Malcontent Cops: An Intervention Strategy
M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
John (Jack) J. Harris, M.Ed.
enforcement administrators often grumble about their
However, these officers are usually not seen as a defined
department problem nor are they identified as a department
resource. Every law
enforcement agency, no matter how professional or dedicated to its
personnel, has a small cadre of individuals who resist
organizational direction and try to undermine management
sabotage morale, resist team-building efforts and create a toxic
work environment for the unfortunate people who happen to be
purpose of this paper is to examine this issue and present a
three-pronged intervention strategy for dealing with malcontent
cops: supervisory training, organizational stakeholder development
and training for the malcontent officers.
cops rob police departments of necessary and limited personnel
police administrators almost unanimously report having a few
"malcontents," most departments do not have a specific
strategy for intervention. Despite
the disruption caused by malcontent cops, supervisors are rarely
trained about the dynamics of malcontentism or how to effectively
intervene with and hold these individuals accountable.
Although supervisors are usually left on their own to
figure it out, what they really need is an understanding of the
dynamics of malcontentism and to learn effective ways to intervene
and hold these individuals accountable.
departments have created "Early Warning System" programs
that establish automatic referrals to an intervention program once
certain "threshold behaviors" occur.
These threshold behaviors are usually objective and clearly
discernible, such as excessive force complaints, automobile
accidents, citizen complaints, etc.
Malcontentism, however, does not readily lend itself to
easy definition and designated categories.
Negativity, cynicism, unwillingness to accept
responsibility, anger and resentment of authority are the most
frequently listed attributes of the malcontent officer.
These traits, while accurate descriptors, are subjective
and are not readily detected by "Early Warning System"
enforcement supervisors frequently refer malcontent cops to a
Behavioral Sciences Unit or an Employees Assistance Program (EAP).
These referrals usually occur when a supervisor tries to
define the problem in clinical, rather than management terms.
The department hopes that a visit to the mental health
professional will somehow "fix" the malcontent or
problem employee. Often,
this referral becomes a "Fitness for Duty Evaluation" --
where a mental health professional is asked to, "find out
what's wrong with this cop and decide if he/she is mentally fit
for duty?" In
many cases, this intervention is very necessary and potentially
potentially effective for cops who are experiencing a specific
problem, this type of intervention rarely addresses and is seldom
effective with "malcontent/problem cops."
interventions and fitness-for-duty evaluations, buy themselves,
are typically ineffective in terms of changing the behavior of
malcontent officers. When
used alone, clinical referrals and fitness-for-duty evaluations
are an abdication of management's responsibility to clearly define
the problem and deal with it appropriately.
Relying solely on a clinical intervention implies that the
mental health professional is somehow responsible for changing the
behavior of the officer. Define
behaviors and performance problems in "clinical terms"
can inadvertently create a management quagmire.
It opens the door for the malcontent officer to allege that
he/she is protected, as a disabled employee with the perception of
a disability, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
behavioral and performance problems relating to malcontent cops
need to be addressed by management, in management terms, not as
psychological problems. Unfortunately,
supervisors and managers frequently report that they simply do not
know how to effectively deal with these problems.
limited resources, increasing demands for service and increasing
litigation for vicarious responsibilities, law enforcement
administrators can not afford to ignore the problem or hide the
malcontent and hope for limited damage control.
Administrators have to confront this issue and take steps
to effectively deal with malcontent officers.
meaningful strategy requires supervisors to understand the
dynamics and typical development patterns of the malcontent
have to understand how and why young, enthusiastic and productive
officers can, within only a few years, become negative, cynical,
and nonproductive who either wait in a holding pattern for
retirement or aggressively fight administrative direction.
This training has to address the interaction between
organizational and individual dynamics.
malcontent officers were frequently yesterday's shinning stars.
Typically, they began their police careers with significant
emotional investment in the job.
