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Are you a 'law enforcement hostage'? How to break free

The authoritarian culture in many departments needs to be examined – and dismantled

This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Members Fredinal “Fred” Rogers, Deputy Chief, Training Services Bureau, United States Capitol Police, and Deborah K. Lewis, Diversity Officer, United States Capitol Police. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an e-mail with your story.

By Fredinal “Fred” Rogers and Deborah K. Lewis
PoliceOne Members

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).

Assessing Conditions
LEHM refers to the state of mind of officers who feel handcuffed to their organization until they are retirement eligible. In most police departments, that hostage situation begins after the officer has gone beyond the point of no return — leaving the department is no longer an economically feasible or socially acceptable decision. To fully understand LEHM, law enforcement leadership must recognize this organizational mindset and take steps to shift the paradigm before it results in negative consequences.

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.

Unhealthy Culture
In law enforcement, cultural indoctrination begins during training at the police academy and is reinforced throughout the employment tenure through storytelling, accepted practices, and personal experiences that dictate officer behavior and interactions.

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
So, why stay? Employees depend on a steady income and cannot absorb any reduction in pay. While this has always been true for entry-level employees, the ongoing housing market and financial crisis has made it a reality for employees at all levels of the organization.

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:

  1. Examine the Organizational Culture: Assess organizational strategy and ensure cultural strengths are maximized to engage employees and minimize resistance. Understand that a culture based on giving orders does not relieve the department of its responsibility to properly train, mentor, and coach employees.
  2. Embrace Servant Leadership: Adopt the servant leadership style and tend to the emotional and physical well-being of employees. Employees who feel heard, understood, and supported are more closely aligned to organizational efforts. This is the fundamental shift in mindset that fosters true attitudinal change in people and builds effective relationships.  
  3. Engage in Effective Dialogue: Effective dialogue gives the leader an opportunity to understand the officer’s expectations and create a more beneficial relationship that balances personal interests and organizational necessities. The more dialogue, the more openness occurs and the more trust is established.
  4. Encourage Autonomy: Identify areas where officers can get more autonomy and participate in the decisions affecting when and how work is done. By ensuring officers understand departmental policies and the areas where discernment should be exercised, job enrichment and job satisfaction increases.

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.

Nurture Engagement
An old chief was teaching his tribal elders about leadership. “A fight is going on inside most organizations,” he said to the elders.

“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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