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October 10, 2008

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Dr. Laurence Miller Practical Police Psychology
with Dr. Laurence Miller

Under the microscope: Coping with the stress of an internal investigation - Part 2

Editor’s note: In Part 1 of this special series, Dr. Larry Miller discussed who gets investigated, what sparks them, what the consequences may be and the common emotional reactions of those being investigated. In this final installment, Dr. Miller discusses coping strategies for dealing with an investigation.

Psychological Coping Strategies for Dealing with an Internal Investigation

Feel free to utilize any or all of the following strategies based on the unique configuration of your personality and the individual circumstances of your case.

Don’t panic. Notice how I didn’t say “don’t worry” because that would be like telling you after your kneecap is busted with a baseball bat, “don’t let it hurt you.” No matter what, you’re going to experience a certain amount of anxiety from now until this thing is resolved one way or another: the goal is to deal with it without getting overwhelmed. Try to learn and utilize a number of basic stress-management techniques, just as you would if you were faced with the prospect of a serious illness. You can do this on your own through tapes and manuals or you can seek the aid of a qualified mental health professional. This won’t necessarily make you a happy camper, but you’ll at least be able to set up and maintain your camp.

Strategize. One of the nasty things about anxiety is that it knots up your brain and keeps you from thinking clearly. At some point, sit down and figure out what you’re going to do. Review the actions that led to the investigation. Be clear about what’s being charged and what your options are. The game plan you develop may be modified multiple times as new information comes in and contingencies change, but at least you’ll have a game plan, which will give you a little bit more feeling of control.

Get legal help. Retain competent, qualified legal representation, whether it’s your departmental PBA rep or private counsel that you hire. This professional will help you focus your activities so that they will be most likely to help you, not hurt you. The rule of thumb before you take any action on your own behalf is “Ask your lawyer first.” You can disagree with your attorney, you can argue with him or her and, ultimately, you can choose not to take his/her advice, but use this person’s knowledge and experience to guide your efforts so that they’ll be maximally productive.

Keep a low profile. There may be a great temptation to “take it to the streets,” to publicize your trials and tribulations so that the whole world will rise up and declare with one voice, “No, we shall not let this injustice stand!” Fuggedaboutit. Except for a few close family members and allies, most people’s reaction will be more along the lines of, “Sucks to be you, so what else is new?” Aside from this apathetic response, turning your case into a crusade and making yourself the poster-boy/gal for wrongful discipline will, in most cases, only backfire and damage your chances of being exonerated or, if you’ve already sanctioned or terminated, diminish the chances of your being reinstated. 

Think about it: one of the primary principles of negotiation – whether for a hostage’s life or a better contract deal – is to make it as easy as possible for the other side to give you what you want. They’re much more likely to do that if you can hand them a face-saving way of letting you slide, e.g. things aren’t as they first appeared; new information has come to light; intelligent, well-meaning individuals can sometimes make ill-informed decisions, but once they clearly see how their reasoning got snagged, they will of course do the honorable things and reconsider; and so on. But if you make this into an us-versus-them whizzing contest – and especially if you do your best to blab this to the world – they’ll have no choice but to defensively dig in their heels and redouble their resolve to squish you like a bug. 

Meanwhile, beware of those who are only too eager to make your case their cause celebre. A cottage industry has sprung up of individuals and organizations who offer to consult, represent, and support officers who feel they’ve been wrongly disciplined: click on the web and you’ll find their sites quickly. Many of these outfits in fact do great work and can be of substantial benefit to your case, if guided by common sense and the counsel of your own attorney. But be careful if any of these helpers seem a little too keen on pushing their own agenda or nudging you to say or do things that don’t necessarily bear on your case or that otherwise seem irrelevant or uncomfortable. Always ask yourself, “how will this or that recommended action help or hurt my case?”

Keeping a low profile also means staying out of additional trouble. With way too much free time on your hands, and fueled by piss and vinegar, you may be tempted to go out and raise a little hell while you still can. Don’t. From now until this case is resolved, behave as if there is a camera on you 24/7. No, it’s not fair, but how do you want this to end? Do you want your review or appeals board to be on the verge of cutting you a break, only to learn at the last minute that you were just pulled over for a DUI, or were involved in a domestic violence call, or got into a bar fight, or made threatening phone calls to an obnoxious neighbor? I know you’re bummed-out, stressed-out, and ticked-off, but don’t be schmuck and shoot yourself in the foot.

Work your case. This might also be called obsess constructively, and is actually a great way of utilizing all that nervous energy I just asked you to squelch. Since you’re going to have all this free time, and since even the best attorney can’t do everything by him/herself, you may have to be the point man/woman on your case and start doing research. Create a file and keep it organized. If this clerical stuff isn’t your strong suit, get help. You may lack the legal training and experience to distinguish what’s really useful from what’s legalbabble crapola but, in the beginning, be comprehensive: haunt the library and scour the internet. 

