Who can forget Robert Duval’s advice to a young LAPD Officer played by Sean Penn in the 1988 movie “Colors?” While Duval’s character may have been referring to operational efficiency more than chronological age, the point is that better results are often associated with maturity.
Oakland’s Chief of Police Howard Jordan recently announced increasing the Police Department’s minimum hiring age from 20.5 years to 25 years old. I hope this draws the more experienced recruits with college, military or additional life exposure on their resumes.
Most importantly, I pray God blesses and protects the good people of Oakland. Next, the city is fortunate to have a chief executive willing to explore options and alternative solutions for solving violent crime. When we stop searching, we stop serving. Chief Jordan, here is wishing you the best of luck searching for what works in Oakland.
My concern is not with the age, the education, or the numbers of recruits. I am concerned about the organizational culture that these recruits are entering. I am not referring to the 2003 Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA) that followed the tumultuous period of “The Riders.” I am not even referring to the fact that Oakland could become the first police department in the country put into federal receivership due to their lack of compliance with action items designed to improve performance, accountability, and responsiveness.
I am referring to the culture of the institution of policing. I am referring to the cultural phenomenon promoting mediocrity and minimal performance for fear of reprisal from supervisors and “brothers in blue.” I am referring to a culture based on the antiquated, reactive policing models denigrating the values of self-initiative and community-serving enforcement activities. I am referring to an ethos of “do not rock the boat.”
While I believe today’s profession of law enforcement is transitioning into a data-driven model with emphasis on service delivery and effective responsiveness, I do know that the traditions of the past remain deeply rooted in the advice I and countless other rookies received from veteran officers, “Don’t start no stuff, won’t be no stuff.”
A leader in police culture studies, Van Maanen quoted a veteran officer during an interview who stated:
There’s only two things you gotta know around here. First, forget everything you’ve learned in the academy because the street’s where you’ll learn to be a cop; and second, being first around here don’t mean ____.
This is where the paradigm shift enters conflict as an out with the old means either changing the current ideology of more veteran officers, or encouraging their retirement before they uninspired yet another generation of hopeful, idealistic public servants. The most tragic event in one’s career is to have your idealism doused like a wet flame. For those entrenched in the “accumulating time till pension” mentality of policing, it is critical that the dynamics of homogeneity remain strong.
The sense of sameness is achieved by ensuring everyone looks alike, acts alike, and reacts alike. Mustangs, rebels, and visionaries need not apply. They are the “wave makers” whose proactive policing performances cause supervisors to pressure the rest for similar results. Because there is safety and security in similarity, those fighting to maintain their passion for public service are ostracized by the flock. Even those sharing the same race, gender, or religious characteristics are discriminated against because of idealistic actions, not demographic details.
My concern is not with the age, experiences, or quantity; it is the culture. I do not refer to the culture of the Oakland Police Department, but the fraternity of policing. Until there are enough “boat rockers” creating the tide of change, the old ways of “retired on duty” entitlement prevails. Researcher M. Britz also observed upon completing her seminal study of the socialization process resulting in the perpetuation of the mediocrity model.
Traditional research in this area has suggested that the socialization process is so intense and the subculture so strong that individual characteristics are quickly overwhelmed.
The occupational socialization process, known as becoming blue is a powerful force. I am a product of socialization, but was fortunate to have progressive mentors showing me a path more productive than sitting on my ass accumulating years until retirement.
Chief Jordan’s desire to increase the age for obtaining higher quality recruits will be met by just a few challenges. Of course, you can welcome college graduates to the fraternity, but unless you are competitively compensating them for that education, they will pursue better options. An arbitrary age such as 25 also leaves a time gap between most people finishing college and military service. Will they be recruited from current careers or expected to remain willingly unemployed until their 25th birthday?
Finally, several foundational studies reinforce the paradigm of occupational socialization out-influencing education and military experience. McKittrick describes the USMC socialization process focusing on satisfaction for mission as opposed to policing’s personal self-actualization. The Marine is taught that becoming a Marine is the ultimate motivator, while law enforcement satisfaction derives from attaining self-recognition.
Another study (Van Maanen) shows stages of socialization including a benchmark where the field training apprenticeship introduces rookies to the expected attitudes and behaviors of veteran officers. While great for learning the job, it is also the point when the highly motivated and performing academy cadets (military and college) surrender to the mediocre levels of motivation of more seasoned officers. As an example, recruits with military backgrounds initially reported high levels of motivation, organizational commitment and needs satisfaction.
Within the first few months of actual police experience, those levels dropped sharply to parallel the measures of the recruits who reported no military experience. The decline is attributed to decreased expectations about what the job actually involved after graduating from the academy, and adopting the veteran officers’ apathetic attitude that hard work is not linked to a system of reward or recognition.
A parallel study of institutional culture shows the need of individuals for social clustering and gaining peer acceptance. Ashforth and Saks’ study would suggest that even the newest Oakland Police Department Officers aged 21 or 25, are also subject to this dynamic. Without a cultural revolution, officers willing to operate within a cultural expectancy outside of their ethical sphere to avoid institutional isolation from cohorts may compromise their moral character and deviate from the principles of true community-policing ideals sought by Chief Jordan and the city of Oakland.
In the course of my doctoral dissertation research, I identified the term “detrimental homogenetic entitlement” detailing the adverse effects of officers isolating themselves from public accountability for sustaining a self-serving culture. Finally, I provide thoughtful recommendations for assisting the senior executive’s decision to ignite the revolution of change. Whether you chose to walk down the hill, or run down the hill, make sure the valley is filled with a positive culture awaiting your new bulls (recruits).
Scott Silverii, Ph.D. has served as Chief of Thibodaux Police Department, Louisiana since January, 2011. He previously served 21 years at a nationally-accredited sheriff’s office. Chief Silverii began his law enforcement career in 1990, serving in a variety of investigative and command assignments including 12 years undercover and 16 years in SWAT. He is a subject matter expert in data-driven approaches to crime and traffic safety and was appointed to IACP’s Research Advisory Committee. Chief Silverii earned an MPA and a Doctorate in Urban Studies from the University of New Orleans, focusing his research on anthropological aspects of culture and organizations. Chief Silverii is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.