The Thick Blue Wall, Part 2

Trust flows from the top. If the brass is unpredictable, unfair, reactive or otherwise lacking in integrity, officers won’t trust what’s said and will behave accordingly. (iStock Photo)

There’s a lot of research, writing, talk and training about trust between police and citizens, especially in light of community policing. But what about trust within police organizations between the brass and officers?

Last month in The Thick Blue Wall: When ‘Us v. Them’ Exists in the Ranks we looked at some real life examples of problems that can arise when the brass and officers don’t trust each other. At the end of that article, I said we’d discuss how to build trust this month. After more research, I realize we might be better served by first looking at the warning signs that trust is lacking in an organization along with what the brass does to bust trust.
Trust Is a Must
Trust is an essential human value. Psychologists claim that trust is so important to human relationships that it influences everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.

Trust flows from the top. If the brass is unpredictable, unfair, reactive or otherwise lacking in integrity, officers won’t trust what’s said and will behave accordingly.

Trust carries with it the fundamental notion that you have each other’s best interests at heart. It’s the foundation for effective supervisor-subordinate relationships. Those relationships are a cornerstone of high-performing organizations.

In his essay Trust: The Key to Combat Leadership (2007), featured in the book Leadership Lessons from West Point, P.J. Sweeney reported that trust is even more important in military and paramilitary organizations including police departments.

We know this. But how do we know if trust is an issue in our organization? How do departments get ensnarled in mistrust? Most important, how do we build trust and regain it when it’s been lost?

Trust Test
In her article Building Trust in the Workplace, Amy Lyman, founder of Great Place to Work Institute asserts that trust is found in three workplace characteristics:

       1. Credibility
       2. Respect
       3. Fairness

Put your department to Lyman’s test:

  • Credibility: Are communications in your agency open and accessible? Is vision carried out with integrity and consistency?
  • Respect: Are officers involved in relevant decisions? Is professional development supported and appreciated?
  • Fairness: Does everyone receive balanced treatment in recognition, rewards, promotions and discipline?
  • Pride: Do officers take pride in individual and group contributions?
  • Camaraderie: Is there a sense of family or team?

How do you determine if your organization passes the trust test? Ask officers the above questions. Ask them also for specific examples of what is and isn’t working and for suggestions on how to build trust where it’s lacking.

Development Dimensions International (DDI), a talent management consultant that works with countless organizations around the world, says warning signs that trust may be lacking include:

  • An active, inaccurate grapevine;
  • Elaborate approval processes;
  • Low initiative;
  • High turnover;
  • High fear factor amongst employees;
  • Turf wars; and
  • Defensiveness.

Is your police agency flashing with mistrust warning signs?

Basic Beliefs About People
Trust, and its lack, can begin with our basic beliefs about people. Douglas McGregor advanced a theory about trust and leaders’ beliefs in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. He discussed Theory X and Y philosophies.

Theory X leaders don’t trust people. They believe people are lazy and that employees need to be prodded, pushed and controlled to ensure they do their job. They always tell employees what to do.

If the brass are Theory X leaders, officers won’t feel trusted. Mistrust breeds mistrust. It’s hard to trust people who don’t trust us. Later we’ll look at how to be a Theory Y leader who inspires trust.

Trust Busters
Some ways management can break trust are obvious; some less so. In an excellent online article, Susan Heathfield offers a number of ways that leaders destroy trust.

Lie, by commission or omission. Omitting important truths is no better than telling falsehoods. Both these involve attempts to deceive.  A Yiddish proverb says, “A half-truth is a whole lie.” I would argue that a lie by omission is worse because it’s harder to detect.

Be a hypocrite. Words are easy. You’ll be judged by your actions. Talk trust, empowerment, participation and then make unilateral decisions and micromanage people and you’ll lose credibility. A gap between words and actions is hypocritical. No one trusts a phony.

Fail to deliver. Don’t promise what you can’t or don’t intend to deliver. You may be well-intentioned, wishing to reassure or give hope. But that will only be temporary whereas the loss of trust can be forever. I learned as a prosecutor trying child abuse cases never to make promises to kids I couldn’t guarantee.

Does the brass in your agency trust its own leadership enough to ask officers if it is guilty of any of the preceding trust busters?

If what you said will happen doesn’t, then communicate honestly and openly about the following:

  • How you arrived at the initial promise;
  • What’s interfering with its accomplishment;
  • Why your projection has changed;
  • What officers can expect now; and
  • How you’ll work to avoid miscalls in the future.

You can make mistakes as long as you’re upfront and honest about them.

Fail to communicate the reasons behind changes. A sincere and careful demonstration that any change is well thought out will build trust. Changes perceived as lackadaisical and arbitrary break trust.

Take credit for someone else’s ideas or work.

Fail to support officers publicly. For example, the courts agree police can use deception. They disagree on what kind and how much. Moreover, the public may hold a different standard than the courts on what’s acceptable. In trainings on police deception, I ask officers how many would trust their department to publicly support them if they employed a legal use of deception that the public later got up-in-arms over, such as the FBI agents who interviewed Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympic bombing case. The vast majority of officers nationwide don’t trust their department would support their legal use of deception if it led to a media and public outcry. The implications for such mistrust were discussed last month.

DDI conducted a survey of trust in the workplace. The top five trust reducing behaviors were:

       1. Acts more concerned about his or her own welfare than anything else;
       2. Sends mixed messages so that I never know where he or she stands;
       3. Avoids taking responsibility for action (passes the buck or drops the ball);
       4. Jumps to conclusions without checking the facts first; and
       5. Makes excuses or blames others when things don’t work out (finger-pointing).

If your agency’s leadership doesn’t dare to ask officers about the above trust busters, the brass and officers have the answer about how it’s doing on the trust meter.

Stay Tuned
If trust is lacking between the brass and officers in your agency, you’ll want to tune in next month for The Thick Blue Wall, Part 3, in which we’ll tackle:

  • How to build trust; and
  • How to regain trust that’s been lost.



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