3 keys to preventing problem officers in your ranks

Too often, police leaders seem to believe that ‘bad officers’ only flourish in someone else’s back yard and not their own


During my 30+ year career in law enforcement, I had the privilege of working with some of the best and brightest investigators in law enforcement. I watched in amazement as crimes were solved and arrests were made by building upon the smallest pieces of information. 

But for some reason, law enforcement officers are inept at recognizing criminal activity taking place in their own midst. News that a fellow officer has been arrested and charged with a crime sends shockwaves not only through the agency itself, but the profession as a whole. In several instances, this news comes as a complete shock to the suspect officers’ peers, supervisors and chief executives. 

Sadly, the news is too often met with the intrinsic reality that the criminal activity is not surprising given the history of the officer’s on and/or off duty conduct. The “elephant in the room” is the fact that law enforcement leaders too often ignore the warning signs that indicate that a problem is lying in wait. 

How Can It Be?
Let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the headlines about misconduct in the recent past. It seems like all too often there is a headline about some officer in some department in some city that engages in criminal activity and is arrested. The examples below are derived from various accounts of officer misconduct across the country with no specific reference to any individual(s) by name. 

How is it that an officer can be charged with solicitation for a sexual act on duty multiple times and no one knew? It is difficult to fathom that there weren’t prior citizen complaints regarding the officers’ misconduct on traffic stops or citizen contacts that were minimized or possibly shrugged off by supervisors. 

How can an officer be involved in the criminal enterprise of selling illicit drugs without someone in the ranks being suspicious about his/her lifestyle? There had to be some indicators around the locker room water cooler about unusual activities.

How is it that an officer can spend off-duty time riding with outlaw motorcycle gangs and somehow manage to steer clear of any type of illegal activity?

How can an officer with an affinity for DUI arrests repeatedly fabricate evidence against the suspects without someone questioning the validity of the cases? There had to be some indication as to the number of cases that were being contested and/or thrown out of court for lack of evidence at some point along the way.

How is it that several officers in a large metropolitan police department can — without detection — operate an escort service using underage girls? There must have been some clue either inside or outside the department that this was occurring. 

How is it that an officer can have an affinity for child pornography without someone around him suspecting that something was odd? 

How can it be that a band of rogue narcotics officers can commit crimes and acts of violence against the community for years without accountability?

How do toxic officers continue to flourish in the profession despite the efforts to screen applicants and maintain ethical high standards?

Here’s how: “NIMBY.”

The term NIMBY is often used in political activism and protests against the construction of factories, prisons, and low-income housing facilities. It stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” 

The twist in law enforcement is that too often, police leaders seem to believe that ‘bad officers’ only flourish in someone else’s back yard and not their own.

What Can Be Done?
The sad reality is that every agency is susceptible to bad seeds — some more than others. But how does the bad officer go undetected? What can be done to safeguard against the problem?

The ostrich is one of the many birds who cannot fly. He hovers around the nest and runs away from a problem rather than confront it. The eagle is a proud bird who soars through the sky with keen eyesight, vigorously defending his domain.

So, police leader, be an eagle, not an ostrich. Here are three tips to get you going in the right direction, keeping the yard clean and free from toxins. 

1. Listen
It is paramount that leaders talk openly with first-line supervisors and middle managers about the importance of monitoring the conduct of the troops. Most leaders get immersed in the daily regimen of keeping the politicos at bay that they lose sight of the fundamental importance of “keeping the home fires burning.” Much can be learned from the misgivings of others, so listen carefully to your first-line supervisors.

2. Look
Often times there are warning signs of bigger problems that are left unchecked because nobody was looking closely enough. Encourage open discussions about these potential problems in private staff settings and conduct administrative inquiries whenever necessary. 

Don’t allow the stellar performance of an officer to deter you from inquiry if it appears that something is amiss. Any information about possible misconduct must not be shrugged off or minimized.

3. Lead
Finally, develop a cadre of leaders who are eagles and sheepdogs. Leaders should hold supervisors and managers accountable to track the habits of every officer under their command. The great, hardworking men and women of the police profession are counting upon the leaders to recognize problems and take decisive action without delay.

About the author

Paul Cappitelli is a career law enforcement professional with over 35 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as executive director of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Prior to this, he served with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department (SBSD) for 29 years retiring at the rank of Captain. Paul has a Master's degree in Public Administration and a BS degree in Business and Management.

Contact Paul Cappitelli

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