Police unity is a myth. There, I’ve said it.

After years of pretending otherwise, the sad truth is that I can’t ignore this fact any longer and yet I could never be more proud than to have worn a badge for more than three decades.

I feel honored to have served with some of the finest men and women that a man could hope to work alongside. These men and women gave more of themselves than any chief, sheriff, director, or citizen has a right to ask or expect. They have placed themselves in harm’s way much more than simply in a physical sense, for the personal and emotional toll of a law enforcement career is actually far greater for most officers than the physical toll.

I have had the good fortune of interacting with thousands of police officers not simply because of my leadership position with a large metropolitan police agency but in my capacity as an author and a trainer. I have stood at the front of classrooms nationwide and espoused my philosophies of leadership and ethics and honor and yet it is I who learned. I have learned that the vast majority of those who have chosen to wear a badge made that choice for the best of all reasons. The choice to protect others. Yes, when all the machismo and talk of “kicking ass and taking names” is stripped away, it is “The Mission” that draws thousands of men and women to a career that in many states pays barely a living wage. It is “The Mission” that offers us the opportunity to do something with our lives that we could never do alone, to work together for an ideal, the conviction that when good people work together we can accomplish great things for the sake of others. By combining our talents and resources, we can rid our towns and cities of the predators who walk among them, we can make our streets and highways safer for families, we can help educate our children by going into our schools and interacting with them one on one. “The Mission” is more than mere words. It is what the men and women who serve in law enforcement know within their hearts, and it is the driving force that keeps most of them powering on even when confronted with an enemy so insidious that by the time its effects are felt, it is often too late. The enemy is among us and what is more frightening is that the enemy is us.

When I was a young cop, I worked for a small East coast agency that had 33 sworn officers, mostly white, all male. All shared a common economic strata, most shared the same generation, and yet there existed within this small agency, several different factions and cliques that if you were on the outside looking in looked very inviting but unattainable unless you followed their views and personal agendas. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like rival gangs warring in the police station. Open hostility was reserved for mostly individuals who had no interest in committing one way or the other. But all of the factions were unified on one front; they had a common enemy. Who might that be you ask? And I’ll bet you already know the answer.

Yep, the chief.

I have rarely in the ensuing years met someone who could unify a group of officers in such a negative way. By managing through fear, threat, and intimidation, the chief produced what should have been sought through true leadership, officer unity. Unfortunately, it was a polluted unity for anything achieved through negativity is compromised.

There was a strange choreography to the infighting. One instance that comes to mind was during contract negotiations, when the chief came out publicly against any raise (we were making $12,000 a year) or change in the work schedule (we were working seven day shifts). When an arbitrator ruled in favor of the men, the chief issued an order reducing meal times to 20 minutes. That is not a misprint. And he was serious about it. He would go out into the field with a stopwatch and many an internal discipline resulted until it was stopped by judicial order.

One important lesson that I learned during my formative years as a young police officer is that cops—when they feel victimized by management—can be very creative in “managing up.” Retaliation against the chief included such innovations as placing very unpleasant items under the seat of his vintage Mustang, putting Super Glue in the keyhole of his office door, and urinating on his uniform through the top vents in his locker. (The culprit must have been quite athletic.) The amusement generated by these stunts only furthered the continued warfare and, while all of the energies expended by both men and management in fighting each other grew, the energy left to accomplish “The Mission” became almost non-existent. I can assure you that if the time, effort, and creativity spent on planning and executing the internal warfare had been used for accomplishing what we were all being paid to do, the toxic environment that resulted would never have occurred. But as a result, the department was a miserable place to work let alone properly serve the community.

I would like to say that what I experienced in those early years of my career was an anomaly. Most law enforcement agencies are like big families that might have problems, but the people in these agencies have the emotional, personal, and professional tools to compromise and work out issues with honesty and fairness.

Still, the anomalies are out there and working for such agencies can be a misery. In the thousands of “over a couple of beers” conversations that I have had in small towns and large cities across the United States with cops of every rank and assignment about bad agencies, I have come to understand that the stories are identical; only the locations change.

