Cut the groupthink: Why police leaders need to play devil's advocate

Changing police culture is going to require some of us to challenge the law enforcement dogma


George Bernard Shaw once stated, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Whether intentionally created or the result of slow assimilation, officers and personnel who always say yes are an internal threat to any organization. There must be someone ready to challenge assumptions with an alternative response to ensure the best possible decision for the department is made – whether it’s a policy decision, staff restructuring, programmatic or a funding related matter.

The majority of agency hierarchy is usually groomed from within the organization. Young officers become line supervisors, then middle managers and finally administrators. While growing your own supervisors certainly has its benefits, such as extensive internal knowledge and the ability to focus on the development of desired traits, it can also lead to organizational bias, groupthink and limited input of opposing opinions.

We may all like to believe that we are not part of the groupthink process, but the reality is we often have least a small amount of assimilation of thought with our peer group. Even those who believe they are not part of the groupthink process may find themselves falling in line with their peers if they do not actively remind themselves to think critically. Groupthink is also detrimental to law enforcement investigations, where more than one cold case has been created by officers and supervisors focusing on a single suspect, who turned out to be innocent while other evidence was set aside. 

Preventing groupthink should be a priority for law enforcement leaders who are looking to expand their agency’s toolbox.
Preventing groupthink should be a priority for law enforcement leaders who are looking to expand their agency’s toolbox.

From the street to the desk

When officers are promoted and their rank increases, a separation of priorities occur between the street and the desk. Many times the chief executive of the agency may find him or herself surrounded by people who are stuck thinking the same way as all their peers, and this may differ from the realities on the street. Sometimes the peers are correct, but sometimes they are wrong. This disconnect could lead to an avoidable liability, damage to the reputation of the organization or a lost life.

The creation of new agency policy is the most common example of this issue. Procedures developed in an office and sanctioned from a desk are likely to sound great by those who wrote them, but when brought to the field and applied on the streets, officers and line supervisors are often uncertain about why a particular policy was created and have difficulty applying it in practice.

Breaking the status quo

Preventing groupthink should be a priority for law enforcement leaders who are looking to expand their agency’s toolbox and work toward innovative responses to crime and quality of life concerns within their jurisdiction. Innovation requires challenging the status quo and outside the box thinking that often flies in the face of the group. Dissension is often viewed as a direct challenge to the authority rather than a method to improve the agency’s capability. Finding a person or group of officers who are willing to refute the majority is often a challenge. Most officers are focused on personal future career movement and promotion, which could be restricted if you are seen as someone who does not play well with others. 

How do we ensure we have made an attempt to look at all the options before we make decisions on policy, procedure or tactics?

Some private businesses have adopted the use of a devil’s advocate in an effort to limit errors in judgment which could lead to costly mistakes. The devil’s advocate is often someone designated by the chief executive ahead of a decision to identify the errors in the majority’s work. While law enforcement agencies, just like private businesses, cannot employ this tactic at all times, there are enormous benefits to this strategy. Alternative response options addressing both internal policies as well as planned enforcement actions should be considered for devil’s advocate approaches when time permits.   

Identifying the devil’s advocate

The best devil’s advocate is someone who is a critical thinker and aware of both organizational and personal bias that may limit the ability of themselves or others to see the big picture. They are independent, credible and capable of pushing the boundaries. They understand that their job is not to trample ideas, but to make effective counter arguments that challenge the administration to reconsider their views and ensure the best product is set forth. Finally, this individual must understand that this is not a personal win or loss for them. This individual understands that the decision will lie with the head of the agency, and he or she is there to help ensure the agency head has the best possible solutions presented. 

Selecting the devil’s advocate

Agencies may find this person within their organization or may have to identify outside personnel to consult with their agency. Inside the organization, the best devils’ advocate is someone who does not have a vested interest in the final decision. Preventing bias is one of the benefits of the process, and as such, beginning with a member who stands to gain or lose based on the decision only serves to undermine the system. The devil’s advocate must be able to see the big picture from the streets, behind the desk and must be viewed as credible.

Outside sources may include partnering with researchers found at local colleges and universities. While these individuals are trained to review programs and manage bias, they may need some extra preparation since they will not have insider information about the agency.

Changing police culture is going to require some of us to challenge the law enforcement dogma, choosing what works over what we have always done. If you are not in a position to challenge things now, one day soon you may be, and when the time comes, be ready. 

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