Can you handle the hard truth?
The "hard truth" in law enforcement is telling what's true, but difficult to hear with the improvement of a community, agency or individual as a goal
In January 1776, Thomas Paine released “Common Sense,” a document he originally called “Plain Truth.”
Back then, if Paine had been captured by the British after publishing this pamphlet filled with “self-evident truth,” he would have been at the least imprisoned, but more likely hanged for telling the hard truth to his “sovereign.”
These days people who tell the “hard truth” are not hanged, but often they are punished all the same.
This punishment takes place even in cases where their truth-telling performs an invaluable service to the person, agency, or government.
As Colonel Jessup said in the movie “A Few Good Men,” too many people “can’t handle the truth!”
The “hard truth” in law enforcement is not referring to testifying in court. That is the easy truth.
Officers I went to court with have, in 100% of the cases I have been involved in, told “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
The “hard truth” mentioned here is telling what is true, but difficult to hear with the improvement of a community, agency, or individual as a goal.
Examples of this are when:
- A fellow officer, trainer, or supervisor shares with an officer that they used an improper technique, tactic, or verbalization with the intent to teach.
- An officer informs a boss that the supervisor performed badly under stress or that their supervisory style and approaches are destroying the morale of the officers they are supposed to inspire.
- A chief or sheriff confronts a government official who has behaved badly or set into motion policies that are harmful to the department or community.
- Uninvolved officers come forward to pull back the curtain, revealing corruption.
Types of mistreatment directed at these professionals trying to do the right thing include:
- Shunned and isolated.
- Re-assigned to a less desirable assignment.
- Passed over for promotions time and time again.
- Disciplined or even fired out of retaliation.
- In extreme cases like that of the legendary truth-teller Frank Serpico, denied quick backup.
There are those who seem to have no filter compelled to speak when something needs saying. They will speak truth to power and anyone else within earshot. These “hard truth-tellers” can be identified when they are heard saying things like:
- “Why is it while we are running call to call and skipping breaks, Captain so-and-so has time to enjoy lunch?”
- “While you were milking that barking dog call, we were all chasing serious calls non-stop.”
- “Hey, Sarge! Why were our day-offs canceled for that event, but the Monday through Friday crew’s days off were not?”
- “The EVs (electric vehicles) have a lot in common with administration. They are never available nights, weekends and holidays … always recharging.”
- “That policy is politically motivated B.S. and serves no purpose in reality.”
- “The training I just attended was worthless. That is four hours of my life I’ll never get back.”
Just saying these things does not mean an officer is a hard truth-teller unless everyone knows these things are true. If they are true, should an officer who has the guts to say them out loud be punished?
No! Like a canary to the mine, these officers are an asset to the department. Their opinion should be sought out because they will say what needs to be said, not what they think someone wants to hear.
A better alternative
Instead of being rewarded, what happens frequently to hard truth-tellers happened in the “Fast and Furious” case. Journalist Sharyl Attkisson reported that after ATF Special Agent John Dodson warned his supervisors of the insanity of the “Fast and Furious" program,” which allowed guns to be walked across the U.S.-Mexico border to be delivered to the cartel and other criminals, his reward was to be transferred and treated like a troublemaker.
Shortly after Dodson’s warning, one of the “Fast and Furious" guns was used to kill BORTAC Officer Brian Terry.
Even though sounding the alarm on the dangerous program was the right thing to do, Attkisson said that Dodson was “marginalized, retaliated against and transferred around 11 times in six years."
Mistreatment of “hard truth-tellers” has a chilling effect on others who would otherwise come forward with the “hard truths.” The performance of government officials, department supervisors and officers who can’t handle the “hard truth” and correct what ails them will find that their performance will deteriorate.
A better alternative for officers is to accept well-intended criticism by recognizing when their trainers, supervisors, or peers point out their shortcomings and mistakes. It is meant to improve their performance while staying safer. Learn to listen to the “hard truth,” accept positive critique, and positively and sincerely thank those who give it.
By the same token, when a supervisor has an officer passionately share what is wrong with the supervision of the department and even shares options, that supervisor needs to sincerely thank them for their input. Listen, take notes and, when appropriate, take action on what is shared.
In fact, if you are facing a difficult dilemma, seek a “hard truth-teller” for their input. You will find their insight palpable.
A better alternative for an agency that receives a report of bad behavior would be when an officer comes forward with tales of corruption, excessive force or abuse of power that are true, the department takes immediate, effective action in the case or cases brought to light. After all, not every cop in uniform deserves the honor of wearing the badge.
The “hard truth-teller” should be rewarded – not punished – for coming forward to tell the “hard truth.”
Here are some “hard truths” to end with.
At some time, every government entity, chief/sheriff, supervisor or officer needs to hear the “hard truth.” People who are blessed with the gift (and curse) of being able to tell the “hard truth” should be cherished, not punished.
With that said, I will end with this question to all: Can you handle the truth?