Are you a 'law enforcement hostage'? How to break free
The authoritarian culture in many departments needs to be examined – and dismantled
By Fredinal “Fred” Rogers and Deborah K. Lewis
Imagine being held hostage for seven thousand three hundred days, snatched from your home and family, while thinking your hostage-taker was a friend. Day in and day out, you and several other hostages remained under observation and locked away for eight hours a day.
Some days, you are permitted an hour to yourself where you are allowed to eat, possibly outside of your cell. Each day, you are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and where it will be done. Deviations from the rules are met with punishment as you mark the wall counting the day until freedom arrives.
Sound familiar? For many in the law enforcement profession, struggling to complete 20 years of service, this scenario is all too real. We refer to this condition as the Law Enforcement Hostage Mentality (LEHM).
What conditions support the development of the LEHM? Three primary conditions are leadership style, organizational culture, and organizational structure (systems, policies, and procedures.)
Traditionally, law enforcement departments are command and control organizations that utilize an authoritarian leadership style where leaders exercise complete control of the organization with little or no input from the workforce. In this environment, the workforce is conditioned to conform and not question decisions. This lack of input and involvement in daily work creates tension between the employee and the organization.
Authoritarian leadership reduces opportunities for innovative problem solving, thereby reducing employee engagement. Instead of employees making decisions and solving problems within their scope of responsibility, LEHM would indicate they surrender decision-making to the authoritarian leader. By thwarting employees’ need for inclusion and input, organizations allow feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and discontent to emerge and enable LEHM to thrive.
Culture defines an officer’s role as a member in the group and outlines the boundaries in which they can and should behave. When the organizational culture is negative or toxic, a breeding ground for discontent and malaise emerges and can contribute to the development of LEHM. LEHM then thrives when departments fail to examine the culture and identify the LEHM enablers at the organizational, managerial, and individual levels.
Law enforcement agencies are systems, much like the human body. Just as all of the organs of the human body must work together to ensure a healthy body, so too must departmental systems and policies to ensure a healthy organization. Law enforcement agencies rely heavily on an organizational structure that promotes conformity and reduces uncertainty. This is intended to make things more predictable for officers and minimize the need for independent thinking. While there is value in ensuring the consistent application of policies, systems that do not offer opportunities to exercise autonomy fall to a state where officer morale, motivation, and discretionary effort quickly wane.
In addition, when policies and procedures are unnecessarily rigid, problems that require some degree of innovation are resigned to inflexible solutions that create more disruption than the original problem. In the end, bad policies block organizational arteries, cause distress to the system, and create hostages in blocked areas as employees are cut off from the mainstream and do not get the guidance, support, and information needed to sustain maximum performance. By the time the department realizes there is a blockage, LEHM has spread throughout the organization.
Understanding the Behavior
Typically, law enforcement officers live off a steady diet of overtime. However, as federal, state, and local municipalities struggle to balance budgets, law enforcement salaries have been stagnant and positions are abolished or left unfilled.
Since these challenges are prevalent at every level, it supports the development of the LEHM as officers feel they would get little relief by moving outside the profession or to another law enforcement agency.
Addressing the Challenges
Responding to LEHM is not as simple as asking employees, “Do you feel like a hostage?” Nor is it about rescuing employees from LEHM. Rather, it is about organizational leaders adopting targeted strategies to reach the ultimate goal of engaged employees who view themselves as volunteers rather than hostages. Department leadership should consider the “4 E” approach:
Law enforcement departments must make officer engagement a priority to reduce the likelihood of LEHM developing and spreading throughout the organization. The consequences are illustrated by our version of a famous Cherokee parable.
“It is an ongoing fight, and it is between two cultures. One culture is oppressive and breeds anger, discontent, low engagement, poor morale, conformity, low trust, and law enforcement hostage mentality. The other organizational culture is engaging – it promotes innovation, creativity, productivity, decision-making, collaboration, and trust. This same fight is going on inside all organizations – and inside every leader, too.”
The elders thought about it for a minute, and then one asked the Chief, “Which culture will win?”
The old chief simply replied, “The one you nurture.”
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