Having the last word By: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

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Ceremony is important in the law enforcement world. Swearing-ins, promotions, awards and funerals, and recently those emotional signoffs of a retiring officer’s last radio call shared on social media. The last call by Miami Sergeant Madelin Garcia on January 26 was emotion-laden but in a rant rather than a sad goodbye. It is the last transmission any chief would want to go viral.

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Garcia, a 33-year veteran, obviously had some things that she had been waiting to say about the Miami Police Department. Describing various leaders, some by name, as “backstabbing,” “in denial,” having a “nasty attitude,” “liar,” “snake in the grass” and “a cancer,” Garcia was pointed in her final critique.

Ouch.

Only those with insider information know whether the sergeant was locked and loaded for her final public announcement, or whether her words were a shock to her co-workers or supervisors.

If police leaders fear that this final radio blast might become a trend, there is something to be learned from what law enforcement knows about threat assessment. When an organization wants to avoid an attack, it looks for signs of impending trouble. Monitoring behavior is one of those tools.

The contagion effect

Police leaders might pay attention to the possibility of contagion. Dramatic behaviors that garner attention can generate copycats. It is not likely that we will see a spate of retirees “going Garcia” on their last call, but given the pressures on police morale, hers might not be the last. While some might find her act offensive and unprofessional or even comical, others might find it heroic and even potentially transformative. It could become a thing.

Recognize the possibilities

The first part of risk assessment is to recognize the possibility and consequences of an event. If it happened in your agency what would be its effect? Would public confidence be harmed? Would other officers be emboldened to air grievances publicly? Would it generate an internal review? Would it stay in the headlines? Is it even worth worrying about?

There is always leakage

As with more serious threats, there is almost always leakage. Somebody along the way has seen or heard evidence of something about to happen. It might be more than the usual griping and eye-rolling, or a pattern of conflict. An officer who knows they are leaving soon might announce that people should be paying attention to their last call. Any increase in the frequency and intensity of tension could be a warning sign.

A hardline preventive approach might be tempting. A complete prohibition on formal final radio calls, threats of disciplinary action of some sort, or some other draconian measure might lessen the probability of a Garcia sign-off. On the other hand, it might enhance the allure of that final act of defiance.

An ounce of prevention

The value of threat assessment is in prevention. How is morale in your police department? If there are problems, are they notably centered around a few personnel?

The question in Garcia’s case (which can be answered only by those inside the department) is whether it was the frustrated sergeant who needed attention or those about whom she was complaining. It is always easier to deal with one dissatisfied employee than it is to recognize the need for a culture change and begin a repair process through fresh leadership.

The real challenge for police leaders is finding ways to be introspective enough to ask where the problems are and giving multiple safe venues for officers’ concerns to be heard. Labeling a separated employee as disgruntled so that their statements are to be disregarded might be justified, but there is almost always at least a measure of truth to be examined. And such introspection is often the first step to changing your workplace culture for the better.

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Following these tips today is an investment that will improve police officer morale, retention and perceptions tomorrow