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Bad cops to good cops: The continuation...

More constructive alternatives in police discipline

By Police Psychologist Dr. Laurence Miller

In his first article on police discipline, Police Psychologist Dr. Laurence Miller presented several approaches to disciplining a problem officer, from education and training to coaching and counseling. In this next installment, he explores four more…


If educative, coaching, and counseling measures have been ineffective, then, depending on the nature of the offense, some sort of departmental internal review and discipline, ranging from an official reprimand, to suspension, to termination, to the actual filing of criminal charges against the officer, may be indicated. But before things get to that point, attention should have been paid to guideposts along the way.

Good discipline begins with assessment and monitoring of the officer’s behavior to detect precursors and patterns of developing problems, so that interventions can be applied as early as possible. To this end, police managers should be attentive to signals of deterioration in an officer’s behavior well before it reaches the point of requiring formal disciplinary action.

Once misconduct has been discovered, another problem in many departments is an overly heavy-handed approach to dealing with the officer. Effective discipline should be consistent, impartial, immediate, and definitive. Ideally, the goal should be to stop the misbehavior, while salvaging an otherwise functional officer.

To this end, interventions should be step-wise and targeted to a specific problem. In the initial stages (and of course depending on the seriousness of the offense) using nonpunitive interventions, such as coaching, counseling, and retraining, is usually preferable. But such supportive approaches go only so far with some officers.

Those cops who engage in overtly and repeatedly unacceptable conduct must be firmly sanctioned on the grounds that they present a threat both to the community’s citizens and to the safety of their fellow officers.

One disciplinary protocol developed by Gerald Garner specifically for police sergeants in charge of patrol officers, and described in Common Sense Police Supervision (Charles C Thomas, 1995), specifies five basic principles of corrective action:

1. Have as much background information as possible and know the full story.

2. Have the required administrative support before taking corrective action.

3. Know the officer as well as possible.

4. Frame constructive criticism in a supportive context – remember to raise the good points, not just the bad.

5. Try to obtain agreement, commitment, and buy-in from the officer, so that the final solution feels like his or her decision, too.

Sadly, not every bad cop can be salvaged. Despite all reasonable efforts at training and counseling, officers who are persistently and irredeemably violent, corrupt, or incompetent must be dismissed from the force.

In some cases, formal legal charges may have to be brought. If things have progressed to this point, discipline should be consistent, impartial, immediate, and definitive. The weeding out of the few truly bad cops is a fundamental prerequisite for the ability of the many good cops to serve their communities with honor.


In cases where it is suspected that personal traits, disorders, or stress reactions are causing or contributing to an officer’s problem behavior, a formal psychological fitness for duty(FFD) evaluation may be ordered to:

(1) determine if the officer is psychologically capable of remaining in his or her job and exercising the police role;

(2) if not, then what measures, if any, are recommended to make him or her more effective and able to function up to the standards of the department; and

(3) what kinds of reasonable accommodations, if any, must be in place to permit the officer to work in spite of the residual disabilities.

The FFD evaluation thus combines elements of risk management, mental health intervention, labor law, and departmental discipline. Psychological FFD evaluations are considered in detail in a separate article.

(Read Dr. Miller’s series on Fitness-for-Duty exams)


One of the functions of an FFD evaluation is to make recommendations for education, retraining, counseling, or clinical treatment. Unfortunately, within many departments, referral of officers for mental health services when their job performance has begun to deteriorate is viewed as punishment within a disciplinary context, rather than as a proactive human resource intervention that might forestall further problems and help contribute to that officer’s better job performance and overall health.

The topic of psychotherapy and other mental health services for law enforcement officers is covered in detail in my book, Practical Police Psychology (Charles C Thomas, 2006). Briefly, the goal of departmentally referred psychological treatment is not to solve all of the officer’s problems or to correct all of his or her personality quirks, but rather to use the minimum depth and intensity of intervention necessary to restore the officer to his adequate baseline functioning or to modify a pre-existing pattern of problem behavior that interferes with the police role.

That is, the purpose is to get him or her back to the point where he or she can function as a competent officer.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to use psychological services is to recommend counseling to troubled officers before the situation rises to the level of a disciplinary issue. Note that I said recommend. Psychological counseling should never be ordered as a disciplinary measure for its own sake. The focus of discipline should be to correct problematic behavior or improve substandard performance.

If the officer feels that psychological counseling will help him to do that, fine. If not, he’s free to make to the changes on his own – as long as he makes them. That way, psychology is seen as a resource that officers may access without pressure, not a punishment they try to avoid for fear of appearing weak or crazy.

In my experience, many officers are actually glad to be afforded the option to speak with a mental health professional once they have been given “permission” by a commanding officer to see the clinician without pressure or stigma.


As noted earlier, to fully address the problem of police officer misconduct and poor performance, it must be treated as a system-wide problem that includes departmental administrative policies as well as individual elements specific to the officers involved. Consistent with the leadership literature from management psychology, integrity begins at the top.

In this view, the most important factor for prevention of corruption and misconduct in a law enforcement agency is a mature, seasoned, stable leader who utilizes cognitively flexible thinking, and possesses personal integrity and a strong professional ethic.

Cops aren’t stupid – they know when their leaders are walking the walk and will grudgingly respect a commanding officer, even if they disagree with him or her, as long as they believe he or she has their best interests at heart.

Police leaders who set a strong, positive tone for their agencies and back it up with firm and fair action, should be able to expect a department they can be proud of.

Ask the Doctor

Have a question, comment or topic you would like to see covered by Police Psychologist Dr. Miller? E-mail him directly or call him at: (561) 392-8881.

About the author

Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies. Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country.

He is the author of numerous books., his latest being Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and the forthcoming Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement and Street Psychology 101 from Looseleaf Law Publications .


Author’s disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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