The more information you can glean that’s helpful to your case, and the more clearly you organize it, the easier time your attorney will have punching it up into a form that will get your point across to those who have your fate in their hands. And, psychologically, constructive action detoxifies the poisonous feeling of helpless rage that can drive you into a state of self-destructive despair.

Don’t lie. Let me say it again: do not friggin’ lie. One attorney I know put it this way: “All you need is one tiny crumb of bullshit to stink up the whole room.” Translation: If I think you’re lying to me once, what are the chances of me believe anything you ever say again? I’ve had more than one IA investigator tell me, often in almost identical words: “I know the guys think we’re all scum-sucking ferrets, and if an officer did something truly wrong, we have to get it out. But we’re cops, too, and if there’s a way we can find something justifiable in the officer’s actions, we’re not going to bust someone’s balls just for spite. But what we can’t tolerate is a liar, because then you’re just handing us the shovel to bury you with.”

The issue of what and how much to say sometimes arises in a psychotherapy context: “Listen, doc, I dunno if I told this part of the story yet, but I’m afraid if I tell you something, you’ll report it – we’re protected by confidentiality, right?” Answer: doctor-patient confidentiality says I can’t violate our trust unless you are a clear and present danger to yourself or others, or I become aware that you’re physically or sexually abusing a child. So, in most cases, what you say in my office stays in my office. 

But doctor-patient confidentiality is still not as inviolate as attorney-client privilege (or, for that matter, clergy-parishioner privilege) so, theoretically at least, a judge could issue a court order for my records and jail me for contempt if I refused to produce them. In all my years of practice, this has never happened to me or to any psychologist I know and you’d probably have to be Osama bin-Laden’s lieutenant for something like this to occur but, theoretically at least, it could happen.

Even then, by the time you get to me, you’ve probably told your story so many times to so many people, that it’s unlikely I’m going to learn anything startlingly new from you at this point. Nevertheless, for your own peace of mind, if there’s something you don’t feel 100% safe telling me, then don’t, at least for now. Talk it over with your attorney and if he/she says its okay, then lay it on me. However, if your counsel tells you to clam up about a particular detail, then mum’s the word and we can still do productive therapy around that little bump in the road. In such a case, I’ll appreciate your openness, but I’ll want you to feel secure so we can work together effectively. Conversely, any mental health clinician that seems like they’re pumping you for information should be asked why this particular piece of information is so important to them.

Seek mental health counseling. If you need it, that is. Even though I do this stuff for a living, I don’t believe that everyone – even those under acute stress – needs to be in psychotherapy on general principles. If you feel you can deal with this on your own, then get on with your bad self. But the right counselor can make a tremendous difference at those times when it looks like it’s all going to hell and there’s no one else you can vent to, either because they’re tired of hearing it or you don’t want to further burden them. 

Many officers and others who have faced disciplinary or legal action have told me that having a mental health clinician in their back pocket was not only a source of emotional support but was an invaluable resource for providing frequent, needed reality-checks that kept the officer from acting like a royal douchebag and screwing up his or her case. Again, if you seek the services of a mental health counselor, let your attorney know and, if you want the two professionals to communicate, be sure to sign the appropriate release forms.

Have a Plan B. And, preferably, a C and a D, too. If, despite your best efforts, worse comes to worst and it looks like your law enforcement career is over, have some contingency plans made ahead of time for what you’re going to do in your new life. I know – this kind of advance planning is harder than it seems: the mere acknowledgment of any Plans B-Z may seem like a pessimistic capitulation to the possibility of failure of Plan A, i.e. keeping your law enforcement job. But make these contingency plans for the same reason people buy insurance: you hope the big one doesn’t hit, but if it does, you want to be prepared. 

So don’t give up: fight the good fight in every legitimate way that you can, but in the meantime, check out alternative employment opportunities, get some additional training, finish that degree you always promised you’d complete, call up some old contacts and call in some old favors, reconnect with your family: you get the idea. Remember, the clouds won’t weave their own silver lining and the lemons ain’t gonna squeeze their own damn selves to make lemonade – you’re going to have to do it. Acting rationally, constructively, and courageously on your own behalf can be one of the most stress-reducing and self-empowering actions you can take to climb up out of the dogpile and see the sun again.

To learn more about these topics:

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

NOTE:  If you have a question for this column, please submit it to editor@policeone.com.

About the author

Laurence Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Fla. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies. Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications pertaining to the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. His latest books are "Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement" (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and "Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement" (Looseleaf Law Publications, 2008).

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. If you have a question about this column, please submit it to this website.

Contact Laurence Miller




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