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Back to Archives | Back to October 2003 Contents 

For the Veteran Officers: Leadership, Ethics, and Wellness Training

Randolph D. James, Director, Suburban Law Enforcement Academy, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

or years, the law enforcement community has wrestled with the personal and professional changes that occur in many police officers during their career. The work experiences of police officers result in a changing perception of law enforcement's role. Recognizing that this role perception will change, agencies can prepare to make a positive influence on the veteran officers. The police departments participating in the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy undertook this task and developed a model that may be helpful to other agencies and academies.

The Changing Role Concept

New officers enter the academy with enthusiasm, a desire to help others, and a dedication to making a difference. Beginning their careers as street officers, they view themselves as protecting victims, arresting the perpetrator, and ensuring that justice is served.

Over time, these very same reasons can be the catalyst for change in how they view themselves and their profession. Veteran officers can become frustrated, angry, apathetic and cynical. They can involve themselves in gallows humor.

As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin writes in Emotional Survival in Law Enforcement (Tucson, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002), many veteran officers come to view themselves as the victim. Indeed, veteran officers may see themselves as a victim of management, the criminal justice system, and the community. Officers may feel that no one understands what they experience out on the street. Instead, they turn to each other to solve their problems, thereby losing the emotional support of family and friends.

Veteran officers can feel that department managers do not remember what it is like on the street. Their frustrations can be compounded by their perception that they are watching helplessly as justice is undone by aggressive defense attorneys eager to get their clients off or to get judges' rulings overturned on technicalities rather than the facts of the case. Even the news media add to veteran officers' aggravation when they focus not on the good the police do but on those few instances of police misconduct.

By design, veteran officers also have the burdens of leadership at the scene of an incident in the absence of a supervisor. Younger officers look to them to make decisions, sometimes when lives are at stake, and they take their cues from veteran officers on everything from tactics to mannerisms to public relations. The public looks to senior officers for information and direction on the scene. And management looks to senior officers for answers after the incident.

All of this can create emotional stress for veteran officers who have no one to turn to except members of their police family who are experiencing the same stress. This can place officers in a no-win situation. As a result, some officers act out by using excessive force or demonstrating indifference in performing their duties. Although this situation has been recognized over the years as the Achilles heel of law enforcement, little effective or comprehensive effort has been put forth to address it.

Changing Role Perception through Training

One of the first steps in addressing the problem is training. Although most continuing education the police officer receives is function-based training or training in how to complete a specific job element, not to be overlooked is the veteran officer's wellness training. Police departments and academies have been successful at teaching officers how to operate a breath test instrument, collect evidence, conduct tactical operations, or reconstruct an accident and other equally important functional areas. But little training is devoted to educating veteran officers to recognize and effectively deal with the stress of the job as well as practicing leadership principles.

Approximately two years ago, a group of law enforcement executives joined with 15 veteran police officers and the staff of the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy (SLEA) to develop a training course for the veteran police officer.

Initially, six police executives from different departments, working with members of the academy staff, researched the issue of attitude change among veteran officers and defined, in general terms, the training objectives. The broad objectives of the training are as follows:

  • To raise the officers' awareness of the potential for personal and professional changes in their careers
  • To help officers understand why changes occur
  • To teach officers techniques for avoiding possible change
  • To prepare officers for leadership roles

Fifteen veteran patrol officers from different police departments were asked to assist in the project. After being divided into three working groups, they defined the training objectives and broke them down into several specific training goals. After working independently, the three groups merged their work into one comprehensive list of specific objectives. The group created an instructional training unit to address each of the following objectives:

  • Leadership
  • Ethics
  • Personal wellness
  • Financial planning
  • Impact of the media on the profession
  • Courtroom preparation and presentation
  • Promotional assessment process
  • Professional liability

After agreement was reached on the program objectives and the actual training units, the outcomes and goals of each unit was designed.

Leadership: As previously discussed, veteran officers usually are the senior officers in most situations on the street. As such, they in many instances assume the role of both formal and informal leader. The younger officers look to them to make decisions and provide direction in any given situation. In many instances, veteran officers are also the senior representatives who interact with the public. In extreme situations, they are called upon to make life-and-death decisions affecting not only themselves but also the other officers and the public. If something goes wrong on a call, they are the ones to whom management will look for answers. Since veteran officers are thrust into this role regardless of their desire to be leaders, they must have good leadership skills.

