Why rural officers need workplace protections

If officers work at will, then every cop is one bad boss, one 'wrong' arrest or one citizen complaint away from the unemployment rolls


If rural officers are to police objectively and effectively, they must know they will not jeopardize their livelihoods and future by doing what’s right.

The goal is rule of law: the kind where no one is above the law, everyone is held equally accountable, and where “good ol’ boy networks” don’t make a punchline out of small, rural or remote law enforcement agencies. 

In that case, all officers need some degree of protection for their employment. While urban officers often have access to union representation and enforceable contracts, many rural cops work in places where they are unlikely to have any useful workplace protections. The ability to file, say, a whistleblower lawsuit is of little help if you’re unemployed in the meantime, and bankrupt by the time it runs its course.

Workplace protections don’t interfere with firing bad officers. Leadership failures and inertia do. (Photo/Getty Images)
Workplace protections don’t interfere with firing bad officers. Leadership failures and inertia do. (Photo/Getty Images)

Let’s look at two real-life examples.

Exhibit A

In a small town, a well-respected police sergeant with nearly two decades of experience was called into his chief’s office and fired.

His offense?

He posted a picture of himself on his private social media page and the chief didn’t like it.

I saw the picture in question. There was no text on it. There was no audio. The officer’s patches and badge were not visible. He was fully dressed and decent, and the department had no social media policy. 

Nevertheless, the chief’s brother was the newly minted sergeant at the agency within a few weeks, while the fired sergeant was looking for a department where he could rebuild his career.

Exhibit B

In another small town, a young officer of my acquaintance was called into his lieutenant’s office to answer for a citizen complaint about traffic enforcement.

The officer was experienced but new to the area, so the supervisor tried to clarify expectations:

“There’s plenty of traffic tickets to write. Just don’t write tickets to the nice people in town.”

“He blew a stop sign,” said the officer. “If I shouldn’t write a ticket for that, please give me a list of nice people so I don’t do it again.”

The lieutenant blinked, frustrated. “You know I can’t do that.”

Silence.

“Get back to work.”

The same young officer later went on to arrest a city administrator for drunk driving. The boss man threatened to fire the officer, even though his blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit and highway patrol officers had been following him through town, documenting his unsafe and erratic driving. When the city official died six months later, the officer was still on the job.

What’s the difference between the two scenarios? How does a junior officer’s career survive arresting an influential official, while a senior officer’s career is destroyed for a minor offense to his chief’s sense of taste?

It happens that the sergeant worked in a state with no practical workplace protections. He could be (and was, as it turned out) fired at will, for any reason or none, without notice or explanation.

The young patrol officer, in contrast, worked in a state with a strong Peace Officer Bill of Rights (POBR).

He could be disciplined, even fired, but there was a process involved, one that required that he would have a chance to defend his actions and find recourse if he were fired for making a legal arrest.

Which officer do you think is more likely to be able to enforce the law objectively?

disciplinary measures already exist

Right now, it is fashionable to advocate for stripping law enforcement officers of workplace protections from POBR to qualified immunity, without grasping that a significant percentage of officers already work without many basic safeguards for their jobs and their ethics.

One justification for stripping what protections exist is that they make it too hard to fire bad officers. I propose that workplace protections don’t interfere with firing bad officers. Leadership failures and inertia do.

In every agency in every single state, mechanisms exist for disciplining and firing officers who deserve it. However, those mechanisms require effort. Like building a court case, they require documentation, follow-through and evidence. Those mechanisms further ensure that law enforcement leadership is not arbitrary in their actions, that they know their people, and what those people are and are not doing.

That is reasonable, and it is fair. When bad officers remain on the job because their superiors did not follow through with building the case for their discipline, the community suffers.

The reality in many rural agencies is unreasonable and unfair. If officers work at will and without realistic recourse when facing punitive actions and termination, then every officer is one bad boss, one “wrong” arrest or one citizen complaint away from the unemployment rolls. 

A high-level insurance executive once scoffed when I discussed workplace protections with him, saying “Everyone’s at will!” Even if that were true, not everyone tells people “no” for a living. Insurance executives don’t. Politicians don’t. Doctors and nurses don’t. Cops do, and too many small-town cops work in situations that make it impractical, if not impossible to apply the law fairly, let alone hold one another accountable.

Besides stories in local newspapers, you won’t find evidence for the situations I describe. The affected officers don’t speak freely to researchers when they can be fired for so much less, so there are no graphs and statistics to link. Therefore, the situation remains a rural stereotype...but stereotypes often have roots in some sad level of truth.

When a law or a system is broken, don’t just throw them out. Fix them.

Standardize protections

Rather than destroy tools like the Peace Officer Bill of Rights, local and state representatives should extend and standardize those protections. Find the parts that are counterproductive – to all of society, not just the loudest parts of it – and fix those. Then make sure all officers, not just the ones in wealthy or densely populated areas, can access those protections safely and effectively.

In doing so, good officers will gain the tools they need to do their jobs impartially and ethically, no matter where they live and work.

Small and rural areas are just that: smaller than, not less than. If any community in the nation deserves fair, evenhanded and neutral enforcement of the law, then all communities do. The only way to achieve that goal is to see that the officers responsible for upholding the law can do it without retaliation.

NEXT: Why rural agencies face the most challenges from police reform

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