What I See in You: Surviving a Toxic Police Department
Nicholas Greco, M.S., BCETS, CATSM, FAAETS
I have worn many hats in my career. After starting out working at a state mental health hospital, I shifted to psychiatric units, which led to spending a considerable amount of time in psychiatric and neurological clinical research. Over the years, I’ve been an adjunct professor at a few institutions as well. At this point in my career, I am most honored and humbled to devote all my time to being a law enforcement trainer. While the work I did at the state hospital comes in at very close second, there is something more rewarding about what I’m doing now.
I have always been involved with law enforcement in one way or another, but in the summer of 2014, I went all-in to dedicate myself exclusively to law enforcement training and education. And whether I’m providing Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, wellness training or another training course, I don’t take for granted the opportunity and privilege I have to work with some truly great people. More importantly, in the last eight-plus years, I have gotten to know many officers from a variety of departments. I’ve been blessed to develop connections with some amazing professionals, and I’m proud to say some of them have become good friends of mine.
In my work as a law enforcement trainer, I’ve come to see you as human beings who feel and care deeply about what you do despite the constant negativity from the public, the long hours, budget constraints, politics at work, as well as all the personal stress that may be going on in your lives. I know things are complicated, and there is no quick fix for the occupational and organizational stressors you face — especially when those things may very well be out of your control. This is particularly true if your command staff does not lead by example and your department is not a healthy place to work.
Many of us have experience with toxic police departments: Those with leaders who talk a big game about work-life balance yet require mandatory overtime, cancel days off, and institute punitive policies against officers. The worst is when departments treat their officers as liabilities rather than assets and then wonder why these officers lateral out or simply walk away from policing entirely.
You can’t control how your department is run. What you can control is how much you let those things get to you. And while healthy habits like good sleep, nutrition and exercise are highly recommended and quite beneficial, they are no cure-all for the constant onslaught of stress and trauma you face daily.
If your department is toxic, sometimes the only solution is to move on. Yeah, I said it. Not every department is a good fit, and not every department has the best interests of their officers at heart. Sadly, some agencies have leaders who play the political blame game, throwing officers under the bus time and again. But if you can’t make the move out of the department due to vested time, money issues, location, and so on, you still have options.
Finding a Listening Ear
First of all, as I stated before, taking care of yourself (both mind and body) is essential. Your next move should be to seek out an objective confidant. This can be anyone you are comfortable with: Your spouse, a friend (LEO or civilian), a chaplain, a pastor or a professional counselor. So often, officers are hesitant or even fearful to talk to professional therapists. But the truth of the matter is, you’re better off talking to someone earlier rather than later, before the stress and trauma become overwhelming. The old adage — that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — rings especially true when it comes to job-related stress.
If you wait too long to deal with the stress of a toxic department, you may find your personal and professional life in worse shape than if you’d sought out treatment earlier. Early intervention is crucial to preventing divorce, avoiding errors and mistakes on the job, limiting self-medicating and addictive behaviors, and preventing thoughts of suicide. As I said earlier, all of you are human beings, and the job can and will get to you. However, if you take care of yourself you can survive even the toughest work environments.
Something else I see when I work with law enforcement officers is your compassion and concern for one another. I truly love the camaraderie, the brotherhood and sisterhood, and that overall “blue family” mentality. I have been fortunate that many officers have welcomed me into their world, and I never, ever take that lightly. In fact, I think they all know I’m there for any one of them if they need something, whether for themselves, a family member, or a fellow brother or sister. The bond officers have with one another is immense and often as strong or stronger than that of blood relatives. This is why I want to stress to each and one of you that you are not alone … no matter how dire your situation may seem.
Reaching Out, Reaching In
Many people say reach out, but I mean it. No officer should ever feel they have no options, that there is no one they can turn to or talk to. Even if you have a non-existent peer support system or a less-than-effective employee assistance program (EAP), there are still people you can reach out to. We should not lose another officer to suicide because they felt they had no one to turn to in their time of need. You are compassionate, caring, and loving individuals, even though some of you won’t admit it openly. If you could save your brother or sister from harming themselves, I know you would. If you don’t know how to talk to your fellow brother or sister, get someone who can. Some agencies are willing to share their peer support services with other agencies to help a fellow officer. And there are law enforcement-specific crisis hotlines that can help, too.
If you’re not currently struggling with your department culture — or if you’ve found ways to manage the stress effectively — that doesn’t mean there aren’t others in your agency who are suffering in silence. Pay close attention to your brothers and sisters on the force who might be feeling overwhelmed. Some signs include withdrawal, absenteeism, irritability, and just giving up. If you sense a coworker might be in crisis, don’t hesitate to take them aside and ask in private if there’s anything you can do to help. Even if they don’t take you up on the offer right now, at least they know you’ll be there when they need you.
I guess I’m getting a bit emotional and sentimental, but I see police officers as upholding the honor, dignity and dedication of their profession. I love working with you all and playing a small part in your training and (when I am fortunate) in many of your lives. Nobody should have to suffer a toxic work environment alone. I want you all to continue to take care of yourselves and one another knowing there are many people like me who love and truly care about you.
Until next time, stay safe.