The Inside Game

It is the stress generated from within the police agency that leaves officers feeling battered and betrayed. What are the root causes of this stress, and how can you live a healthy lifestyle in spite of it?

Stress can beat you down. Prolonged stress can manifest itself in serious health issues including heart disease and cancer, and yet the trend in law enforcement is not to protect officers from stress, but indeed create more.

Listen to these comments from an officer, then new to police work,

"This is the only job where guys do things together, really try to do good things together. I really like that; it means something. People talk about this male bonding, but there is something to it. It makes me feel differently when I go to work that I know who I'm working with and we are out there to be the good guys."

And then, the same officer five years later,

"I used to have goals, and I achieved them and they were meaningless. It was all I thought it would be. Now I go fast, come back fast.. Now I just keep my nose clean, do as little as I can, don't get involved, clear, and wait for the end of watch. I need to get retired."
--Joan Barker; Danger, Duty and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers; Waveland Press; 1999)

Recently, several younger officers were talking about job stress. Not the stress of some call or dealing with violent suspects, but rather the stress of dealing with "the inside game." What, you ask is the inside game? It is the number one stressor in police work today...that stress which emanates from within your police organization and is endemic within law enforcement. The inside game, in my opinion, results in more anguish than pretty much all other stress. It is responsible for more high blood pressure problems, heart attacks, ulcers and various other maladies and illnesses, as well as good officers leaving agencies or police work altogether than any number of high risk calls. Think I'm wrong? Ask any police officer what stresses him or her out more, the street, or the political machinations of the agency?


Why, and when did it change? Most officers that I've spoken with feel things started changing around ten years ago. Prior to that, the job always had its share of stress, but it seemed at least to be fun. Cops tended to look out for each other and supervisors looked out for them. Screw up and you expected a little or large bite out of your derriere, but if you worked hard and took care of business, you were usually left alone. But hardworking officers are intrinsically motivated today, meaning that they work hard because that is the kind of person they are and they refuse to compromise. Few extrinsic motivations exist in police work. Hard work leads to the possibility of making a mistake, and when avoidance of mistakes is more important to supervisors looking for the next promotion rather than results, energetic officers can feel more than a little beaten up.

Discipline, or lack of discipline being equitably enforced, continues to add stress and reduce morale. For instance, the "shotgun effect" has been prevalent throughout my law enforcement career (all 24+ years) which basically states that all will suffer for the one or few. Seldom will a precise shot be directed at the culprit who was late to work; looks like a bag of rags in his uniform; didn't shine his shoes; ad infinitum. Sadly in law enforcement, as in all business today, we will all pay be made to pay with inspections, checklists, loss of privileges, etc. Furthermore, when the troops see that supervisors are not held to the same standards, resentment results and resentment leads to stress.

A number of years ago, the management of police agencies changed. In the past a chief rose up through the ranks and was promoted to the position. Then, most local and county governments wanted more control over the police, and chiefs began working on contracts under which they served at the whim of politicians. If a chief bucked the system, they soon found themselves out of work. It seemed that the result was the politicization of police management. As retired Deputy Chief Randy Murphy states, "The higher you go up in an organization, the more you are rewarded for loyalty versus competency."

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