Bad cops to good cops: Constructive alternatives in police discipline

Supervisor led coaching and counseling are an individualized application of education and training to address an officer’s problematic behavior

How much trouble is too much?

How should departments deal with the “bad apples” in their agencies?

Different officers experience disciplinary problems on the job for different reasons. Sometimes the problem is the officer; sometimes it’s the department; often it’s a little of both. Therefore, a range of intervention options must be available to address not just officer attitude and behavior, but organizational practices as well.

The basic message is: Law enforcement discipline rarely has to be all-or-nothing and most problem officers can be salvaged if treated correctly. This article will offer a range of options for dealing with problematic officer behavior in the spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit to the officer and the department.


Of course, the best way to prevent police misconduct is not to hire problem-prone officers in the first place. If only it were that simple.

Much of the selection processes for police candidates are actually deselection, or screening out, of potentially troublesome candidates based on a variety of practical and psychological criteria. An alternative approach to selecting candidates is the screening in of those individuals who are suitable and desirable. The problem is that most current screening protocols typically focus on identifying the characteristics of “bad” officers; much less is currently known about what traits make a “good” officer and about how career experiences affect these characteristics.

Moreover, even the best pre-employment screening protocol cannot necessarily anticipate emotional and psychological problems that may develop after the selection process, during an officer’s tenure on the force.

Nevertheless, certain index signs are useful. Screening-out red flags include:

  • drug or alcohol abuse;
  • behavioral disorders due to serious medical or psychiatric disability;
  • a history of serious juvenile delinquency;
  • repeated conflicts with authority;
  • misconduct or poor performance in former jobs;
  • chronic financial problems; or
  • a criminal record.

A particularly important feature of the evaluation is the candidate’s style of handling anger and aggression, both in the past and presently.

Indeed, these are basic criteria for almost all types of employee screening, but especially for those positions that concern public safety. Formal personality testing per se typically screens out about 15 percent of police candidates.

Screening-in protocols should assess not just behavioral styles and character traits, but the potential for both formal training and learning from experience. Especially for modern professional police forces, there is growing recognition of the value of problem-oriented policing and the need for patrol officers to possess good overall intelligence, especially abstract reasoning, mental flexibility, interpersonal creativity, and problem-solving skills.

Other related positive traits and qualities include psychological maturity, common sense, reliability, conscientiousness, and the ability to apply discretion in an ethical and equitable manner. The challenge is to find or develop selection measures and protocols that can accurately identify and predict these positive traits.

Yet even the best screening protocol is really only a behavioral snapshot of the officer’s psychological qualifications at the beginning of his or her career.

Ideally, evaluations and reassessments should be a regular component of an officer’s progress through their law enforcement career. Such reassessments should be balanced with monitoring, training, and supervision safeguards throughout the officer’s tenure with the department.

Police officer education and training

Certain skills and traits are largely innate: you either have them or you don’t. Many skills, however, can be taught to varying degrees, depending on the individual.

The general training model employed by most police academies is based on principles of adult learning that involve a combination of didactic classroom instruction, behavioral participation, simulated patrol scenarios, and role-playing or simulation. The emphasis is on developing a range of both physical and psychosocial intervention skills that assume frequent, and often unpleasant, interactions between citizens and police.

Such exercises are most effective when they focus on learning to anticipate problems before they arise and generating productive and flexible problem-solving strategies as an alternative to the use of force.

Conflict management training enhances officers’ communication skills as the primary tools for controlling potentially violent citizens. To be sure, nonviolent tactics won’t always work, and officers must be competently trained in how and when to use appropriate physical force when necessary.

The guiding philosophy comes from the martial arts concept of true strength emanating from inner confidence, peace, and wisdom; of power as a tool that is best used quietly; and of true respect inhering as much in force restrained as in force expressed.

Such a model might be practically reinforced by training in communication skills that appeal to this kind of “verbal judo” approach.

For police trainers, this translates into helping officers learn to depersonalize the unavoidable insults and verbal attacks by citizens that come with the job of community policing. Even if every officer cannot be expected to become an adept street-corner psychologist, diplomat, or philosopher, most officers can at least be trained to view alternatives to force as a means of safe, effective policing.

