Hear me out…
How many people in this profession really care about officer safety?
When I ask that question in leadership classes, all of the bosses emphatically say that they do.
And I believe that they believe it. They guarantee that they really do care about the safety of their officers because of course – they do. They want their officers to stay safe—no question. And in a deadly moment, each would risk their lives to save one of those in their charge; they are that committed.
But are they that committed outside of those critical instances? Do they not only act but live by a philosophy of officer safety? Does the organization? Do the administrators, the cadre of street supervisors, the training coordinators, and others prioritize the concept of officer safety? Do they punctuate the safety of their officers in the day-to-day?
Is it truly an institutional priority?
And, what about the average cop? Does he or she place safety at the top of the priority list? Do they study it? Practice it? Do they live it? Does the average cop prepare him or herself mentally, physically, emotionally, and tactically?
Unfortunately, the answer to most of the above questions is no – at least if you consider the reality of officers, departments, and their practices concerning safety. And, frankly, I doubt you’d get much of an argument from most anyone in the profession.
So, why is that?
There are three reasons:
- The systemic bureaucracy
- Risks vs. costs
- A culture of laziness
Law enforcement is a legislated monopoly. Departments have zero competition. An agency doesn’t have to think in terms of attaining success, as success is difficult to define and virtually impossible to quantify.
Instead, agencies often find themselves focusing on the avoidance of failure. In particular, overt, above-the-radar, out-in-the-open failure. Failure that brings unwanted attention.
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Think about it: At the beginning of the year, does the entire agency get together and establish specific goals and objectives? Do they advertise those organizational aspirations?
Very few do anything like that.
Generally, each shift and division (if not individual supervisors) has its own goals. These goals, which are often unspoken, usually boil down to avoiding noticeable failure and/or anything that would bring unwanted negative attention to the agency.
RISKS vs. COSTS
From a “bean-counter” perspective, statistically speaking, the odds of being killed or seriously injured on the job are small.
So, why spend the extra money and manpower preparing for something that probably won’t happen? Especially since the costs to train properly would be onerous. The necessary manpower would be a huge impact on both budget and shift minimums.
Additionally, states have bottom-line training requirements which are the only things agencies need to ensure get done. And if they do such training, in most cases, they avoid liability. So why do more than that? This bureaucratic mindset, unfortunately, too often becomes the reality.
If law enforcement were a private enterprise whose survival relied on heeding the efforts of competitors, agencies would behave much differently than they do now.
First, they would establish a foundational philosophy born from answers to questions revolving around vulnerability. In other words, which types of regularly-occurring circumstances are:
- Most likely to have one of our officers injured or killed?
- Most likely to have one or more of our clients/customers (citizens of the community) injured or killed?
- Most likely to destroy the relationship with our client/customer base?
In the private sector, failure in these three areas would result in a loss of jobs, contracts, and/or returning customers. The agency may very well go out of business.
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So, if agencies suddenly found themselves in the private sector, they would chase success by developing an understanding of their client’s needs, establishing relationships with customers, and determining clear missions with an eye on measurable success. They’d also train in the aforementioned areas of vulnerability.
I recognize completely that law enforcement isn’t that simple. It isn’t privatized and it often has difficulty establishing the definition of “success.”
But that doesn’t mean it can’t learn from private entities that do succeed.
A CULTURE OF LAZINESS
When I became a cop, it was expected that you write 20 traffic tickets a month, ten parking tickets a month, and make two or three arrests.
Right after I was sent off on my own, a wise veteran officer took me aside and gave me some sage advice.
“Here’s what you should do. Get about 15 of those tickets out of the way the first three or four days of the month. Not all of them—you still need to do some work sporadically over the last three weeks. But you can basically coast for 75% of the month if you work hard that first week.”
He continued, “Parking tickets are easy to find. If you answer your calls, you’ll get a couple of easy arrests just from that. But whatever you do, don’t go above the numbers they want or they’ll think we can all do that all the time. Do just enough to keep the sergeants off your back.”
“And know this: They really don’t want you to do more than that, either. The more you do, the more likely you’ll get in trouble – and Sergeants hate complaints from the public. A good philosophy to keep in mind is that they can’t shove it up your ass if you’re sittin’ on it.”
I’d estimate that at least half of the officers lived by that philosophy.
And some became lazier and lazier.
Consider the reality of the government bureaucracy: Cops have virtually no chance of being fired, no matter how little they do. As long as they answer 911 calls, fill all of the boxes on reports, and avoid pissing people off, they’ll be secure for 20, 25, 30 years. They may even be rewarded for that type of work ethic.
Most states have actual laws which prevent bosses from mandating the writing of tickets and the making of self-initiated arrests. It’s also virtually impossible to compel, track, and legitimately quantify police officer proactivity.
Also, the more an officer is proactive, the more chances for complaints and career derailment.
The whole system – from the work to the training – is set up to encourage officers to do less! Do the minimum and don’t rock the boat. Coast through three decades and pick up your pension.
In other words, we have a culture of laziness. That mindset, without question, will bleed over into every aspect of your life and your career.
Why work out? Why keep yourself in shape? There’s no requirement for fitness!
Why read up on the latest in tactics and communication skills? Why examine videos for mistakes which may someday save your life? What are the odds it’ll happen to you anyway?
I say this about law enforcement all the time: If you want to be lazy, it’s easy in a government job – especially this one.
That sounds cynical (and perhaps it is), but it’s also true. I’ve never, ever had this point argued from anyone in any rank in any department.
What percentage of officers, bosses, and administrations are like this? I dunno, but I know it’s too many.
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To change the system, your behavior as a boss and dedication as an individual officer means, unfortunately, that you will be swimming against the current. It’s tough for any individual to change our bad habits of which we are keenly aware. It takes a monumental effort. And to do it systemically, for a bureaucratic agency, that is brutally hard.
But it isn’t impossible.
You younger officers who are motivated, in good shape, and have the right attitude as you begin your career should find a mentor. Find one who behaves the way you want to see yourself behaving – not one who complains about how they were screwed throughout their careers. Avoid those people like the plague.
For those of you with more veteran status: Well, you have to decide. That slide to misery is a slippery one. Get up. Move. Work out. Study. Decide to make a change. Remember, suicide and heart attacks are the primary killers of cops.
Bosses! For crying out loud, lead! If you aren’t trusted to back up your officers when they are right, then you will lose them and destroy their motivation to be proactive. Look at the NYPD right now.
Denzel Washington gave a speech that has always struck me.
“Without commitment, you’ll never start. But, more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish. Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
He finished with this incredibly true statement: “Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.”
It’s easy to be a lazy cop. Anyone can do that.
Commit to your safety and your officers’ safety—if not for yourself, then for them, their family, and your family. Beat that bureaucratic current.
Start today. If not today, then when?
The future may always be too late.
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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This article was first published by Calibre Press
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