Malcontent Cops: An Intervention Strategy
Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
John (Jack) J. Harris, M.Ed.
Law enforcement administrators often grumble about their "malcontent cops." 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 direction. They sabotage morale, resist team-building efforts and create a toxic work environment for the unfortunate people who happen to be coworkers. The 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.
Malcontent cops rob police departments of necessary and limited personnel resources. While 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.
Many 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" programs.
Law 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 helpful. Although, potentially effective for cops who are experiencing a specific problem, this type of intervention rarely addresses and is seldom effective with "malcontent/problem cops."
Clinical 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.
Most 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.
With 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.
Any meaningful strategy requires supervisors to understand the dynamics and typical development patterns of the malcontent officer. Supervisors 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.
Today's 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.
IAs 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 activities. The 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 directives. Each attempt to control or monitor the officer's behavior is perceived as a hypersensitive personal affront.
It 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.
The 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 employee.
This 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 tirade.
Before organizations can deal with malcontent officers, supervisors have to develop an in-depth appreciation of the underlying dynamics of malcontentism. Although absolutely necessary, supervisory understanding alone is not sufficient. Supervisors 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.
When 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 performance. They 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 spin.
Supervisors 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.
It 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 and exist.
The 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.
Law 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 truth. Some authoritarian management styles provide ample fuel to power malcontentism. Development 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 workforce. Department 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
Even 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.
Traditional "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.
Malcontentism 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.
The 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 professionally.
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.