Coaching and counseling officer behavior

Coaching and counseling represent a more focused, individualized application of education and training that directly addresses a particular officer’s problematic behavior in the context of supervision. Coaching and counseling both require constructive confrontation of the officer’s behavior, but it is important to realize that confrontation need not – indeed, should not – ever be unnecessarily hostile, offensive, or demeaning.

Professionalism and respect can characterize the interaction of a superior with a subordinate in any supervisory setting, including coaching, counseling, discipline, or even termination. The focus is on correcting the problem behavior, not bashing the officer. Supervisors should be firm but civil, preserving the dignity of all involved.


The difference between coaching and counseling lies in their focus and emphasis. Coaching deals directly with identifying and correcting specific problematic behaviors. It is concerned with the operational reasons those behaviors occur and with developing specific task-relevant strategies for improving performance in those areas.

Most of the direction and guidance in coaching comes from the supervisor, and the main task of the supervisee is to understand and carry out the prescribed corrective actions.

For example, an officer who fails to complete reports on time is given specific deadlines for such paperwork as well as guidance on how to word reports so that they don’t become too overwhelming. An officer who behaves discourteously with citizens on patrol is provided with specific scenarios to role-play in order to develop a range of responses for maintaining authority without abusing the public.

One useful model of law enforcement coaching is described by Hillary Robinette in "Burnout in Blue: Managing the Police Marginal Performer" (Greenwood, 1987). Robinette divides the coaching process into four stages.

1. Identify and define the problem. “There have been five complaints filed against you for excessive force or abuse of authority in the past three months.”

2. State the effect of the problem. “When citizens view an officer’s behavior as unnecessarily harsh, it makes it harder and more dangerous for all of us to do our jobs. Each officer’s actions have repercussions for every other officer and for the whole department.”

3. Describe the desired action. “There seem to be some common threads in these complaints. Let’s review some of these situations and see if we can come up with better responses. But the bottom line is, your style of interaction with citizens has to change.” [Supervisor and officer review scenarios and discuss alternative responses, using discussion and role-play as needed.]

4. Make it attractive. “We appreciate your efforts to be an enthusiastic, top-notch cop. These new ways of doing your job will help you to be even more effective on patrol.”

5. Document and summarize. “Okay, I’m noting here that we reviewed this and that you agree to make these changes.”


Counseling differs from coaching in two main ways.

First, it is less task-focused and more supportive, empathic, non-directive, and non-evaluative, and seeks to understand the broader reasons underlying the problematic behavior. This is especially appropriate when the difficulty lies less in a specific action or infraction and more in the area of more general “attitude” problems and style of relating.

Second, counseling is less top-down directive than coaching, and puts more of the burden of change on the supervisee, encouraging the officer to creatively develop solutions to his or her difficulties. Much of the feedback to the supervisee is in the form of reflective statements, moving the supervisee increasingly in the direction of constructive problem-solving.

Supervisor: "Do you know why I asked to speak with you today?"

Officer: "Well, I guess there have been some complaints about me." [Discussion continues about the nature of the complaints and their consequences]

S: "I see you’ve been here seven years with a pretty good record. What’s been going on lately?"

O: "I dunno, maybe the job’s getting to me. Ever since the McGillicuddy shooting, it’s like everything seems to drag. And the civilians seem more of a pain in the ass than ever – every little thing ticks me off. Oh yeah, and things at home haven’t been going that great either." [Some further discussion about job and personal problems]

S: "Well, I’m glad you told me that, and I understand things have been rough the past couple of months, but I’m sure you understand that we need to maintain a certain standard of professionalism. I’m going to refer you to our EAP for some counseling to help you get your bearings.

In the meantime, I’d like you to take the next few days to think of some ways you can improve how you’re doing things out on patrol. Jot ‘em down, in fact, and we’ll meet next time to discuss this further.

You do your part, and we’ll help you get through this, agreed?"

O: "Okay, I’ll try."

S: "Well, I need you to do more than try, because the situation does have to change. So get back to me with some specifics next week and we’ll take it from there, okay?"

O: "Okay, Sarge."

Author’s disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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