by Police Psychologist Dr. Laurence Miller
Q: I’m an officer in a small to medium-sized police department that is laboring under the regime of a really bad senior officer. This guy’s idea of supervision is to bully the officers under him and threaten them when they won’t do what he wants. He has also been involved in several incidents of sexual harassment, as well as being the target of a number of internal and criminal investigations for corruption and misuse of police authority. Yet nothing seems to stick to this Teflon Tyrant because he seems to be able to sweet talk and lie his way out of any situation. His bullying and unethical behavior are destroying the morale of the whole department, but nobody seems to know what to do about it. Any suggestions before we all burn out?
A: This must be a common problem because I’ve gotten several inquiries on this very topic. Unfortunately, in law enforcement, as in any organization, there are some nasty and manipulative people who are able to rise to positions of authority by dint of cunning and intimidation. I wish I could say that truth and justice always triumph in the end, but sometimes the workplace bully is so well entrenched, there's no way to effectively combat him. But if you’ve got nothing to lose and are willing to take the chance, here are some general principles of dealing with bad bosses, whether they're in a corporation or a police agency:
Scope out the problem. Try to figure out if this guy is just an insecure, obnoxious jerk who doesn’t know any better than to blow a tantrum to cover up his incompetence, or a really evil, stone-cold psychopathic on a power trip who doesn’t really give a damn about anyone else unless they’re just pawns for him to push around. If the former, you may be able to work things out with him; if the latter, trying to reason with him will only further target you as just one more bug to be squashed.
Strength in numbers. If this guy is such a beast, there are bound to be others who feel the way you do. Find each other for moral support and to devise a plan of action.
Decide what you want to accomplish. Do you just want some minor changes in the department that make it easier to live with, or do you want to declare all-out war and unseat the tyrant? Make sure you all agree on what you want and that it's realistic.
Decide if it's worth the fight. If he's so well connected, there may be nothing you can effectively do because the deck is so stacked against you. Then, you have to decide if you want to stay in the department, quit, fight, or just accept the status quo.
Get a lawyer. You’re going to need one if you decide to fight because things will turn nasty. Make sure this attorney is an expert in employment law and, preferably, police and public safety personnel issues. Before you take any action, consult this attorney on what your available options are and whether you have a chance for success.
Get help from above. Try to find an ally higher up the food chain who's on the same page as you. If it's a bad lieutenant, find a captain. If it's a bad assistant chief, go to the chief. If it's a rotten chief, contact the mayor, and so on. Sometimes these higher-ups are just as frustrated with the bad guy as you are, but haven't been able to do anything because they feel they'd have no backup. If that's the case, they may welcome your support. Just be careful that the person you appeal to for help isn't in bed with the bad guy or is indebted to him in some way that will neutralize him as a potential ally. Do some research first.
Get community support. Chances are this guy has ticked off more people than just in the department. As with authorities, there may be many members of your community who are sympathetic to your cause but are afraid to challenge this guy or just don't want the hassle. Choose your allies carefully and have your lawyer guide you.
Be prepared for the long haul. These kinds of changes rarely happen overnight and the process can be draining and demoralizing – not to mention expensive. Again, you need to decide if it's worth it.
Have an exit strategy. If it goes down badly, you may have to bail.
Maintain your dignity. Remember, even if your boss is a nightcrawler, it doesn't mean you're one. Try to do your job competently, ethically, and professionally, and your efforts will be appreciated by those you interact with every day. You’re the kind of cop we citizens want out there every day, not him.
NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to the Practical Police Psychology Column.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.
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