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Thirty-five years of police experience: Finding the sweet spot for a disciplined police department

January 6, 2023  By Tom Wetzel

A hallmark of a good police department is its level of discipline within the agency. A disciplined police department will be respected and trusted because its “customers” will know holds its police officers accountable for their actions. A further sign of that excellence is when the officers hold themselves accountable and self-police to ensure their agency and its mission stay in check.

Nothing is more frustrating to the public when they hear of an officer being accused of a crime or misconduct, and then learn about a long history of misbehavior and borderline criminal activity from that officer prior to the incident. They can’t help but ask why this cop wasn’t fired or disciplined more, and earlier.

Discipline is an extremely complex process that must be balanced and steeped in fairness and due process. It must pay close attention to facts and details and not make rash and rushed decisions. Those we serve know we are human, we will make mistakes, and can appreciate clemency and understanding towards the officer when applicable. What they don’t want to see are clear coverup attempts or simply ignoring irresponsible behavior from their public servants.

From a management perspective, police leadership must strive to find the ideal balance—the sweet spot, so to speak—where our police officers are inspired and accountable at the same time. These two critical management components are interwoven into the very fabric of the police institution. When you reach this level, cops whose jobs are incredibly difficult already will still be willing to risk their lives to protect and serve others, while knowing their department will not throw them under the bus for an honest mistake.

Finding that ideal balance of inspiration and accountability, though, requires police leadership to provide bold vision, genuine courage, common sense and a lot of hard work.

What officers shouldn’t have to worry about is irresponsible county prosecutor trying to indict them for a split-second use of force decision under tense, uncertain or rapidly evolving situations, or become political fodder for a mayor who lacks the courage to stand up for them when they do the difficult and sometimes raw and unsightly work of arresting violent bad guys. A well-disciplined police department would already have the support of their community and recognize its deep appreciation for the rule of law and equal justice. Dubious attempts like those would be met with public outcry in support of the officers.

Finding that ideal balance of inspiration and accountability, though, requires police leadership to provide bold vision, genuine courage, common sense and a lot of hard work. If a department is overbearing in discipline, where cops feel they are walking around with an anvil about to drop on their head—remember the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote cartoons—for any minor mistake they make, they will be demoralized, become anti-management and will be low producers. Expect a lot of grievances from these departments or distain for their leaders.

If a department is too easy and lacks discipline, their officers will be lazy, unaccountable and low producers. Expect to find these officers failing to aggressively investigate crimes or watching movies on their phones from behind a building.

Notice the common theme of low production on both extreme ends. And the taxpayers, our “customers”, are not getting a good return on their investment when this happens. Police management on both ends are essentially squandering the talents of their men and women in blue, as well as grossly mismanaging their police budgets because their cops are not making a difference like they could and should.

On an international level, we are probably only getting a small portion of the true potential of each officer, in part because they are not operating in an environment where their full creative potential is afforded them due to an unhealthy discipline structure. As police leaders, we owe it to them to provide a healthy culture where they can experience real self-actualization and thrive to their full potential while maintaining personal and professional accountability. When this happens, our Public Servant Guardians and the communities they serve are safer and better for it.

Tom Wetzel is the chief of police in Richmond Heights, Ohio, a Northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant and former SWAT commander. He is also a certified law enforcement executive, adjunct professor in community policing and internationally published author on police topics.

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