Of the many roles a supervisor has to fulfill, one of the most important is acting like a radar. In addition to focusing on operational tempo and situational awareness, all supervisors need to be cognizant of the human condition involved in their command, and this includes noticing early warning signs of problems such as substance abuse or depression evident in an officer's behavior.
Let's face it; there is a huge list of stressors that affect law enforcement every day. For example, the problem of ever-shrinking budgets which forces us to do more with less. Pay raises, if any, rarely keep in step with inflation and cause economic stress. The constant playing with retirement programs as if it were a sin to spend 30 years sacrificing for the public good and expect something in return. Finally, and what I feel the most important, there's the stress that comes from the current trend to vilify all law enforcement for the bad conduct of a few.
We are no different than anyone else except for the type of decisions we have to make. Because we face the same trials and tribulations, we are subject to the same perils and pitfalls that help create collateral damage. The only hope we have is to be very aware of warning signs and emerging patterns so we can mitigate issues early.
One of the keys is being keenly aware of changes in behavior and the accompanying work product. Most problems don't surface overnight but will be noticeable over an extended period of time, creating a pattern. If you find that an officer has gone from a go-getter to a no-getter, it is time to find out why.
In general, warning signs include employees who turn down responsibility or show a lack of accountability for their work. Look at officers who suddenly show a pattern of being late or start having frequent absences. If they are taking extended breaks, lunches, or put blinders on toward the end of their shifts, they are also worth looking into. The most obvious signs are the ones that display a sudden bad attitude. These officers can't see anything good in the office. Hand them a raise, new car, and choice of assignment, and they will still find something to complain about.
Other signs to look for include yelling, using harsh language, and reverting to bullying. Officers who display these behaviors are the people who always seem to have something eating away at them and never stop being angry. If your subordinate starts to isolate himself from others, expresses feelings that life is meaningless, neglects appearance and hygiene, or talks about getting his affairs in order, it's probably a sign of depression or suicidal thoughts.
If she has prolonged or frequent disappearances, missed deadlines, erratic behavior, or a sudden increase in job-related injuries, these signs may signal substance abuse. Working late into the night without cause, shaving or brushing teeth in the office restroom, falling asleep at their desk, or sudden disengagement from coworkers point to personal issues at home.
The list can go on and on but you get the point. Changes in an otherwise normal pattern of behavior are indicative of a problem that may require you to intervene. How you respond is based in part on your agency's policy and procedure. A best practice involves more common sense than anything else. Start by pulling the officer aside and, in a one-on-one environment, ask, "Is everything OK?" A sincere gesture of concern might open the door for you to get at the root of what's going on.
This is not so much a how-to guide, but more of a primer on the importance of what to look for. The point I want to drive home is that supervisors need to be aware and constantly be looking for signs and patterns of a possible problem. Ignoring them or creating any unnecessary delays will not make them go away.
Many of us know someone who has fallen into one of these traps and has paid the price with a divorce, being terminated, or worse, committed suicide. In each and every case that I was aware of, the signs were all there. Some of us ignore the signs and try to take comfort by hiding behind the statement it was not our place to get involved. I am not afraid to admit that I have tried to help and sometimes failed. But I can also say if I knew about it, I tried to do something, even if it was just making the right person aware of the situation.
As a supervisor, your subordinates should always be on your radar. If you are not willing to look out for them, then you have no business being a supervisor. Helping people is what we do.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office. He has over 29 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.