They identified heavily with the role of a police officer
and were dedicated (almost 24-hours per day) to this role.
While almost all new officers have similar patterns of
heavy emotional commitment to the police role, malcontent officers
typically combine this over-commitment with an under-investment in
their non-police roles. As
the police role becomes all consuming, an expectation that being
an officer will meet all emotional needs begins to develop.
over-commitment continues to increase, it becomes easy for
supervisors to confuse this with high levels of job motivation.
Unfortunately, as officers spend more time at work and
their outside interests and support systems decrease, their sense
of self-worth becomes inextricably woven with the police role.
While this occupational hazard is faced by most police
officers, the psychological calling card of the malcontent officer
becomes an almost total absence of non-police role related
malcontent officer takes this occupational hazard and carries it
to an extreme. Being
a cop becomes a life -- the place to have all needs meet.
The sense of self-worth becomes synonymous with the police
role, a role that is controlled by supervisory directive and
administrative mandate. The over-invested officer, rapidly becomes a malcontent
officer -- reacting to the linkage of sense of self worth and job
role by interpreting administrative direction and control as
personal assaults, not business decisions.
Feelings of being victimized, vulnerable, angry, and
emotionally susceptibly can grow to paranoid proportions.
At this point, the over-invested officer begins to overtly
react emotionally to even the most straightforward administrative
attempt to control or monitor the officer's behavior is perceived
as a hypersensitive personal affront.
is ironic that, because of this initial heavy emotional
investment, today's most malcontent officers were usually some of
the most productive employees during the first few years of their
careers. Many young
officers look up to the malcontent officers as role models. This contaminates the inter-generational work force.
Younger, impressionable officers hear about how it
"really is or used to be" from the malcontents who are
looking to validate their constant anger and frustration.
malcontent officer has a heavy emotional investment in a role they
do not control. Situations
that combine heavy emotional demands and low control produce
significant emotional distress.
The malcontent has a self-perceived feeling of
victimization, indignation, and betrayal by the department and can
express this distress with extreme reactivity against the police
agency. Feeling frustrated, realizing that emotional needs are not
being met, and believing that the administration is behind it,
causes officers to say things like, "I used to be a good cop,
but around here the more you do the more they mess with you."
or "I can handle
the job and the jerks on the street, it's the idiots in the
administration that I can't handle."
These statements become the battle cry of the malcontent
emotional reaction to having the job role/sense of self-worth
controlled by the organization is the emotional locomotive driving
the gamut of malcontent behavior patterns.
Initially, it is difficult for the sincere first line
supervisor to not empathize with the malcontent, particularly if
their stories of victimization have any degree of truth.
The first-line supervisor soon finds however that it is
difficult to be supportive when every directive or attempt to
control the behavior of the malcontent is met with an emotional
organizations can deal with malcontent officers, supervisors have
to develop an in-depth appreciation of the underlying dynamics of
absolutely necessary, supervisory understanding alone is not
need to learn and develop skills that will help them effectively
hold officers accountable for their behavior consistently and
fairly. Without these
skills, supervisors become overwhelmed, let "things
slide" and eventually react emotionally to the malcontent
officer. This type of
supervisory reaction is born out of frustration and often results
in disciplinary actions that lack the consistency and objectivity
to withstand the grievance appeal processes.
a supervisor "goes to the wall" with a malcontent
officer and does not receive administrative support or sees the
disciplinary action overturned on appeal, the supervisor soon
thinks "it's not worth my effort to deal with it."
The malcontent has not only contaminated younger
impressionable officers they have also taught the motivated
supervisor, "you can't touch me."
The lack of a supervisor's ability or willingness to deal
with malcontent officers only further deteriorates the morale of
dedicated officers trying to do a good job who sit and watch when
nothing happens to the malcontent.
