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Administrative betrayal: Why the silence of leaders is the greatest trauma for many LEOs

Police1’s “What Cops Want” survey highlights not street-level trauma but internal administrative practices as a primary reason for the exodus of police officers



Editor’s note: Police1’s “What Cops Want in 2024" survey is now open. This year’s focus is on officer wellness. We urge you to participate and share your insights around this critical topic. Complete the survey here.

In 2023, Police1 conducted a sweeping survey of over 4,100 officers to explore the biggest issues for recruitment and retention in law enforcement. Within the survey results, this latent truth emerges with clarity:

It may not be the trauma on the streets, but rather the trauma of administrative betrayal within police departments that is causing officers to leave in droves.

In my work with the LEO community, I have heard the same truth echoed repeatedly by countless law enforcement officers in confidential discussions about their greatest traumas.

As retired police chief and RAND international defense researcher Bob Harrison explains, these survey results are not new. As he summarizes, “Again this year, and a chronic issue in the profession, is sustained dissatisfaction with their leaders. Although ‘blaming it on the boss’ exists in all organizations, the need for responsive, motivating and transformational leaders has never been more acute.”

Administrative betrayal can take on many forms, leaving officers hypervigilant to threats both external (on the street) and internal (within their department).

Based on the Police1 survey, the factor that has had the biggest negative impact on officer recruitment and retention since 2020 is “media coverage of police issues.” This issue cuts to the core of both external and internal threats to officers.

How does “media coverage of police issues” become a common source of administrative betrayal? Through leadership messaging and even more often, through the silence of law enforcement leaders.

When an officer is getting hammered by the press, he or she is totally undefended in the court of public opinion. When his or her leadership courts the press, or remains silent, this becomes an administrative betrayal that causes both trauma and moral injury.

A trauma occurs when someone experiences a feeling of helplessness or horror that changes their core assumptions about how safe the world is, or how much others can be trusted. When LEOs say things like, “We eat our own,” they are referring to betrayal from within the law enforcement circle. A moral injury is not the same as a trauma. Moral injury causes individuals to feel somehow morally tainted or stained, sometimes merely by association with certain events. When a good-willed officer who has not violated protocol, policy or ethics is put under mandatory investigation, the conditions are ripe for the development of not just trauma, but moral injury.

And here’s a critical insight — in many cases, there’s no “bad actor” or “toxic leader” within a police department that brings this about. Usually, it’s not what’s said, but what is not said that’s the problem. In other words, it’s the silence of leaders that causes these damaging outcomes.

To navigate a better way forward, well-intended leaders need a new range of insights and a clear roadmap. For example, law enforcement leaders need to understand these three things.

1. In many places, police officers are subjected to the same treatment as Vietnam veterans.

Many police officers feel no better understood — or supported — than our Vietnam veterans. In the Police1 survey, just over half of the 4,141 officers feel that the public does not understand what they do. While police officers were once held in a place of special trust and respect, in current times, many citizens view police officers as guilty by default, even in the absence of evidence. This is not a political statement. It’s an observation of the state of tension between police and the communities they serve.

2. Police officers have no voice when they are under investigation, even when they have not violated policy or professional ethics.

When critical incidents trigger mandatory investigations, police officers are totally undefended in the court of public opinion. They have no voice. This is unique. When private citizens find themselves part of a legal investigation or media attack, they can advocate for themselves. They can hire legal representation. They can share their story with the media. They can talk to their trusted colleagues. Officers can’t. After a critical incident, they can be put under investigation and prohibited from speaking to anyone. The public does not understand these rules or restrictions because they are not subject to them. And an officer’s silence can look like guilt to the uneducated public.

3. A leader’s response can have immediate and sustained ripple effects on how everyone — both the public and those in a department — treats an affected officer.

After a critical incident, there is no “neutral” response. When an officer’s back is against the wall, the only question that officer is asking is this: “Who has my back and who doesn’t?” In this context, the silence of leaders is experienced as a deep betrayal. If you are a leader, you must be aware that you are leading not a group of employees, but a “Tribe” of protectors and defenders. In this Tribe, there is acute sensitivity to who is “in” and who is “out.” Any perception that you are withdrawing your support can impact how others you lead treat their fellow officers.

There are many things that good-willed leaders can do to protect their officers and serve the public good. In the wake of a critical incident, leaders must understand that they are the only viable bridge between their officers and the public.

Leaders must remember that since an officer involved in a critical incident does not have a voice, they must be a voice of reason. The best way to support your team is to assert and hold a boundary about a fair and just process for all involved, including your officer(s).

Got your six

To close with some actionable insights, here are six examples of things leaders can say to assert and hold this boundary during media coverage of police issues.

  • “An active investigation does not mean that an officer is guilty or that there is a suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the officer.”
  • “As a matter of department policy, we always open up an investigation after any critical incident to ensure that we give thoughtful examination to how events unfolded.”
  • “We conduct each of these routine investigations with accountability and oversight to make a determination that is objective and unbiased.”
  • “As a routine part of these investigations, officers are not allowed to speak to the press or publicly share their side of the story. Their silence demonstrates their commitment to an ethical examination process.”
  • “Any time there is a critical incident, there are several media reports, some of which will be based on facts, and others that are based on unproven speculation. Let’s resist forming baseless opinions that are not based on facts.”
  • “I am committed to upholding the ethics of a just and fair investigation process, in cooperation with the officers involved in this case, who have been personally impacted by this event.”

Click here for more leadership insights from the “What Cops Want in 2023" survey.

Shauna ‘Doc’ Springer is a licensed psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on psychological trauma, military transition, suicide prevention, and close relationships. As Chief Psychologist for Stella, she is responsible for developing Stella’s trauma-informed approach across its international network of more than 40 clinics. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has described her latest book, “RELENTLESS COURAGE: Winning the Battle Against Frontline Trauma,” as “one of the most important books of our time.”