Bully boss: How leading by fear takes a toll on police agencies

A verbally abusive boss can have destructive effects on the morale of subordinate officers and the agency as a whole


By John F. Hein and John Franklin

A number of experts have studied the motivation and needs of employees and the theories and styles of management and leadership. There are many different approaches to management and leadership, but an age-old approach seldom discussed is leadership by fear.

Leading by fear and intimidation may be infrequent style, but it does exist in the law enforcement profession. It may occur in law enforcement because of the authoritative nature of the career field, but more likely because of mental health issues. A police leader with mental issues can have a destructive effect on the morale of subordinate officers and others and cause an adverse effect on the protection of life and the maintaining of order.

A Historical Perspective
Historically, leadership by fear is not uncommon. Numerous world leaders have led by fear — the more infamous being Benito Mussolini of Italy, Adolph Hitler of Germany and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. Prominent Americans have also led by fear. George Pullman, a late 19th century industrialist, was known for intimidating and bullying his employees in pursuit of increased profits. Although some authors report that Gen. George S. Patton was loved and respected by his soldiers, others describe the general as a bully who coerced and sowed fear among those under his command.

In law enforcement, a well-known (and in limited circles) revered leader was J. Edgar Hoover. Since his death, it was revealed he was not the towering pillar of justice he portrayed himself to be. Over decades, he increased his power by illegally collecting damaging personal information on government and political leaders and intimidating, deceiving, misleading, defrauding and terrorizing his employees and others. He directed federal law enforcement officers to violate constitutional mandates to blackmail his enemies. He was malicious and vindictive to anyone who dared question him or cast a shadow on his limelight.

Mental and Emotional Issues
Most rank-and-file officers will never interact with the likes of the infamous, but many will be unfortunate enough to be placed under the authority of someone who, because of some type of mental issue, will lead by fear. A supervisor will lead by fear for several reasons: Some leaders may have mood swings, an impulse disorder, an antisocial personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD). Some leaders may have a decreased or increased sense of themselves.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published studies showing that approximately 25 percent of all adults in the United States have some type of mental illness. Further, close to 50 percent of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetimes. It should also be noted that the Bureau of Justice Statistics said in a Special Report that, “At midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem.”

As most officers will substantiate, there are many more individuals with mental illness living free in American society. Some officers will also attest that some with mental health issues work in law enforcement positions.

Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is a serious but treatable mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 2.6 percent of American adults have bipolar disorder. The illness affects the mood of the afflicted and can cause irrational thoughts and actions, along with impatience, anger and an aroused, agitated emotion. 

In October 2015, Dr. Daniel Ploskin reported that individuals with an impulse disorder cannot control the desire to cause harm to themselves or others. The disorder may cause the affected to bring humiliation to others and behave erratically, with periodic outbursts of rage.

According to the Mayo Clinic, antisocial personality disorder is a deep-seated mental condition that causes a dysfunctional way of thinking, perceiving situations and relating to others. Those with the disorder can be insensitive and unsympathetic, even hostile to others, and are manipulative with no sense of right and wrong. 

According to Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., mental health professionals debate the differences between sociopaths and psychopaths; both are types of antisocial personality disorder. In spite of the debate, both disorders share key traits. Individuals with the disorders:

  • Share a disregard for laws and right social conduct
  • Share an indifference for the rights of others
  • Show no remorse or have any feeling of guilt
  • Tend to exhibit violent behavior

In the workplace, a sociopath can be easily agitated and can exhibit fits of rage. A psychopath can dissociate emotion from action, no matter how violent, extreme or humiliating. 

PTSD and Police
According to NIMH, PTSD develops in certain individuals who have seen or gone through a frightening, horrifying or dangerous incident. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD says anger is a common response for survivors of trauma. High levels of anger are part of a natural survival instinct and may often be seen after traumatic incidents involving violence or a feeling of betrayal by others. As defined, any police officer, even one without military experience, has the potential to have PTSD.

Since World War II, there have been few times the United States military has not been involved in a war, police action or some type of combat situation to suppress a rebellion, protect the rights and lives of others or address acts of terrorism.

Law enforcement in the United States was built on a military model, and many reserve, guard and former military members are part of the police community. It is not surprising that some members of the police community struggle with PTSD.

A Difficult Subject
The fact is, mental illness is a difficult and sensitive subject, andmuch of is not diagnosed or treated. Many people will not admit they have a problem, and it is extremely difficult for others to force a suspected mentally ill person to be evaluated. Laws vary from state to state, but to force someone to undergo treatment takes documentation that the person is extremely mentally disabled and poses imminent danger to him- or herself or others.

Leading by fear is not professional leadership. A verbally abusive bully boss may cause humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety and dread, but these negative behaviors are not preconditions for institutionalization or forced treatment of that person.

Any recourse against such behavior or its perpetrator is difficult, especially if the offender is well-known or well connected. The only hope is for a transfer (you or the abuser), unless the abuser is revealed to outside sources who have the desire and authority or influence to address the situation, or the offender crosses the line from abuser to criminal and can be prosecuted as such. 


About the Authors
John F. Hein is an adjunct instructor of criminal justice for the American Public University System and a retired executive of the former U.S. Customs Service (now ICE). Hein served 35 years in civilian and military security and law enforcement agencies. He is a member of ASIS International, an association of security professionals, and is a Certified Protection Professional . Hein supported, supervised or conducted employee internal investigations for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General; then for the former U.S. Customs Service, Office of Internal Affairs; and, as a reservist, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He was a deputy sheriff prior to his service as a federal criminal investigator. He is the author of Inside Internal Affairs: An In-Depth Look at the People, Process and Politics, published by Looseleaf Law Publications Inc.

John Franklin's career in policing has spanned over 34 years. He is a 28-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department ,where he rose through the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant to commander before retiring in 2010. John has also served as Chief of Police for a suburban Chicago department for two years. John has been an adjunct professor of criminal justice at a Midwestern college for the past five years. Between classes, he mentors students seeking careers in law enforcement. John holds a bachelor's degree in media communications, and a master's degree in criminal/social justice. He is also a graduate of Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety/School of Police Staff and Command.

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