Good officers suffer when malcontents are not held
accountability for inappropriate behaviors or unacceptable
start thinking, "Why should I break my back or do this, they
don't do anything about those who do nothing but complain all the
time?" Unfortunately, the cycle continues in a downward departmental
have to be understand these behaviors, and be able to identify
problems and discuss them directly and assertively with the
malcontent officer. This
is no easy task. The
key to any supervisory training program is not the "text
book" theory. It
is the ability to apply theory to actual supervisory situations
and the development of practical skills. This
allows supervisors to effectively identify issues and
expectations, both in written and verbal form, discuss them and
follow-up and follow-through with the malcontent officer.
would be too simplistic if law enforcement agencies placed the
blame for malcontentism solely on the shoulders of malcontent
offices. While these
officers need to be held accountable, organizations have to review
the organizational dynamics that allow malcontentism to develop
second prong of this strategy requires administrators to examine
the degree to which a sense of partnership throughout the
department exists toward departmental goals.
When administrators have an appreciation of the emotional
over-investment by some members of the organization, malcontentism
can be looked at differently and intervention strategies can then
be established before malcontentism develops.
enforcement agencies can easily drift from an authority based,
chain-of-command organization to an authoritarian system
. . . where only rank and status determine the value of
input to organizational issues.
When malcontent officers talk about management attitudes
and practices they often say, "It's mind over matter around
this department, they don't mind and we don't matter."
Unfortunately, in many cases, they are not far from the
authoritarian management styles provide ample fuel to power
of intra-departmental group processes that allow genuine input to
organizational issues goes a long way to providing members a
feeling of contribution and say concerning job-roles.
This significantly lowers the feelings of isolation and
belief of being ignored by administrative authorities.
Administrators that resist changes to the traditional top-down
chain of command system for soliciting organizational input , can
find themselves fighting malcontentism from individual cases to
collective work units. Although many decisions are and will
continue to be made at the top of the organization, ignoring the
social dynamics of malcontentism will continue to alienate the
members who are real "stakeholders" in the department
are significantly better insulated from the risks of malcontentism
and have significantly more "buy-in" to the partnership
of organizational goals.
Training for Malcontent Officers
with a significant investment in supervisory training and a review
of organizational dynamics, departments still have to contend with
malcontent officers. The
final prong of this intervention program addresses the malcontent
officer directly. Very
few departments have training programs aimed at helping the
malcontent officers. These
officers need to learn how their police career has affected them
personally and socially.
"stress training" usually lends itself more effectively
to personal issues such as marital or relationship problems. An
effective training program will help malcontents officers
understand their own over-investment and sense of victimization
and most importantly teach them practical, effective coping
skills. This training
is a cheap investment for an agency, when compared to the havoc
that a few malcontents can generate.
is an organizational problem, not a clinical anomaly. Administrators often mistakenly conclude that the
malcontent/problem officer doesn't care about the job.
Paradoxically and tragically many times that is all they
care or know about. Today's
malcontent officers often become the profoundly depressed officers
of tomorrow . . .
wrecking havoc in both their personal and professional lives.
Training programs for the malcontent officer are enhanced
when the officers bring their spouses or significant others to the
portion of training that deals with developing competencies in
their non-work related roles.
goal of training for malcontent officers is to help them diversify
their sense of self-worth into areas of their lives where they
themselves have a higher degree of control.
When malcontent officers can distinguish between what they
do and don't control, they can begin to focus their energies on
the things under their control. This alone can result in a significant reduction of feelings
of victimization, anger, negativity and resentment. Through training, malcontent officers can understand how
their careers went from enthusiastic, over-investment to sour
cynicism and how this transition affected them both personally and
Law enforcement administrators do not have to
helplessly accept malcontent/problem officers as unchangeable
fixtures in their organizations.
A comprehensive strategy of supervisory skill development,
review of organizational "stakeholder" development, and
training for malcontent/problem officers can help stop the cycle
of malcontentism, reduce inappropriate behaviors in the workplace,
rejuvenate careers and reharness valuable resources.