Is Apathy Killing Your Department?

Apathy is a systemic disease for any organization; from law enforcement to private enterprise. It starts small, making almost imperceptible in-roads that may go undetected for years. It quietly spreads throughout your building eating away at productivity, morale, ethics, effectiveness and every other aspect of your agency’s existence. Predictably, the end result is the death of your department. Not in the traditional sense of an end to your existence, but in the sense that your people are no longer able or willing to uphold the duties entrusted to them when they took the oath.

Just like diseases of the body, apathy is not always an unexpected or uninvited killer. We bring it upon ourselves. Like a three pack-a-day smoker, your agency could be gleefully barreling toward its own demise, aware of the consequences and simply unwilling to change current practices to save its own skin. It might not even be the result of something you are doing, but the result of many things you are failing to do. A person who fails to exercise and who fails to feed the machine a balanced diet suffers the consequences of obesity, heart disease, etc. An agency that fails to take steps to quell or prevent apathy suffers the lingering illnesses associated with a general feeling of, “I don’t care.”

Apathy does not always target an entire department.  It can be as specific as a single squad or a particular shift within your department.  It can plant its roots in patrol at the lowest level of your agency or infect the desk of your highest command staff member.  Regardless of where it begins, know this: unchecked, it spreads relentlessly until it infects all levels of your organization.

There’s good news, though. Apathy is perhaps the most preventable of all “culture” disorders a law enforcement agency can suffer. But it requires a concerted effort. It requires attention to the things that foster apathy coupled with the promotion of practices which discourage apathy. In the first part of this two-part discussion on apathy, we look at the most common causes of this disorder. Ask yourself: are you, your coworkers, or your leaders engaged in any of these practices?

Acceptance of ineptitude. How many times has a supervisor or member of your command staff uttered the following words when an officer makes a titanic blunder: “That’s just Bobby. We kind of expect that sort of thing from him!” If that phrase has been spoken in your halls even once, then you are failing the hard working, competent members of your agency. This kind of attitude is exacerbated beyond description when “Bobby” gets a pass on his screw ups, but another, competent officer receives discipline for a mistake he or she made. You cannot imagine the frustration this type of management approach engenders among good officers.

There is no room for incompetence in this line of work. But it seems that more and more often, agencies are allowing sub-par officers to remain on the force because they provide a warm body in a cruiser or because of the costs associated with hiring and training these folks. This is not to say that we should be terminating every officer who makes a mistake. By no means! Good people screw up – plain and simple. And the unavoidable, overwhelming learning curve in this line of work is partly responsible. However, employees who make the same mistakes over and over or who seem to bring the monkey and the football together on a weekly basis are contributing nothing to your organization. Worse yet, they are eroding your good employees’ faith in “the system.”

Acceptance of minimally acceptable. Every agency has a minimally acceptable standard for virtually every aspect of the business. Unfortunately, minimally acceptable is often, “Show up for work, sit in your car, wait for calls for service.” If your level of acceptable job performance is simply occupying a Crown Vic, then eventually the message communicated to your troops is, “The most important aspect of your job is locating a good shade tree.”

trafficstopLaziness is akin to apathy. And it covers far more than self-initiated patrol activity. How thorough are your officers’ investigations? Do they look for ways to actually solve a problem versus eliminating the immediate complaint? Are you encouraging laziness by accepting minimally acceptable performance from your employees… or even yourself?

Minimally acceptable standards are a necessity of life. They are required to define a threshold where deficient officers can be legally terminated from employment. What separates a hard-hitting, effective squad from a lazy squad is encouragement of its members to exceed what is minimally acceptable.

Discouragement of hard work. As an FTO, nothing frustrates me more than having one of my former probationary officers come to me and say, “I can’t do it anymore! I’ve tried to work hard and do the right thing, but all I get is grief from my sector partners.” No matter how much I encourage them to hang in there and keep doing what they know is right, eventually the pressure of being chastised and ridiculed by lazy coworkers is too much for them. They simply fall into the rut of performing their job to minimally acceptable standards (see above) – not as a matter of choice, but as one of survival. Are your lazy, ineffective officers negatively impacting your hard-working, go-getters?

