A former captain of mine, now a chief at another department, recently asked me how we can better screen officers in the pre–employment process. He seemed to be concerned about officers leaving the job, going off on stress leave or getting in trouble while on the job. I doubt he is the only administrator who is concerned about employee retention during a time when officers are leaving the profession in droves.
My response was likely not what he expected. I told him that it wasn’t the inadequacy of screening officers that was the problem. It was our failure to take care of them once they were hired. In short, it wasn’t that a bad apple made it through the process. It was that a good apple, maybe green at first, became bruised over time. I’ll offer some background for this belief.
When I was an officer, I was “voluntold” to be on a discipline consistency committee in my agency. I wasn’t happy about it. Now, I’m glad that I had that experience. I learned that officers have problems for one of three key reasons: 1) they’re a bad apple — the person who was not screened out of the profession but should have been; 2) they’re a green apple — an officer who is new and made a mistake based on lack of experience and/or training; or 3) they’re a bruised apple — the officer is hurting from the bumps and bruises of the job and/or personal life. Their decision-making was compromised, and they needed help. My work as a first responder clinician supports these categorizations.
Occasionally, a bad apple will make it through the background and psychological screening process. It is likely very rare. The signs are usually there from the beginning. Unfortunately, the signs aren’t always heeded until something terrible happens. I’ve worked with a bad apple. He cut corners and dodged calls from the start. He didn’t last long.
Typically, green apples are officers who are new to policing or new to their assignment. Interviewing them about the problematic behavior should readily reveal if they understand their role expectations and have the competency to perform them. Some will not openly reveal their uncertainty about how to handle a call, as they may have what Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset,1 refers to as a “fixed mindset.” Individuals with a fixed mindset are afraid to say that they don’t understand something, believing that it says something negative about their intellect or overall goodness as a person. The individual may think they’re not a good officer if they have to ask questions that others don’t seem to be asking. Individuals with a “growth mindset” are comfortable with not knowing everything, as they know that it is quite normal. They are open to disclosing that and asking for guidance. A growth mindset should be cultivated in every employee, especially in the policing profession. Mentorship programs can achieve this.
Bruised apples sometimes look like bad ones because they make bad choices. The key to distinguishing them from the bad is to look for either a gradual decline or sudden change in their performance. Recently, I spoke with a retired officer who reviewed his employee evaluations for his own reflection and awareness and saw the decline in how he was performing on the job. Does the gal who used to lead the team in arrests now do the bare minimum? Does the guy who used to receive accolades from the community now receive complaints? Obviously, you have to consider other factors that might explain a change in these circumstances (anti-police sentiment, changes in law enforcement practices, etc.). If supervisors notice a gradual decline in an officer’s performance, it would be important to talk with them about what is contributing to the decline. It isn’t the supervisor’s role to problem solve with the officer for personal or mental health issues, but it is their responsibility to recognize that additional support is needed and refer them to their employee assistance program and/or a local first responder clinician. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s a lot easier than watching them go downhill and then punish them for bad behavior when they crash at the bottom.
It’s important to investigate which situation you have since problematic behaviors should be treated based on their reason. Bad apples should be terminated, green apples should be given training and mentorship, while bruised apples deserve support to restore their well-being. This, in turn, can help them return to effective policing practices.