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The biggest killer of police officers is not firearms or traffic accidents. It is a totally preventable disease known as apathy. The disease of apathy begins slowly and sets in almost without notice. It spreads via the continuing day to day contact with other police officers who have already become infected.
The disease grows until it begins eating away at an officer’s soul. It doesn’t matter if you are a sergeant, captain, chief, or rookie. If you let yourself succumb to apathy, you will die.
A death due to apathy may come in a myriad of different ways. It may be a quick and violent physical death due to an officer failing to recognize danger signs or it may be the slow march of an “it just doesn’t matter” attitude. Either way, whether real or figurative, apathy claims at minimum a career, at worst a life.
Many cities and towns across the United States are blessed with a crime rate that is less than that of some of the major metro areas that garner the majority of media coverage. In some jurisdictions, there has not been a homicide for years. In some places, officers do not become involved in a shootout, physical fight, or pursuit on a regular basis. This can breed the “it won’t happen here” or “it won’t happen to me” syndrome. These are perhaps the most deadly and insidious forms of the disease.
No one is immune to the problem. Even ranking officers are prone to the affliction. In fact, ranking officers are more at risk than others. Many officers who rise through the ranks slowly begin to take themselves out of equations. They begin to minimize their usefulness to themselves and others as they see themselves managing a situation rather than being involved. Known as the “Gold Badge” phenomenon, it is a particularly vile mutation of the disease as it affects not only the officer initially afflicted but rapidly spreads to others on the same shift.
We all deal with the normal violence that goes on as part of our normal duties. However, someday, one of those calls won’t be the same. On that day, the rules will all change. On that day, at that milli-second in history, a life will change. On that day, the suspect won’t just be trying to get away. He will try to snuff out the very existence of an officer. If the officer is not sufficiently prepared, his life will come to an abrupt halt. No more love and kisses from a loving spouse and adoring children because he was unprepared for the moment.
As sergeants, we make sure that our officers get the appropriate force training to prevail in a dangerous, violent confrontation. However, when was the last time that you talked to them about mindset? When was the last time you discussed with them the possibility that they might come upon someone fresh from a penal facility who does not wish to return even if it means killing an officer to avoid it?
If you allow your officers to believe, even for a second, that ‘those’ kinds of things do not happen where you work and live, then you are just as culpable for their death or any injury as the perpetrator.
How many officers in your command carry a back-up gun or a weapon off-duty? In some places the percentage probably isn’t very high. A lot of them don’t because they find doing so to be a hassle, they don’t like to have their lifestyle cramped, and they don’t like to take the harassment that is heaped upon them by other officers who accuse them of being paranoid.
After all they work in a town where ‘those’ kinds of things do not happen or so the other officers will tell them. “If the department wanted me to carry a back-up gun they would issue me one” and “they should pay me extra for carrying a weapon off-duty if that is what they want” is what they will say.
As sergeants, it is incumbent upon us to set the standard for our shifts. Officers may not have day-to-day interaction with the chief or a captain but they will have day-to-day interaction with the shift sergeant. If we do not set the tone, then no one will. Any example that you set, right or wrong, will be observed and most likely emulated by one of your officers. If you do not take care of business appropriately, then neither will they.
There can be no doubt that death or serious injury has come to officers who have done everything right. They have learned the officer safety lessons and have practiced good tactics but have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and have been seriously injured or killed as a result. No tactics that are taught, no skills which can be mastered will ever be able to prevent these deaths as they are an unfortunate fact of life.
These officers were unable to prevent their demise even though they did everything correctly. Those officers who are infected by apathy exponentially multiply their chances of becoming part of these grim, unfortunate-fact-of-life statistics; therefore, as sergeants, it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to make sure that they are not, to be sure that the disease does not claim further victims.
Ask yourself, why don’t I carry a weapon off-duty or wear my body armor? Why do I set an example for others that could lead to their death? Will having the chevrons on my uniform actually keep “it” from happening to me and prevent my professional or physical death? Why is it that I am not preaching, cajoling, and screaming about how to do this job the right way to everyone who will listen?
Give your officers an out from the negative peer pressure that is generated by those that are afflicted with the disease. Give them an example that they can point to when they do what is right. Make that traffic stop, check out that suspicious person, do what you know is right.
When an officer faces the inevitable criticism from an afflicted peer as to why they are carrying a back-up gun, wearing their body armor, carrying a weapon while off-duty, or any of the hundred other things that all police officers should be doing, let them have the ability to point to you as the standard bearer. Let them point to you as leader of your shift and explain that if the sergeant does it, then it must be the right thing to do.
Be strong enough to accept the personal responsibility to do the right thing, no matter how difficult. Set the tone for your officers and allow them to be who they need to be to beat the disease.
Scott Oldham is a Supervisory Sergeant with the Bloomington Indiana Police Department where he serves in the Operations Division as well as being one of the Team Leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Jan 2006
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