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Workplace Violence Among Cops When It's Time to Worry
Police officers deal with workplace violence incidents every day, either as first-responders to threats by current or former employees; to help employees who are frightened when domestic violence or stalking crosses over from home to work; and sadly, as those who are victims of workplace violence when they are injured or killed in the line of duty. Law enforcement ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs to be killed by someone, after taxi cab driver and retail store clerk.
Because of their frequent responses to workplace violence threats or acts, they may take the issue in stride, treating it like any other crime problem. Every officer who has worked in the field or in corrections for at least a week has been threatened by people ranging from obnoxious drunks to hardcore gang members. As such, perhaps we take these threats for granted, seeing it as “part of the job” just like hospital ER staffers do.
But when the threatener is a cop, the stakes change dramatically. Now we are faced with an armed, tactically-trained employee who may be angry, depressed, violent, vengeful, or driven by various demons ranging from substance abuse to acute mental illness.
Workplace violence incidents involving homicides are rare in this country. Just over 550 people are murdered while doing their jobs. And while homicides involving cops as the perpetrators are quite rare, they are extremely catastrophic. There have been cases where despondent and rageful officers have shot at their colleagues, who came to arrest them, talk to them, or who just happened to be at the station when the attacker came after a co-worker, supervisor, or ex-spouse.
Most workplace violence incidents involving cops as killers are actually turned inward, as police suicides. The reasons for police suicides often center on the theme of loss: job or career; personal or professional status; money worries; relationship failures; freedom (pending criminal charges), or serious health issues. When faced with what they perceive to be unsolvable problems, they may take their own lives.
Most city and county agencies have workplace violence policies that prevent threats, bullying, assaults, or the use of weapons in their facilities. Police supervisors need to apply these same policies to their own employees when it comes to problems like officers brandishing weapons at each other; making threats to harm, like “Try to fire me and I’ll kill you!”; or homicide / suicide situations, where the officer feels no hope and may harm himself or others. The priorities should be to deal with the safety issues first, the behavior problems second, and the career consequences third.
At a minimum, there should be zero-tolerance for any officer who points a gun at another cop. These locker room, field, or station situations are often rationalized by the employee, using the “I was just kidding around” defense. Your response should be to investigate it and make the decision to use appropriate progressive discipline, to send a message that this behavior is dangerous, unsafe, and bad for the team.
And what about having to take an officer’s badge and gun away, as part of an investigation, arrest, suspension, or termination? Who should do it? For difficult human resources events, think about the concept of alignment. Certain employees just connect better with certain supervisors. If the boss the troubled employee hates with a purple passion is the one who will come to his house and relieve him of his duties and take his equipment, we could have a major safety problem. Better to use supervisors, who may even be outside the officer’s chain of command, but who may better connect with the officer, to do this difficult task.
Workplace violence involving cops as perpetrators is thankfully rare. But the constant presence of firearms and the potential for huge loss of face by the troubled employee can make for a volatile situation if it’s not managed with compassion, assertiveness, and an eye toward the safety of the interveners.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover, Streetwork, Surviving Street Patrol, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Law and Order, Dec 2011
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