Positive Peer Pressure: What Officers Need to Know About Reporting Misconduct

Positive Peer Pressure: What Officers Need to Know About Reporting Misconduct

It may be decades before we fully realize all the changes the tumultuous summer of 2020 will bring to the law enforcement landscape, but it is clear that the shift is well underway. With departments and the public denouncing use-of-force fatalities and officer misconduct in general, police departments nationwide are facing unprecedented pressure and scrutiny. In the current social climate, officer behavior is the biggest point of risk for departments and the municipalities they serve. Rightly or wrongly, responsibility for policing and reporting this behavior often falls on fellow officers.

Individual officers are being forced to reassess their own role in departmental culture. It’s not just a simple choice between bystander and whistleblower. Officers must consider their reactions, should they encounter a colleague’s questionable behavior, and have a plan in place that duly respects law, policy, and public sentiment.

Changing the culture of complicity

Calling out improper behavior may prove to be more challenging than it would first appear. Fear of professional reprisal, loss in status among colleagues, and even retaliatory workplace bullying may all cause officers and other police employees to turn a blind eye to long-term misbehaviors by others, or reconsider their reasoning in critical seconds where snap decisions are needed. The self-protecting nature of the law enforcement workplace culture — the so-called “blue wall of silence” —may further pressure good employees to keep silent about misconduct.

Still, times are changing. Key to this shift is the growing notion that “standing by” is conceptually as bad as facilitating the behavior. In modeling their own planned response to colleague misbehavior (whether hypothetically or in response to known issues), individual officers can give themselves a greater measure of control over their response if the need becomes more pressing at a later time, and allow themselves to meet the challenge with an ethical, reasoned approach from the onset.

The burden of colleague misbehavior

Officers may wish to rethink their current perception of colleague misbehavior—though this is certainly not to say the average officer is somehow accepting of the idea to begin with. Nor, it should be said, is any of this to suggest most or even many officers will need to face the dilemma of encountering a colleague engaging in reportable behavior. Instead, this article strives to suggest that the small percentage who do encounter this problem should view it for what it is: a burden of responsibility that has been thrust upon them, generally in circumstances beyond their full control.

What qualifies as reportable misconduct will vary with departmental policy, as well as state and federal law. Even then, a precise definition may prove murky. The end result is that often, the unprofessional behavior of officers puts their colleagues in an untenable position.

Things to consider

Following the idea that unethical or malicious individuals burden good colleagues with the knowledge of their wrongdoing, every officer should consider the following alongside any situational context:

  • Policy and law, and whether either were obviously violated during the event(s); whether the offending officer breaks either with their actions or simply acts in an undefinably unethical manner, precise knowledge can help avoid situations where doing the right thing isn’t always clear, as in Pew’s research on moral imperatives and policing.
  • Personal feelings on the matter, and how they may influence the observing officer’s perception of events: Emotional reaction can play a strong role in the way we view the actions of others—an especially important point of consideration in a workplace tasked with dispassionately managing criminal behavior, in this climate—and officers need to view them as objectively as possible to make a smart reaction.
  • Potential backlash if news of the misconduct suddenly became widespread: What would a believable public reaction be?

To the last point, it is important to note that public response is not a barometer by which an officer should choose to say nothing about perceived misbehavior. By contrast, it is a helpful—if broad—tool by which they can judge the severity of a potential infraction, alongside their own personal takeaways on the matter.

Unofficial vs. official channels

At times, direct, polite confrontation may be a more effective approach than official channels. An employee may be able to ask a few non-accusatory questions and come away with a better understanding of the behavior, knowing whether their concerns are sufficiently allayed or confirmed.

However, there may be times when official intervention is the only appropriate response from the perspective of ethics, policy, and/or law. In these cases, officers should remember that self-preservation is a natural response in any sudden change in employment conditions and that any employee—regardless of industry—would be nervous in reporting a colleague.

