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A Set Up for Failure

*This article was featured on

Of all the wrecks I had as a young deputy, the most noteworthy (or at least one of my top two) involved the armored SWAT vehicle. Prior to our department procuring a modern Bearcat, the SWAT Team utilized a 1970s era Air Force surplus “Peacekeeper”. These vehicles were, I imagine, problematic even when they were new. The only visibility for the driver came from two narrow “windows” (tiny slits of thick armored glass) on the front that were a few inches tall. To drive anywhere at all meant that it was necessary to open the doors on each side of the driver’s compartment, as well as the double doors at the back of the vehicle, regardless of how cold it might be outside. Our particular Peacekeeper was even less roadworthy, due to the extra layers of armor we’d fitted it with. The poor old thing would struggle to make it up hills, and bringing it to a stop with the original brakes required even more effort. One fateful day, I was alone in the old tank driving to an event on the other side of the county. Though I’ll spare you the details, I had to pull into the parking lot of a small hotel to stop and check on some issues with the vehicle. As I pulled under the unloading place outside the front door of the hotel, the tall turret on top of the Peacekeeper slammed into the edge of the hotel roof. Pre-occupied with the numerous other safety flaws of the vehicle, I’d forgotten about the tall turret on top. I’d driven a fifteen-foot vehicle under a twelve-foot overhang.

I think I still have the letter of reprimand from the Department. It contained some sanctimonious language about how I needed to be more careful and should be ashamed of myself. I keep it because I, as a chief now, need to remember the lessons I learned from that incident. Outside of the obvious (don’t drive a car under something shorter than the car), I also learned that a leader has a responsibility to avoid setting their subordinates up for failure.

I deserved that letter of reprimand. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a guy doesn’t deserve to be reprimanded when he drives a tank into a hotel. But the part that always bothered me dealt with the fact that I was out there in the first place. That Armored Personnel Carrier, you see, had no business being on the road. At all. It wasn’t roadworthy (or even street legal). If the sheriff’s office wanted to use it, we should have trailered it or restricted its travel to emergencies. But quite the contrary, we drove it everywhere. The SWAT Team was frequently sent out to various displays to drum up support from the community. On this particular day, I was driving that deathtrap to the extreme opposite end of the county to show it off for a middle-school field day. It was well-known around the department that the APC probably wasn’t the safest thing to have on the road, but no measures were taken to mitigate the risk. Instead, the risk was just passed down the line to whoever the unfortunate person who happened to be driving when the statistical likelihood of an accident finally caught up with us.

There’s a lot of talk right now about reform. Politicians are tripping over themselves to declare that they’re in support of reform, of building better police departments that can serve and protect their communities in the way they deserve. Those are good things. The problem is that while talk might be cheap, reform isn’t. True excellence takes resources, and it often means sacrificing in other areas. It means that having a better police department might come at the expense of higher taxes or less elaborate parks. It means decision-makers taking heat from angry citizens who don’t want to pay those taxes or would prefer to see that money go to another function. This, unfortunately, is something that politicians and policy-making bureaucrats are often unwilling to do. Their public claims to be in support of reforms often ends at the claim itself.

Plenty of studies exist exploring things that can affect the likelihood an officer will act inappropriately in the field. We know that officers who are overworked and tired are more likely to make mistakes. We also know that proper, frequent training can decrease the likelihood that officers act inappropriately. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand these things. They’re common sense. Yet all around the country, governments are funding their police departments in a way that doesn’t reflect these realities. Studies have confirmed what we should all know through common sense: Officers who are overworked are more likely to use force or mistreat citizens, some of the very things that reformers want to address.

When confronted with demands for change by an angry citizenry, politicians are often willing (even anxious) to address the training part. Ed Flynn, a former chief of the Milwaukee Police Department is known for saying that “…there is no social problem in America so complicated that the solution isn’t more training for the police.” What he’s lambasting is the tendency of politicians to overlook the deeper issues in society in favor of a proverbial quick fix that makes them look good for their constituents. But what is lacking in these mandates (or the response of the local governments that implement them) is the time to train. Most law enforcement agencies don’t have time for frequent, quality training built into their work schedules. Training is treated as an “extra” feature of the job, and simply accomplished by having officers come in on their day off. Under the shift design of many departments, officers actually work built-overtime, just to keep the basic shift schedule filled. This means that the “extra” work of training is actually done on top of overtime that is already mandated.

As a chief, I’ve led three different departments, worked for four, and have been exposed to countless others. I’m still shocked at the way that so many local governments approach their staffing needs. It seems that most approach their police department’s staffing needs from a perspective of “what is the absolute minimum number of employees we can hire and still keep a minimum number of officers on the streets during each shift? What’s the absolute, rock-bottom number of people we can pay to keep things from completely falling apart?” After staffing according to this mantra, shift supervisors and division leaders are left to scrape up an adequate number of officers to keep the schedule filled every time someone goes on vacation or calls in sick. It’s as if we’re all caught off guard by the fact that an officer may choose to use a sick day or vacation week. This is incredibly ironic, given that the organization granted those benefits in the first place.

This shoestring approach is a function of human psychology, not of logic. It’s an approach that reflects local governments’ desire to tell their constituents they have a police department while avoiding the politically painful decisions that come from allocating finite resources to essential public safety functions at the expense of other good (though non-essential) services.

In an appropriate, logic-based approach to staffing, mathematical formulas would be the basis of decision making. It is entirely possible to analyze a law enforcement agency’s staffing needs based on their workload and desired level of proactive activity. Expected vacation time, training time, and other benefit related considerations can easily be factored in. There is no excuse for any agency to be staffed in a manner that requires officers to work “extra” in order to do things we know will occur every year (such as mandated training).

Law enforcement, under the best of conditions, is a challenging endeavor. Officers see things on a daily basis that would expectedly lead to burnout. As the profession evolves, we’re increasingly realizing just how important it is for officers to have some semblance of a life away from work. The non-work relationships and recharge time that come with a balanced home-work life are essential for men and women who are sent out on a routine basis to deal with the darkest parts of the world. Forcing these officers to routinely give up that precious “off-time” is a recipe for burnout.

As activists, politicians and many law enforcement leaders call for reform, we need to acknowledge that these oft-vaunted answers are not without expense. They cost time, which translates into money. As agencies across the country move to improve policing with extra training, it’s imperative they realize that an overworked officer can be just as dangerous as a poorly trained one. High quality, frequent training is essential if the profession is to improve. But policy makers and money-allocators need to realize training reforms come with a cost. If departments aren’t properly staffed to allow adequate training time, the cost doesn’t go away. It simply gets passed down to the men and women on the front lines. When these officers crash and burn, it’s not fair for those at the top to simply saddle them with the blame. They’ve been set up for failure.

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