every day. NOT because you are trying to stay out of trouble, but because focusing on doing your very best job makes it less likely you will be targeted by your admin, while not carrying the stress of having a negative outlook.
#7 Don’t be an Asshole
This is pretty self-explanatory. If everyone in your department showed up to work every day with the goal of being the easiest person to work with, it would be hard for even the worst admin to bring down morale. I try to show up to work everyday like the guy from the Far Side comic…sure I may not always be feeling it, but I try to at least fake it.
Anywhere you go there will be office politics, heavy-handed supervisors and inconsistent policies and discipline. It’s pretty much a fact of life. The difference is that in a normal job, those things can be stressful. As a law enforcement officer, those things can be crippling. Inconsistent admin and a discipline heavy department can turn a proactive, effective officer into a person who is unsure of how to behave on any given day and instead decides to do as little as possible.
The fear of being killed or involved in a shooting can be overwhelming. The fear of being involved in a shooting BECAUSE you are afraid your admin will not support you…even if you were 100% justified, is an entirely new level of stress. In the end all you can do is recognize whether your department is part of the problem or part of the solution and make sure you are always performing to the best of your ability without allowing the negativity to overwhelm you.
I would love to hear any opinions on the matter, especially from those administrators out there! Please “Like” and Share if you found something useful or interesting!
Also published on Medium.