When I was in the academy they used to say, “10% of cops do the work for the other 90. Do you want to be part of the 10 or part of the 90?” Back then, this 10 and 90 thing was just a curious abstraction. Now, after working the street for a few years, I realize what they meant.
The typical trajectory for cops is that we start off our careers being proactive, but over time we become less so. In fact, most cops eventually become firefighters, answering calls on their beat but doing little else. Some of us spend more energy trying to get out of “taking paper” than it would take to just take a report.
During my first few years of patrol I felt indignant at the 90% Sometimes still do. What I’ve come to realize though is that there are good reasons cops reinvent themselves as firefighters. One of those reasons is that the bureaucracy in policing discourages proactivity. The more contact an officer has with the public, be it a consensual encounter or a detention, the more opportunity he gives bureaucrats to nitpick, micromanage, correct or even punish him. One of the old vets who trained me put it this way, “They want you to spin your wheels, so spin your wheels.”
Like you, I didn’t become a cop to spin my wheels. I became a cop to have an exciting, challenging career and to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. How does an officer who has lost this desire to make a difference get it back? In the film Jerry Maquire, Tom Cruise tries reconnect Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) to the enthusiastic ballplayer he once was,
...back to the guy who first started playing this game. Remember, way back when you were a kid? It wasn’t just about the money, was it?
At some point in their careers the 90% come to realize that it really has become about the money. Part of what got them to that point is the bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy as Stress
We’re used to thinking of “stress” as feeling “stressed out.” Not so. The things that activate our fight, flight or freeze response are called “stressors.” For law enforcement personnel, part of what makes us sicker than others is the manifold nature of our stressors, including (but not limited to),
It’s the bureaucracy part we’re looking at today. It’s made worse by another stressor: lack of leadership. If your boss partners with you in acknowledging the good work you do as part of the 10%, looks for real reasons to compliment you on your work ethic, and then - and ONLY then - tells you that you forgot to fill out the green form (Form G7.2 to be precise) it reduces the officer’s felt stress. But we know leaders are elusive, which is why the “leadership industry” is booming. If all we get is a curt e-mail “reminder” sent by a bureaucrat and cc’d to our boss, it can really dampen our desire to do anything more than a firefighter.
Becoming a firefighter is bad for our health. It signifies a learned helplessness response. That’s when shit goes bad and you just stop trying. The concept of learned helplessness was developed in the 1960’s. Here’s my interpretation of the groundbreaking research in this area by Seligman and Maire:
Put a dog over two metal grates with a small fence separating them. Give the dog a small electric shock and what does he do? Right, he bounces over the fence to the other grate. Shock him there and he jumps back over. If you keep shocking ol’ Buddy he’ll keep jumping over the fence to the side that’s not pissing him off. Eventually, guess what happens? Buddy just lies there and gets shocked. That’s learned helplessness and it should sound familiar.
Now that you’re good and depressed, let me tell you what to do about combating learned helplessness and the bureaucracy. Here are four ways to keep your love of the game alive.
1. Have at least two support people on your “team.” These are workmates who really get it and who will allow you to scream, “This place is sooooo fucked up!!” Use your teammates liberally. This moves toxic stress out of from under your sternum where it will make you sick, and into the air. Whew, that felt good. Don’t forget to thank your teammate for listening to your agitated tirade. It’s also good for your health to be on the support team of a few workmates. What goes around comes around type thing.
The next three are key components of the what behavioral scientists have dubbed the “stress hardy personality.” They are, challenge, control and commitment.
2. Challenge. This is where you make it a game. You want to win the game, right? Okay, so, given that by remaining or becoming proactive you expose yourself to the bureaucracy, how can you not give them a chance to get you?
That’s a question.
While they probably didn’t teach you this in the academy, make it your job to know more about the bureaucracy than the bureaucrats. Keep the forms in your beat bag or your desktop and complete all of them. Then, go 10-8 and do more work. Ha ha, I won.
3. Control. Related to challenge, control is when you don’t give the bureaucracy a chance to ding you because you already filled out the green form. You took CONTROL of the things you could. It’s far less stressful to control those friggin forms by taking the initiative on them, than it is to let a bureaucrat send you a “reminder” e-mail. When you control your destiny you can just send two words back to the bureaucrat: “Already done.”
4. Commitment. Keep your eye on the ball, son. The ball isn’t just your retirement package, it’s “the guy who first started playing this game.” It’s arresting criminals, returning missing juveniles, making positive citizen contacts and looking good in your patrol car. Remind yourself about the reasons you got into police work. Commitment also relates to your religious views, your community, your family and friends. These are what you’re committed to...not form G7.2.