When a new officer comes out of the gate and works a case effectively – developing suspects, establishing probable cause and ultimately making a good arrest – is he or she “coached” by your senior officers to “calm down” or “take it easy”?  One of the most aggravating things I’ve ever heard one officer say to another is, “Slow down young man! You’ve got a whole career to arrest people.” Are you kidding me?!? Unfortunately, the senior officer who uttered those words was not joking.

Not everyone is going to come to work fired up and ready to kick butt every single day of the year. There are days when even the most motivated of employees does not feel like putting on his uniform. But if you are allowing lazy officers to discourage the hard work of others, then you have invited apathy into your department.

And frankly, the excuse of seniority is losing its shine with me. I find it hard to accept that an officer wearing the same uniform as a rookie, earning ten bucks an hour more than the rookie, has the innate right to goof off for the remainder of his career. I don’t expect the 15 year patrol veteran to have the same fire in his or her belly as he or she did on day one.  But when we sink to the level of actively evading work and dumping calls for service on another officer or even another shift, we have taken the privileges of seniority too far.  And forget about the impression this leaves on your good employees… how do you think the public views this sort of behavior?  Laziness breeds apathy.

Failure to manage. Supervisors are subject to laziness and apathy as well. When line supervisors fail to come out from under their own shade tree, or fail to provide guidance to officers then an attitude of “anything goes” begins to creep into practice at the street level. If supervisors are not creating expectations and providing goals, officers will soon discover they can get away with minimally acceptable performances… or worse.  For instance, when a supervisor fails to discipline an officer for an egregious violation of policy or law, the message is clear to the other employees: anything goes.  Incidentally, good luck with your future law suit if your department inequitably applies the rules to some officers while giving others a pass or freebie.

Are your line supervisors managing their employees? Have they established a relationship where they understand their employees’ goals, weaknesses and strengths?  Are they treating every employee with the same set of rules?  Do some officers routinely get away with violations of policy and civil rights while others get hammered for minor infractions?  Do your supervisors represent the best your agency has to offer? Do they set examples of hard work for their employees?  What about the next level of your command staff?  Are your lieutenants aware of what’s happening on their squad?  Are they familiar with the problems on the shift, or do they take the, “My sergeants will handle it,” approach to their management responsibilities?  How about your captains?  And so forth, all the way up the chain to the chief or the sheriff.

Failure to keep elected officials informed. When we fail to keep to our elected officials informed of what is really happening on the streets in their city or county, we are ultimately failing ourselves.  When upper echelon command staff sugar coats the crime statistics to make the department look more successful in their mission to detect and prevent crime, then elected officials are apt to believe we can continue to do the job with the resources we have.  Worse still, they sometimes get the notion that we could do the job with less.

Across the country, police and sheriff’s departments are absorbing gargantuan blows to their budgets and the phrase of the new decade is proving to be, “More with less.”  Meanwhile, my brothers and sisters in service continue to relate incidents where a member of their command staff shows up to a legitimate burglary and politely “asks” them to find a way to make the call a trespass.

The idea of going to your elected officials, showing them what a great job you are doing, and then asking for more has proven repeatedly to be a fool’s errand.  Now more than ever, it is time to report the truth to the accountants who determine our budgets.  If the crime rate goes up, it means two very simple things:  1.) More crime was committed and 2.) we need more resources to deal with the rise in crime.

The effect of “fudging” crime statistics on your street cops is devastating.  When legitimate crimes are reclassified to lesser offenses for the purpose of meeting a UCR goal set by the agency, it sends a clear message that their efforts and hard work on the street is meaningless.  Imagine putting your life on the line to enter a dark residence and apprehend a burglary suspect, only to find out that your arrest was reclassified as a trespass in order to make the “boss” happy.

Have you planted the seeds of apathy?  If so, it’s time to put on the gloves and start pulling weeds.

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Publisher at BlueSheepdog
Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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