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When Rivalry Between Departments Goes Too Far

Police officers are by nature competitive, and law enforcement is too varied to expect all officers to feel and act like they are playing on the same team all of the time in their interactions with members of other departments or agencies. However, it isn’t too much to expect that all members of the law enforcement profession behave like they are members of the same league as one another.

If they lose their sense of common purpose to the extent that they begin to act superior to other law enforcement officers something important is lost. They are building themselves up at a fellow officer’s expense. They may believe, with some justification, that they are a superior officer. However they will have diminished themselves personally as a member of the greater law enforcement community.

When segments of the law enforcement community that work together frequently loose the sense of common mission and see each other as members of opposition leagues, the good parts of competition like enhancing team spirit, developing an esprit de corps and group cohesion are lessened.

Within the league, the superior performer or team should respect the “competition” as long as they put out a good, honest effort. And they should never judge an individual officer only by his or her affiliation.

Few would deny that there’s a hierarchy in the law enforcement community at each level, from Federal to state to local, and between levels as well.

Rivalries which escalated to what can be called turf warfare between Federal agencies led to dangerous breakdowns in communication prior to 9-11. These rivalries, while institutionalized in policy and procedure, can be reduced to the lowest common denominator – the individual personality – in virtually all cases.

I am not referring to a specific individual, but individuals in general.

While there are bright spots in even the less than exemplary police departments and law enforcement agencies, an honest look at the overall scene shows a range of quality from average to superior.

Human nature being what it is, there will always be some competition between departments. As the missions of various agencies differ so do attitudes among their officers.

A proactive department that is into community policing has a different internal culture than a reactive department barely able to contain crime with limited resources.

There are few other professions where educational criteria for hiring vary as much as in law enforcement, from high school diplomas to graduate degrees for some Federal positions. Similarly, advancement within departments may be achieved by passing rote memory exams and currying favor with the chief, or by proving leadership and competence in the field, earning a college degree, or gaining unique and necessary expertise in a specialized area.

Some agencies and departments truly are behind the times, are managed poorly and perform lackadaisically. Some officers shine in poor departments, while other officers barely put in their time in good departments.

Unbiased evaluation and assessment of a department’s performance is crucial. In some areas of the country there is a push for formal accreditation of police departments, a potentially positive development which nonetheless adds yet another rung to the hierarchical ladder when it come to rivalries between individual officers and departments.

I’ve learned from personal experience and from conversations with officers that the size of a department has absolutely nothing to do with it’s quality.

Consider an example: a small department that aggressively enforces drunk driving laws may ultimately save as many lives as a larger nearby department that effectively enforces the drug laws and makes headlines with dramatic drug busts.

With all the differences between departments, it is understandable why a dedicated, conscientious officer feels negatively about departments that convey a mediocre image. However, it is unfair for an officer on an A+ department to judge an individual officer harshly only because he or she happens to work for a particular less than top-notch department. Expressing understanding and offering encouragement would certainly be more appropriate than snubbing the officer or putting him or her down. When anyone builds themselves up at another’s expense the feeling of superiority that may result is built on a false and superficial foundation.

Officers who do this need a crash course in self-awareness. It is important for individuals to differentiate between their need to do a good job and to be able to take pride in their accomplishments, and any need to compensate for feelings of inadequacy that have absolutely nothing to do with one’s competence.

Take something as simple as one’s height. Some forty years ago as I recall there was a height requirement for the New York City police department, I believe it was 5’9" and many state police agencies had a height requirement of six feet. Thanks to women and minorities who are on average shorter than male Caucasians height requirement are a thing of the past.

With males height counts when it comes to popularity and hence with self-esteem. It counts in grade school and high school, it counts in business and it counts in who gets elected to political office. An officer who grew up “feeling short” may discover he can feel better about himself by “looking down” on other officers.

Where does healthy competition between, or even within, departments become hostile rivalry? Here is an example. In Massachusetts some years ago the State Police absorbed the Department of Motor Vehicles “Registry Police” and the Capital Police which protected the Statehouse in Boston. The state troopers lobbied against this so-called merger, arguing in part that the registry and capital police were not as well trained as they were.

There was probably some truth in the allegations about training, but the rhetoric never touched on the most vocal opponents of the merger’s main concern. This was that the elitism of the State Police would be tarnished if they let officers without what they considered “the right stuff” join their ranks.

They wore “Original Trooper” buttons and “R.I.P.” t-shirts, which both expressed their opinion and mitigated their anger. To many civilians it merely demonstrated snobbery.

After the merger went through some troopers from each of the three merged agencies continued to express resentment against their new colleagues. In particular it created an unnecessarily hostile atmosphere for the “new” state troopers who felt like scorned outsiders.

It may be that when morale within a department is poor and officers don’t feel politically empowered, or that they don’t have a responsive command, there is a tendency for officers to take out their frustration and anger on other members of law enforcement to whom they fee superior. I believe that this is the exception rather than the rule, and that in most instances personality factors underlie attitudes of superiority

But when a situation reaches the level that officers from one portion of the law enforcement family actively snub officers from another there’s definitely a problem. The cause should be determined and a resolution should be achieved.

If you find yourself in this situation: don’t give up. See if you can discover the history of the problem. Was there a particular incident you don’t know about where an officer from your department incurred the wrath of someone on the other department?

Perhaps he wrote him a ticket, had a personal conflict, or in an entirely different category, didn’t render mutual aid.

I know of one small department where an officer ticketed an off-duty state trooper. The result was that for at least a year a number of troopers went out of their way to cruise through the town and make traffic stops.

There are a number of factors that can turn an entire department against another department.

Sometimes it is just that officers in a department are frustrated because morale is so bad in their own department. Are there some problems in your department that need to be remedied? Are your hiring and training standards deficient? Are your departmental policies out of synch with the other departments? Or conversely, is your department progressive and are the other officers hiding feelings of inferiority behind their superior attitudes? Or, are we just looking at condescending attitudes, snobbery and elitism?

I’m only touching the surface here. You’ll have to explore more deeply on your own if you experience this negative rivalry. See if you can find an approachable officer from the other department and try to open a dialog. Move towards having an informal group get-together like a sports challenge and do some relationship building. Back to the team analogy. Police agencies may not always play on the same team, but they need to be in the same league. There are numerous adversaries out there without turning on each other for petty reasons. Keep the competition among the teams within the league healthy and good-natured.

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