By Brad J. Castle, Ph.D.
Before anyone gets upset, please understand this article is not intended to be a cheap shot at law enforcement. As a former law enforcement officer, my research interest has always been based on helping narrow the ever-widening gap between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. Part of that has become trying to make the situations of the guys and gals doing the job day in and day out a little better. That said, I think a song by recording artist Matthew West called Truth Be Told carries an important message that can be applied directly to law enforcement organizations today with hopes of making organizational life less stressful for those on the job. You can list to it here.
In relation to people in general, West’s core message in his own words: “Truth be told, the truth is rarely told” cannot be truer. He goes on to identify two common lies. The first is that “…you’re supposed to have it all together” and secondly that “…everybody’s life is perfect except yours.” As a result, people try to put on a facade that everything is fine and there are no problems within. They try to keep issues and problems hidden from the public.
How does this apply to law enforcement agencies? Law enforcement officers are people first, and law enforcement organizations are operated and directed by those same people. So, it logically follows that issues common to people are also common to organizations. Law enforcement organizations are very visible, high profile governmental organizations and are therefore subject to the whims of the public which brings political pressure. This can in turn cause disruption in necessary funding and the rules under which officers must operate when trying to do a very difficult job. The common thought seems to be that no one will vote for a levy if there are issues within the police department.
According to West, when asked how he is doing he says he is fine, and when things get out of control, he insists they are under control –but he is not always fine and things are not always under control. In our personal lives, most would consider this to be just common courtesy and pleasantry because no one wants to be a wet blanket. But for governmental organizations, those rules do not apply. The difference is that as a governmental organization, the powers and authority we as law enforcement have is, in fact, derived from the consent of the communities we serve. As such, accountability and transparency are paramount. We can only behave like dispassionate governmental bureaucracies and objectify people into problems that can be solved and statistics that can be tallied for so long before the people begin to push back.
What does the façade that everything is fine look like related to law enforcement organizations in the real world? The most notable example is the suggestion that the police subculture frowns upon open expression by officers. In particular, the expression of emotional vulnerability or personal positions inconsistent with those of the agency’s administrative stance. The power of the police subculture is well documented as even the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing noted the power of the police subculture to negate or significantly resist policy changes within police organizations. Police administrations have been documented as blaming the police subculture for resistance in implementing new reforms or policy.
Another prime example is the resistance to transparency in academic research. This is often found in the form of a “gatekeeper-like” behavior of organizational administrators. This gatekeeper-like behavior was documented by Kandaai et al. (2013) where several police chiefs declined to cooperate with the research being conducted on statutory rape. During my own research I have experienced this gatekeeper behavior in a study related to police disciplinary processes. One chief, knowing me to be a police officer at the time, told me, “We are a small department; we don’t have anything like that here.” Seriously? What police agency does not have any form of disciplinary activity? However, this behavior continues to this day. One author experienced this just recently when a large police agency that had agreed to cooperate with her study refused when it came time to actually make the information about the study available to the officers.
So, the question becomes one of “Why?” Why do police leaders not see the value in these studies? Perhaps they simply distrust psychologists in general. Perhaps it is as simple as trying to look good for the voters when the police levy is up for a vote. Or, a rather potentially disquieting thought is that one could view this gatekeeper-like behavior as a mechanism by which those with ultimate power and control seek to maintain the status quo and continue to prevent the voices of street-level officers from being represented in the literature.
Recently, I was contacted through interdepartmental channels of a university seeking someone with a psychology background to collaborate on an article about police recruiting for a major and very well-known police magazine. Once the leaders of the effort learned of my law enforcement background and my publishing in this area, they seemed particularly interested in my insight. But this was not a journal article as I was originally told it was to be. After the initial meeting to set the priorities, it was decided that because the focus was police recruitment, the following areas were important: Brand Image, Generational Differences, Leadership, and Retention. To most folks in the law enforcement field, the overlapping nature of these issues is self-evident. However, after input from the editors, only brand image and emphasis on recruiting generational differences made it into the final article. Everything I had written from the psychological perspective was removed, and I was removed as an author of the article. Why?
The why goes back to what research has borne out, in spite of gatekeeper behaviors. Research has shown that cliques within a police agency are disastrous for the organization. The presence of cliques within an organization suggests that there are insiders and outsiders. The outsiders do not feel they truly belong in the organization –particularly law enforcement organizations where increased danger might be the result. That servant leadership has vast advantages for law enforcement organizations. The servant leader is the antitheses of the authoritarian leader barking orders from on high. The servant leader helps and guides his/her people rather than trying to control them through policy and rules.
We have all heard that employees quit bosses –not jobs. This cannot be truer in some law enforcement organizations. One of the passages I wrote for this article (which was removed) discussed the necessity for police leadership to be onboard with the program from the start. However, as always, there is a catch. The catch is that this evolution must start from the top of the law enforcement organization. White found that officer behavior appeared to be driven more by supervisors and peers than law or policy. Officers often fear negative attention from those farther up the chain of command for not following the established program. Similarly, the top administrators of law enforcement organizations are often considered unquestionable and beyond reproach. The question becomes why was this, as well as all of the other psychologically sound aspects of this article related to the subject, removed?
The answer to this question seems relatively clear from my perspective. This was a prominent police periodical aimed at a very specific readership –law enforcement administration. Periodicals make money through readership numbers, so they give their readers what they want to hear. Period. In this case, the focus was on increasing recruitment. Increasing recruitment without increasing retention of existing officers is the equivalent of chasing one’s tail. Catering to younger generations is fruitless if leadership refuses to change the way they have always done things. Yet, this is the situation. The readership of this magazine (apparently according to the behaviors of the editors) does not want to hear about new things they need to learn and do. They do not want to hear about the work they need to put in. They do not want to hear how cliques are bad and sitting in the office barking orders to subordinates does not work in the 21st century. So, instead, they want to focus on brand image to increase recruitment of younger generations.
“Truth be told, the truth is rarely told.” Do Matthew West’s words make more sense now? Lacking the willingness to introspectively look at one’s own behaviors and change for the better of those they serve, some law enforcement leaders simply continue to say they are fine, and everything is under control. They focus on a catchy facade and image in hopes of bringing in new recruits from younger generations.
The issue of public perception (i.e., brand image) can be changed as members of the community see a change in the organization’s officers. But this cannot happen overnight with the roll out of a new social media presence. For generations, police subculture has promoted the idea of “us vs them” which can be explained in Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Theory (1979). This “us vs. them” attitude can also be extended to civilian contacts further depressing public perception. When the focus from the top of a law enforcement organization changes from that of a warrior against the community (us vs. them) to that of a paladin seeking to help and protect the members of the community, true change can and will happen.
However, nothing good comes free or without working for it. There is definitely work to do within law enforcement organizations. But the answer begins at the top of these organizations. Importantly, the problem must first be recognized and accepted before change can occur. As West sings: “I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it, when being honest is the only way to fix it.” Indeed, change must start with admitting there is a problem, or a better way. But suppressing the truth is never the answer to fix issues either in oneself or their organizations –particularly in governmental bureaucracies like law enforcement organizations.
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About the author:
A police patrol veteran holding instructor ratings for Taser and Radar/Lidar, Dr. Castle now teaches undergraduate psychology for Columbia Southern University, and is a dissertation chair for Grand Canyon University. Dr. Castle remains active in police related research.