Greg Barlow, CSP, CET
Arguably, law enforcement is the most controversial profession in the United States today. The spectrum seems to peg the gauge at either love or hate, with little middle ground. We can all understand why the law enforcement community receives their share of love. Yet why do they also receive such hatred? Herein lies the speculation that cops are racist, or bullies, that they possess God complexes, etc. Are any of these theories accurate? The answer is both yes and no. There are bad cops, period. Anyone in the LE community who denies this fact is likely already in or leaning toward the “bad” category.
But does the conversation end there? Did we just solve the problem that easily? Remove all bad cops and the negative narrative changes instantly and globally, right? Of course not! There are bad employees in every profession. It would not be fair or accurate to judge the entire medical community over a few bad doctors, and it is absolutely not fair to judge the entire LE community in the same way.
For those who may not like the previous comparison, let’s try another vantage point. Every person reading this likely has one person in their extended family who is considered the “bad apple.” Does that make your entire family bad? Is your family name now synonymous with evil? Definitely not—yet that is how a large portion of the public is, unfortunately, categorizing cops.
Therefore, without delving into the already over-scrutinized root-cause reasoning behind why bad cops exist, we must continue our focus toward preventing future allegations of the “bad cop syndrome” from becoming true. So, where do we start? While there are many ways to approach this issue, I recommend starting with a foundational overview.
My recommendation is based in part on Colorado HB-1262, which is aimed at trying to improve police officer hiring. Additionally, I draw on efforts by some of the police agencies that are a part of the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (CIRSA), examples from CIRSA’s police liability committee discussions, a great presentation on public safety hiring practices from 32-year police veteran Craig Dodd of 911 HR Solutions, and the knowledge base of CIRSA’s team of risk management professionals. I will not get into the finite details of building the framework of a successful hiring practices program, but rather sketch out a broad spectrum that will allow any agency to lay the proper foundation for the future.
Step One: Recognize the Problem
OK, admit it: Did your eyes just roll after reading that statement? Stay with me, because I’m asking you to go deeper than face value with this step. Of course we recognize that the problem exists. Yet do we then dig deep into our own departments to see if said problem exists within our ranks? Don’t assume a potential problem doesn’t exist just because you haven’t had complaints. Note: I’m not advocating that you initiate an internal investigation of every officer. This step simply involves an objective evaluation of personalities and corresponding job-related behaviors. As an example, if you periodically say, “He/she is a good cop but…,” chances are, you should take a deeper look at that employee!
Step Two: Do the Research
A great place to start is with the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The report notes the connection between police officer diversity and community trust. It also touches on something that Colorado HB-1262 attempts to address: how we can prevent agencies from hiring officers who have left other agencies under less-than-positive circumstances. Some of the recommendations of the report—such as the expansion of the National Decertification Index—will take time and cross-organization effort to accomplish. Others, however—such as hiring officers based on their track record in community engagement and hiring officers who reflect the community they serve—are entirely within the reach of individual agencies.
Step Three: Don’t Over-Proceduralize the Problem
Okay, so that isn’t really a word, but it fits perfectly. Too often, especially in larger departments, multiple policies and procedures are used to replace human interaction and evaluation. Please do not assume this will work. Just because directive 123-45-ABC-2016 states that “officers shall not engage in…” does not mean that officers are following that policy. While such language may provide means for disciplinary action, it does not in and of itself prevent officers from displaying the undesired behavior in the field. Policy is a critical foundation, but accountability to policy is essential. And that requires training, direct supervision, peer-to peer-interaction and evaluation.
Step Four: Avoid the Most Common Excuses
“We don’t have the time/resources to scrutinize applicants.” Or “He/She passed the academy, that’s good enough for us.” Or “He/She has xx years of experience with that other department. We’ll give him/her a chance here.” Justifying or rationalizing current hiring practices that do not properly vet every potential new officer is guaranteed to, at minimum, allow less than the best to enter your ranks. Chances are, every person reading this article has a personal story about how a poor hiring process led to an equally poor hire. Yet we all too easily forget that the worst-case scenarios are very costly. From negative-only national media attention, to skyrocketing insurance costs, to potential incarceration, falling back on these excuses can take the agency down the wrong path very quickly. With regard to applicant selection, make the time, take the time, do the work. Your agency will reap the benefits.
Step Five: Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
The law enforcement community has always respected and supported its brothers and sisters globally. The camaraderie shown between men and women who are “on the job” is unparalleled in most industries. Unfortunately, it often stops at that ethos, and does not always carry over to actual productivity. Resources, best practices and especially failures are not consistently shared with other agencies. This is rarely purposeful but rather an overlooked cog in the ever-growing wheel of policing. Regardless, collaboration between agencies is essential to improving the overall quality of law enforcement recruitment. Add discussion about hiring into your existing interagency task force meetings. Hold a quarterly breakfast or lunch event for the sole purpose of comparing notes. Ultimately, build best practices that all agencies can use as guidelines for hiring quality officers.
Lastly, every agency must strive for continual improvement. We already know this, yet given the tendency for Type-A personalities to rule the roost, the concept sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Therefore, I’ll use a final example that every cop should be familiar with. Most officers learn the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide and act) early on in their firearms training. However, this concept does not apply only to weapons tactics. In rudimentary terms, the sole purpose of mastering this concept, regardless of the task, is to create the most efficient outcome (in terms of time, speed, accuracy, error reduction, etc.) for every action. The only way the OODA Loop is mastered is by constantly striving for perfection. If we adopt this approach to hiring practices and build the framework to ensure that only the best are chosen, then we tip the scales of doubt, and we help to rebuild the trust our communities have in individual officers—and the profession as a whole.
GREG BARLOW, CSP, CET has over 18 years of risk management experience in the private and public sector. During his career he has consulted and/or managed loss control programs for city, county and affiliated municipalities in multiple states. Greg earned an ABET-accredited safety engineering degree in Occupational Safety and Health from Murray State University in 1998. He believes that, to ensure efficiency, productivity and overall success, risk management must be incorporated into every facet of organizational operations. Greg currently serves as the Loss Control Manager for the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (CIRSA).