Brass vs. officers: Distrust gets us nowhere

To clean up a toxic environment, we have to remember we’re all on the same team

Due to the numerous comments on my previous article, “Expectations and disappointments in police work,” it seemed appropriate to write a follow-up article.

The comments centered on disappointment in departmental politics, a lack of cultural cohesion, backstabbing, and incompetent leadership — especially incompetent leadership.

Seemingly insignificant issues to some, but all too often a major source of stress and contention for others.

A Not-So-United Front
While officers display a united front, many are dealing with multiple levels of internal strife. Day in and day out spent maneuvering through a blue sea of bureaucratic BS, personality conflicts, hidden agendas, micro-managing bosses — all before hitting the street. It seems easy enough to see how such strife could contribute to officer stress and disappointment with leadership and police work.

For a culture that prides itself on shared values and cultural norms, there sure is a lot of strife and departmental discontentment among rank and file. So much so that many are left asking, “Are we on the same team?”

Officers reiterate, time and again, that they are trained for what happens on the street, but not for what happens in the department. They expect the belligerent drunk and the angry driver ticketed for speeding. They even expect the occasional foot chase, bar brawl, and resisting subject. But what they are not prepared for, what they are not trained to deal with, are often the things that contribute to some of the greatest stress.

So not surprisingly, one of the greatest stressors for law enforcement personnel remains leadership. That’s probably why many officers avoid the department like the plague, believing if they are out of sight, they are out of mind.  Avoidance may work for a while, but who can maintain this cat and mouse game for an entire career? And better yet, who should have to?

Looking Out for Numero Uno
Departmental politics and the ever-present cat and mouse game can leave many feeling burned out. Many of the responses to the first article believed leadership was only looking out for No. 1, and to some extent, they are correct.

However, I believe many of the officers are looking out for themselves as well. In order to survive, you have to. There is nothing wrong with looking out for Numero Uno, as long as values and morals are not sacrificed — as long as you are not so concerned with yourself that you fail to recognize the needs of others.

As far as “ladder climbers,” officers must realize that the lack of cultural cohesion goes both ways too. Those who make promotion have to look out for themselves, because rank and file no longer consider them part of the team. So as much as officers want to complain about their leaders, both sides bear some responsibility for the poison atmosphere.

Military Versus Law Enforcement
Several comparisons were made between the unity and cohesion of military units and that of law enforcement. I believe many respondents had expectations that police work would provide the same kind of brotherhood and the same kind of bonding experience as the military. Expectations were dashed when this was just not a reality.  

There are several reasons for the differences. First, most military units work together, sleep together, eat together, and deploy together. Law enforcement centers on the lone officer. The officers go to calls on their own, they often eat alone, and they are only in a group at shift change. Officers are really on their own unless they receive a call for backup. Police and military share the ideal of protection, but the organizations and resulting cultures are otherwise very different.

Another cultural divide is between the rank and file and the police management. But is the solution really to create a tighter bond between officers and brass? Do you really want your boss joining you for coffee, hanging around the water cooler, and eating lunch with you? Probably not. The same can probably be said of bosses’ desire to hang out with officers.

There are two different cultures at work in the station house, but there doesn’t have to be two different teams. As much as everyone wants to blame others for shortcomings and incompetency, everyone has to share the responsibility.

Anyone can be part of the problem, but everyone needs to be part of the solution.

Remember, we are all on the same team.

About the author

Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. Dr. Johnson is the founder of the Blue Wall Institute where she trains first responders, first responder families, and administrators on wellness issues, suicide awareness and prevention, peer support, stress and anger management, and leadership issues. Due to her perseverance in raising awareness of the issues facing our first responders, was named the Illinois State Representative and active Board Member for the National POLICE Suicide Foundation where she trains, conducts research, publishes articles, and communicates with agencies in need. 
Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a former police officer, and published author. She is an Associate Member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Associate Member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police (ILACP), member of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers (ILEETA), the National POLICE Suicide Foundation (PSF), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance member and Suicidology Researcher (three-year term), Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA), a public safety expert writer for SilverHart, Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team member, Serve & Protect Advisory Board member, St. Clair County (IL) Suicide Alliance, and Suicide Prevention/Juvenile Justice Curriculum (SPJJC) Ad Hoc Committee member. Dr. Johnson is an Adjunct Professor for Lindenwood University in Belleville/Collinsville, Illinois. She also writes for several law enforcement and mental health publications and is the Peer Support Columnist for PoliceOne. 

For further information on the Blue Wall Institute and Dr. Olivia Johnson, visit

Contact Olivia Johnson

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