Ethics: Few professions require the high ethical standards of law enforcement. Being a professional officer requires maintaining a high standard of ethics in both personal and professional life. If the officer begins to identify himself as a victim, it can negatively affect his ethical standard. This is especially true if the officer sees himself as the victim of unfounded citizens' complaints or a failed criminal justice system that does not protect the victim and allows the criminal to go free. The veteran officer can fall into the trap of believing that cutting ethical corners is justified under certain circumstances. It is imperative that these instructional units reinforce the ethical standards with which officers entered the profession.

Wellness: A major factor in preventing the veteran officer from falling into the victim trap is personal wellness. Veteran officers who have a high level of both physical and emotional wellness are much more likely to maintain their dedication to the profession and avoid feeling victimized. By balancing their personal and professional lives, officers learn that they can enjoy both physical and emotional wellness.

Professional Liability: Police officers have long been the target of lawsuits. Every day, officers are sued in well-publicized civil actions even though, in most cases, they did nothing wrong. This again can lead to a feeling of being victimized. This feeling can be increased when officers do not know the steps to take to protect themselves in a civil action. The officers learn how the civil process works and how to protect their assets if they are sued.

Impact of the Media on the Profession: No profession receives more media attention than that of police work. There has long been a feeling among police officers that the media is biased against law enforcement and that officers are victims of media coverage. The officer is made aware of how the media functions, its relationship with the law enforcement community, and how it can affect an officer's career.

Courtroom Preparation and Presentation: Today, more than ever, the courts are questioning the work of the police officer. This fact has been apparent in several recent high-profile criminal prosecutions. The officer does an excellent job investigating a crime and making an arrest, only to see his work questioned in court. Because of scientific advances, some evidence presented in court today is harder to refute. Therefore, the defense must attack the officer who presents the evidence in court. Unfortunately, this is one area where officers receive little training after graduating from the academy. In this instructional unit, the attendee receives additional training in working with the prosecutor in the preparation and presentation of a case for criminal prosecution.

Promotional Assessment Process: Veteran police officers, with few exceptions, apply for supervisory positions during their careers. To do so, they need to undergo an evaluation based on an assessment process.Here the instructor takes the mystery out of the assessment process showing the veteran officer how the process works and what the officer should expect when being assessed.

Financial Planning: In Emotional Survival in Law Enforcement, Gilmartin identifies financial security as a key to emotional survival. In order for the veteran officer to avoid allowing the job to change him, he must know that his financial future is secure. Future financial security is gained by developing a financial plan using the available investment vehicles.

Developing the Instructors

Following the development of the instructional units, the academy staff identified a number of instructors to conduct the training. When the staff described the training initiative, these instructors were eager to support it. Nationally known educators in the field of police psychology were invited to teach the key instructional units including Leadership, Ethics, and Physical and Emotional Wellness.

An attorney who specializes in representing police departments and their officers in civil litigation presents the Professional Liability course. A nationally known media consultant and an expert in the field of law enforcement and media relations show the veteran officer how the relationship between the two can have a positive or negative affect on the law enforcement profession.

A panel consisting of a criminal court judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney presents Courtroom Preparation and Presentation. The three officers of the court are drawn from the local geographic area because of their knowledge of the local judicial rules and regulations.

A police executive who also administers a promotional assessment program provides an overview of the program including its role in the promotional process.A financial planner who has a good working knowledge of the local departments' retirement systems teaches the Financial Planning training unit.

The total number of instructional hours in this course is 36, with 24 hours devoted to leadership, ethics, and physical and emotional wellness.

Since its creation, the Veteran Police Officers Leadership, Ethics, and Wellness training has been delivered to more than 300 veteran law enforcement officers. Attendees and their chiefs have endorsed this program and called it essential to continued personal, professional, and law enforcement agency success. Having recognized the value of this program, SLEA is now developing similar programs for police communications personnel and correctional officers.

Additional information regarding this program can be obtained from the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy by calling 630-942-2677 or visiting ♦



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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