That said, they must weigh these needs against the higher standard to which officers are held due to the authority of their roles. Long-term planning as an element of professional self-preservation is very different from the self-preservation instinct that activates under pressure. The same snap decisions that save officers’ lives don’t always prove as helpful in a situation more deserving of a measured response, pointing again to the need for a framework from which officers can react when determining how to go about handling a truly reportable offense.

The importance of documentation

In almost any circumstance, the best tools at the officer’s disposal come down to information: documentation (both direct and supporting) that will help strengthen their claim and knowledge of operational policy, such as chain of command; state and local policy and law, as above; and direct knowledge of policies and protections put in place for those compelled to report a colleague’s misbehavior.

Relatively few of the offenses an officer might find reportable will reach the dramatic heights of criminal conspiracy, corruption, sustained group harassment, or other events more commonly found on a TV procedural drama. Even so, it is impossible to overstate the power of documentation. Something as simple as dated notes taken shortly after an event can be useful. An officer may take regular notes of less-egregious violations and keep them in a secure place, saving them in case they witness more flagrant abuse of policy, authority, or law, and coming forward if the behavior later proves to be part of a more serious pattern.

Some tips for effective reporting while protecting against possible reprisals:

  • Keep detailed documentation (including dates) of your actions at work: complaints and reports to supervisors, any retaliation you experience, etc.
  • Gather evidence discreetly and legally.
  • Decide whether you want to remain anonymous and whether that’s a feasible option given the information you have.
  • Discreetly try to ascertain whether others are aware of and disturbed by the wrongdoing; they may be able to serve as witnesses and additional sources of information.
  • If allowed, keep records of performance evaluations, disciplinary actions taken against you, attendance records, and work policies and procedures.
  • Make note of any differences between company policy, the behavior you witness, and the way you are treated.
  • Don’t give your managers other reasons to justify disciplinary action against you.

Case management: How organizations can respond

Once a complaint is officially recorded, whether from the public or from a fellow officer, the department’s case management procedures come into play. Tracking all the details of a case, from the initial report to supporting documentation to contact information of supplemental witnesses, can be a labor-intensive process that departments are ill-equipped to handle – another reason the whistle-blower may be regarded less favorably than the initial offender.

This process is greatly simplified if a case management component is attached to the department’s existing Training Management System. A department that sees case management as an essential part of maintaining an effective workforce will have invested in the appropriate tools and can more willingly and impartially investigate reports of misconduct, because the process for doing so is built into the organization’s infrastructure.

Communication and training

Likewise, departments must make the effort to resolve cultural issues, points of procedural uncertainty, and other concerns that may keep an otherwise principled officer from speaking up. Ideally, organizations will strive to achieve these means via added clarity, better information sharing, and improved training: measures that reinforce changing culture, outline the organization’s current and anticipated changes in response, set expectations regarding officer conduct, and stress the importance of speaking out in clear-cut incidents of reportable misbehavior.

An effective Training Management System plays a key role in communicating the values of an organization to the employees within. With a system like the Acadis Readiness Suite, each officer can easily be assigned a quick refresher course on departmental policies regarding use-of-force options, respect for diverse communities, and other essential topics. This is also an opportunity to communicate proper procedures and include channels for reporting possible misconduct to management or to outside agencies. Such training can be completed online for convenience, and easily tracked and quantified to make sure everyone is fully aware of departmental standards.

Conclusion: Speaking up is never easy, but it is necessary

Amid historic protests bookended by a generation-defining pandemic, perhaps the best word to apply to the summer of 2020 would be transformative. Change is coming, and the industry will likely continue to shift and adapt for years to come.

For frontline personnel carrying out their duties during this change, adapting may appear to be primarily external—adjusting for changes as they come from departmental, state, or federal sources. However, there is also a real need to reconsider adjustment of personal attitudes in light of this change.

Personnel concerned about the possibility of encountering a colleague’s bad behavior should sincerely take the time to think about a reactive framework and their adherence to policy and ethics. They should also approach what they define as a reportable situation with due care and consideration if the moment does arise.

For their part, organizations should clearly communicate, through policies and training, the high standard to which officers are being held, the power they have been granted, and the accompanying responsibility to police themselves and one another.

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