“What are they saying?” This is a question Officers should never have to ask after a critical incident, but it is asked, almost every time. What are my fellow officers saying about me? Law Enforcement Officers, being hardwired perfectionists, are very concerned about how we are perceived by our peers. We know that gossip can develop into a “jacket.” Weak, stupid, butt kisser, bureaucrat...you get the picture. We often then believe (most of the time erroneously) that our entire career has been tainted by these easily earned and hard to get out of jackets. I’ve heard parolees lament, “It’s easy to get in the system. It’s ain’t easy to get out.” Same goes for the unfair labels we put on each other.
Like it or not, we lead high profile lives. We have to put ourselves way out there in this profession. Soft spoken Officers have to learn how to bellow, “Get on the ground!” It may not feel natural but we do it because we have to. Ours is a difficult profession by anyone’s standards, and when we make our inevitable mistakes, it’s often right out there in the open. If you can’t stand the thought of looking foolish in public don’t even consider police work.
The problem isn’t making mistakes, but rather what we fellow LEO’s do when we see or hear about the mistakes of our brothers and sisters in blue. And what would that be? We seek out all the gory details. Like chum thrown in shark infested waters, we swarm. A frenzy of gossip, exaggeration and trash talking erupts within the department. We love it. This is what we can and must change, one Officer at a time.
Damaging gossip differs from the good natured, sometimes relentless ribbing we give each other as a sign of affection and acceptance. Damaging gossip on the other hand, serves as a destructive stress-reliever for pent up cops.
We already have one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. We already have equipment that doesn’t work, felons trying to kill us, district attorneys that don’t charge our cases, reports that are kicked back, and defense attorneys trying to twist us up in court. The fact that one of our greatest sources of stress is knowing that our colleagues are disparaging us behind our back is completely unnecessary.
One of the highest held principles in law enforcement is that of taking personal responsibility for our actions. I would like to invite every one of us to include in that inventory of personal accountability, the degree to which we tear down or build up our family members.
We need to vent, no doubt about that. We need a few trusted co-workers who we can turn to and, in a confidential setting, blast our beat partner or supervisor to. That’s peer support in it’s rawest form and it’s part of what allows us to carry on in this work. But when we’re not thoughtful about the who, when and where of our tirades or gossip, we we create additional stress for our fellow Officers. We prey on our own.
Cops need two things when we screw up: we need to learn, and we need support. With regard to learning, we are often our harshest critics. Any tongue lashing we get from the Sergeant pales compared to our own harsh self-talk.
We need someone in the group to stand up for us when we’re not there to defend our reputation. We need someone to say, “I did that same thing a few years ago and let me tell you about it,” or “I wonder what we can do to help Larry move on from this.”
Speaking up for those who have made mistakes not only protects their reputation, it benefits you, as it is an act of kindness and compassion. It benefits you by giving you the feeling that you helped a fellow Officer in need. That “good feeling” we get when we stick up for others has real health benefits. For example, Dr. Stephen Post from Stony Brook University School of Medicine reviewed over 50 research studies on the health benefits of altruism and concluded,
In total, the research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests healthcare professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients.... If the benefits of volunteering or altruism could be put into a pill, it would be a bestseller overnight.
A career in policing puts us face to face with a smorgasbord of stressors that are completely outside of our control, damaging gossip is one that we’re putting on ourselves. Let’s be mindful of what we’re adding to the culture of our department. Next time you’re in the locker room changing out to go home, ask yourself, “Who did I support today?” If we all adopted such an attitude we’d never have to answer our friend’s question, “What are they saying?”