Dealing with Problem Officers

One of the parts of this job that truly is a pain in the lower posterior is when you have to deal with an officer who is no longer just causing problems, but is the problem. More often than not, this officer is one that you might have had doubts about in the hiring process, but they did well enough on the interview and exam process and passed through the academy with no noticeable issues. They most likely got through field training and probation with little fuss or correction. At that point, you probably felt, "Okay, maybe I'm getting old and too suspicious."

Life goes on, days pass and when nothing jumps out at you about the officer, and you turn to other things that need your attention. Then, the officer commits such a monumental error in judgment that you really have no choice but to have them explore options like getting him fired or asking him to resign. After that is done, people from the patrol staff, up to and including some of their supervisors, will come up and tell you they knew that was going to happen because of [fill in reason here] and how glad they are that you got rid of them. My question to them is, "Where the [insert colorful expletive] have you been in not telling someone about this before we had to terminate the officer?"

It is an educational process that we as managers have got to start instilling in our officers and supervisors that you do yourself, your department, and your profession no good when you do not report issues to supervisors when they need to be addressed. If you do not, what happens is that all too often the nuclear bomb of termination must be used. The point must be made loud, clear, and often that letting a problem simmer just prevents any type of progressive discipline from having its desired effect of correcting a problem, rather than getting someone fired. It takes about a year to get an officer into our system, and the considerable cost of testing, physicals, equipment, and 22 weeks of academy really make us want to correct problems early, rather than lose this considerable investment. It's not good for anybody, so it is time to cultivate a culture in which problems are addressed fairly, equitably, and early to prevent these occurrences. It's not easy and the police system, with its closed ranks and code of silence, often make it more difficult. But without managers actively working to develop a atmosphere in which problems and issues can be reported and corrected with an expectation of fairness and evenhandedness, we are going to be faced with firing officers, or worse, getting someone hurt in the process of discovering their hidden faults.

The Stealth Officer

The second problem officer is the one who is the police services version of the stealth fighter. They fly around, undetected and unobserved, generally keeping to the task at hand without much rancor or adverse issues. Most of the time, they are out there being unremarkable and getting by performing adequately, or so it seems. They are taken for granted, because they are not causing issues that are observed, and truth be told, not everyone who gets there is going to be a super cop. At least you don't have any problems with them, so they are forgotten. Well, like any good stealth fighter, they keep their problems off the radar, too. It is possible that this officer will develop their own methods of dealing with problems. Oftentimes, these methods can evolve into issues that can affect their personal life through substance abuse, or other activities that can get you jammed up just as fast. They are doing this primarily to deal with stress of the job. It is usually not until after something happens that bring to light the issues that you find out about them. More often than not, people will come out of the walls to bring up stories of, "I remember when they did this or that but I never said anything..." because? Again, as managers, we need to have a multipronged approach to this. First we must educate our supervisors and training people on how to recognize and deal with these issues and how to refer them to us. Second, we must develop a system within our departments that allows for treatment and solutions to these problems which affect our officer's lives. Last of all, we must insure that these programs are enforced fairly, equitably, and across all ranks.

If we are not doing this, then we are doing a disservice to our officers and our communities. In a recent blog by our editor, there was a really spirited debate about cops driving drunk. I read through it, and the responses were about what I expected. Either you arrest them, or you don't. Whatever your feelings, you are entitled to them, and do whatcha gotta do. However, I will tell you a personal story here about drunks and drunk driving.

My father was a 34-year veteran of a large east coast police department with about 2,000 officers. He was a masterful stealth fighter pilot. He managed for years to keep an alcohol problem under wraps. Finally, towards the end of his career, he lost control of it and became a full blown alcoholic, complete with drunk driving accidents, missing work, and the usual litany of complaints. During the last four years of his career, his supervisors covered accidents and lost time and other incidents, but transferred him through different assignments rather than deal with the issue at hand. I am sure they did it to protect him, to be his friend or whatever.

My father died of alcoholism at age 56. He never got to see his three grandchildren, he never got to see his youngest granddaughter get married, and he really missed a lot of good things in his life. My father didn't need a friend or a silent brotherhood; he needed an effective set of supervisors and managers who would hold him accountable for his actions and get him some help. If they had done so, they might have saved his life, and that's what we all got into this field for, right? In life we learn many lessons, and one I learned through all this is that sometimes you have to do hard things to make things right. Keep that in mind when you face these issues!