A certain degree of self-assurance is obligatory to our profession, and anyone who doesn't have enough faith in their ability to make sound decisions and come out ahead in field situations has no business carrying a gun and badge.

But how fine is the line between self-assurance and arrogance? When does self-confidence become conceit? And at what point does a full blown narcissistic personality disorder become harmful?

I got to thinking about this while talking with a midwestern law enforcement officer who is currently in the process of transferring from one agency to another—a major impetus for the move being the kind of people he has seen get promoted and becoming his bosses.

The officer couldn't believe the egotism of the wunderkinds and how they seemed to believe that their early promotions conferred upon them a wisdom denied a lowly veteran. It stung him even more to know that he had trained two of them as rookies, and hadn't treated them with the kind of dismissive arrogance he now experiences.

Unmitigated Hubris

This officer is not alone in his sense of bewildered frustration. I've encountered it, as have many cops from other agencies that I have spoken to.

The lieutenant who wouldn't say so much as a "hello" to a subordinate unless he thought it would do him some good, yet who upon seeing someone of higher rank became an obsequious and pandering chimp. Another whose perceived omniscience allowed him to recite chapter and verse of the department manual, but lacked an ounce of common sense when it came to the application of those guidelines. The captain who would sit in his watch sergeant's office and peruse his station's telephone roster, holding his L-shaped fingers to his forehead while appraising every other deputy a "loser." The commander who indulged all manner of indiscretions while piously punishing his subordinates for lesser transgressions.

In each instance, these administrators were as unshakable in their faith in their God-given talents as their troops were of their incompetence.

But there was one thing both camps agreed on: the inevitable ascent of the former up the chain of command.

Many men and women in law enforcement have learned to live with promotional barriers—favoritism, racism, sexism, ageism, etc. But I suspect that what many resent the most is the patronizing and belittling by some who do promote, and the assumption that they are incapable of recognizing the peacock charlatans for what they are.

Some say such hubris was the Achilles' Heel to athletes like Barry Bonds and Michael Vick, that it cost New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Gen. Douglas MacArthur their jobs, and was instrumental to the downfall of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler.

But then, one has to wonder whether or not such men would have gotten so powerful without such conceit in the first place.

To be fair, there are those who achieve great success while displaying self-deprecating humor and humility. But on some departments, such examples become more and more conspicuous the higher one looks on the food chain. Indeed, at more rarified heights, I suspect they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Arrogance Can Bite You in the Ass

Arrogance is an intriguing thing. On the one hand, it can bite a guy on the ass.

Example: As one of several deputies who testified in a case involving a lone perp's assault on multiple officers, I was advised at the trial's conclusion that one deputy's testimony had pissed off so many people in the court room that the prosecution was concerned about losing the entire case on his testimony alone. Throughout his time on the stand, the deputy had come across as confrontational and arrogant with not only the defense attorney, but the prosecutor as well.

Though the defendant was eventually convicted of multiple charges of attempted murder, it is worth noting that when it came to his assault against the deputy in question, jurors opted for the lesser charge of assault with a deadly weapon. This, despite the fact that there was no discernable difference between the modus operandi of the assaults, or injuries incurred—all of which occurred within seconds of one another and at the same location.

Now this deputy was and is a great cop. But I don't think he knows the meaning of the word humility, and I strongly suspect that the prosecutor's concerns regarding his arrogance and its impact on the case were valid.

Arrogance Can be an Asset

On the other hand, there are those who bamboozle others with their cockiness. And while Lincoln aptly noted that you can't fool all the people all the time, it may not matter. So long as you fool the ones that count.

Example: One cocksure deputy swaggered into the detective bureau and asked a sergeant what his chances were to get into the bureau. The detective sergeant told him that so long as he was in the bureau he would see to it that the deputy would NEVER get into the bureau because he saw him as an arrogant, lazy slug who didn't do anything other than treat his trainees like shit.

The deputy's attitude: No problem.

For weeks thereafter—while his fellow deputies were working in the field—the deputy could be found loitering in proximity of the captain's office, laughing at every imaginary witticism the man uttered, performing whatever sycophantic task asked of him. These days, the deputy works as a detective with the same sergeant who said there was no way in hell he'd ever work there.

Well, apparently there was.

Karma?

But pride cometh before the fall and there are those who are waiting for such people to step on their dicks. Nothing promotes that wonderful feeling of schadenfreude like seeing arrogant bastards get their comeuppance.

It's why some could hardly wait to see Martha Stewart or Leona Helmsley belly up to the jail bars. Why others are still waiting to see Alec Baldwin fulfill a pre-election promise and vacate the country, and why none would want to be in Imelda Marcos' shoes (any one of them).

From coast to coast and closer to home, bloviating blowhards like Michael Carona and Bernard Kerik see their corrupt practices and padded resumes come back and bite 'em in the ass.

But the wait for karma can be long; sometimes, there's just no stopping arrogant bad guys from getting what they covet. Any more, when it comes to the prospect of conceit versus humility, I'd hesitate telling a rookie cop to be humble and self-effacing when the promotional template dictates otherwise. At one time I was embarrassed at the breast-beating aggrandizement of guys who bragged to their superiors about what a bitchin' job they'd done. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been taking notes.

The master of the epigram, Kahlil Gibran, once said, "I've never met an arrogant man who I did not find inwardly embarrassed."

I'd like to believe he was right.

But then, Gibran never worked in law enforcement.

Author

Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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