I resigned from that miserable East Coast agency when I was almost halfway to retirement and a comfortable pension because I knew that I was becoming infected with the most destructive disease that a cop can contract. It is a cancer called bitterness and, once an officer is infected, he or she is rarely cured.

I resigned from that miserable East Coast agency when I was almost halfway to retirement and a comfortable pension because I knew that I was becoming infected with the most destructive disease that a cop can contract. It is a cancer called bitterness and, once an officer is infected, he or she is rarely cured.

Bitterness is a particularly treacherous cancer as its symptoms mask its true nature and disguise its identity by appearing as different symptoms. The manifestations of the disease are often noticed by friends and loved ones but not by the infected officer. A gradual withdrawal from close friends outside of law enforcement, loss of interest in activities that were once important, communicating less intimately with the wife, husband, or significant other are early signs. Distrust of management or anyone else above the rank of sergeant, knowing that every citizen is just another potential “discourtesy” complaint, and that the only person who gets anywhere in the department is a “kiss-ass” who drinks the Kool-Aid are mid stage symptoms. Late stages include getting a few extra punches into that asshole that mouthed off, taking a few bucks from that dope dealer who would probably only get probation anyway because the system is broken, or adding a few “details” to that arrest report to make sure that punk gets what’s coming to him. What is left when the disease is through may often be unrecognizable as the person who stepped up on stage years ago and proudly pinned that badge on for the first time.

Here is the tragedy. The disease of bitterness does not have to exist in law enforcement and is almost always preventable and curable. It has been allowed to expand and flourish and become the infectious contagion that it is because we have allowed it inside of our profession like some malevolent parasite. This parasite though, exists by exploiting traits that exist inside all of us, the all too human traits of power and ego. And that is what allows the parasite to flourish, for in order to rid ourselves of it, we must acknowledge that it exists within us, dormant perhaps, but within us none the less. History has shown us countless examples of the exploitation of power.

John Dalberg-Acton’s observation that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” carries with it the wisdom of the ages. But power is an essential component to any law enforcement position.

The street cop has to have the power and authority to arrest, cite, seize, and even take a life when necessary. Law enforcement supervisors and management must have the power to create policy, make personnel assignments, and issue discipline, for without that power there would be no guidance or organization. It is here, at this junction of power, where leadership will determine whether the parasite remains dormant or infects its host, for leadership is without a doubt the singular most important factor in determining the morale and morality of the agency. It is here where the principles of police power must be demonstrated to be fair, just, and compassionate. If they are, the legacy of leadership will be felt for years within not just the agency but the community it serves. But if the leadership uses its power to further personal agendas, political decisions or reprisals, than expect nothing less to be meted out to the citizens you serve.

How do we achieve such lofty goals? How do we change the culture of an agency that is infected with negativity or how do we build on an already healthy environment and make it even better? How do we create and foster the unity so necessary in policing? By remembering “The Mission.”

With very few exceptions, it is my belief that the men and women who serve in law enforcement made the choice to wear a badge because they believed that they could make a difference in the lives of others. They believed that being a cop meant more than just having a job, it was being part of something greater than any individual could be. And you know what? They were right. And the pride that they felt as they swore that oath and pinned that badge on for the very first time is still there, quietly beating alongside their heart. It is a pride that longs to come back to the surface where it belongs. Each of us has a responsibility, a duty, to each other, regardless of rank, jurisdiction, color of the uniform, or shape of the badge or star. That duty is to put aside personal differences, petty animosities, and cultural biases, to treat each other with respect and dignity, and most of all, to remember…”The Mission.”

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety (www.defendingtheshield.org). He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is recognized as one of the most highly decorated officers in the LVMPD history, receiving awards for valor, community service, exemplary service, and lifesaving. He has trained thousands of American law enforcement officers in the subject of “Policing with Honor," and has received the Points of Light award from the President of the United States. Sutton is the author of “True Blue: Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them," "A Cop's Life,” “True Blue: To Serve and Protect,” and “The Power of Legacy: Personal Heroes of America’s Most Inspiring People.” His web site is www.thepoweroflegacy.com.

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Randy Sutton
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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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