Management toxicity, a plague denied by many in law enforcement leadership positions. It is the elephant in the room for public safety. Practitioners know that the problem is real and that its impact is poisonous. A large percentage of officers feel far more stress from their own supervision than they do from simply doing their job. More than a few officers believe they have been victimized by those who are in charge at their own workplace.

In law enforcement circles, it is often said that threats from the street are potentially lethal, but that the threat from the enemy within is a far worse hazard to a law officer’s health and well-being. Toxic bosses tend to regulate and manipulate their work environment by driving unwanted individuals and dissent underground. If the perceived menace can be beaten into submission, the toxic manager can more easily fool others into believing that dissent either never existed or that potential hazards went away harmlessly.

What follows is a discussion of some of the more open and common suppression and control techniques frequently employed by toxic law enforcement bosses.


How many readers remember the children’s game whack-a-mole? The person with dominion and control over the game has a mallet that allows him or her to pound the plastic moles as they randomly appear. The timing and potency of the blow induces the mole to retreat as other moles then popup. The departure of each threat allows the gamer to reestablish tranquility and superiority.

The toxic law enforcement manager uses a workplace version of whack-a-mole to control direct reports. By virtue of positional authority and influence, whack-a-mole managers have many formidable career destruction devices at their disposal. Toxic whack-a-mole bosses often believe that it is their right and their duty to knock some sense into the perceived delinquents. Most will not hesitate to bring out a big stick to restore order if they perceive the tug of lurking chaos.

The game in law enforcement works like this; when officers gain a bit of confidence and stick their heads up to take a chance, the manager thumps them hard in an attempt to bash `em silly. The golden rule of toxic whack-a-mole is that one good abusive smack SHOULD teach a reasonably smart wrongdoer not to repeat the unwelcome behavior. For the hardheaded or slow learner, the whacks tend to become more frequent, much more forceful, and more public.

The venomous believe that frequently and vigorously attacking the problem person will eventually cause even the unwise to retreat. Most reasonably intelligent people will utilize the natural instincts of future pain avoidance and embarrassment. Whack-a-mole management takes advantage of the fact that most people seek to avoid personal attacks, evade conflict, and are uncomfortable with the implication that they may not be viewed as positive and productive employees.

Disgruntled Employees

What happens when toxic bosses face disagreement or a dilemma that has the potential to tilt their halo or dim the glorious glow they want their superiors to appreciate? In the minds of the toxic, the problem is most certainly not due to any fault of their own. One of the most common methods used by the unscrupulous manager to alleviate a situation like this will be to place the blame squarely upon the shoulders of a scapegoat or patsy.

Prevailing toxic theory is that a few disgruntled bad apples are the cause of law enforcement turmoil within an agency. Blaming and demonizing a few troublemakers is an attempt to make it clear to all that culpability lays within the problematic individuals. The disgruntled whiner scheme is often a ruse deceitfully used to confuse the issue. Denouncing frustrated employees makes it easy for the toxic bosses to frame and regulate the opinion of the misinformed.

Reputable employees who are properly disciplined and treated with respect may grouse a bit, but most will understand that their performance could have been better, get over it, and rejoin the team. In truth, malcontented employees are dissatisfied for a reason. Some workers do complain incessantly because of their internal disposition, but it is far more likely that the organization’s unhappy employees have rightful grounds to be upset.

Death by Documentation

Respectable managers all know that “document, document, document” is one of the core doctrines of effective management. Appropriate documentation of professional success boosts employee confidence while giving credit where credit is due. Positive recognition is undoubtedly tied to workplace success.

Maintaining a notation of unfavorable performance can be equally important. Written reinforcement is helpful in the development of performance improvement plans, counseling, and corrective actions. Progressive disciplinary proceedings often rely on previous records when there is a need to initiate termination proceedings.

Troubles arise when toxic bosses wrongly use a legitimate management tool to facilitate their grimy work. An unscrupulous manager commonly exaggerates or fabricates a misrepresentation, then transfers it to paper and presents it to the accused for “verification” by way of the obligatory signature. Unless there is a witness, recording, or other evidence, it is extraordinarily difficult for a victim of this type of abuse to dispute the supervisor’s manipulation of the event.

It is also quite easy for the spiteful manager to slip a nasty note, email, or false document of accusation into the file of an unsuspecting target. The memo will follow the unwary prey throughout the years. The content and vileness of the letter can undeniably be fatal to career advancement.

Selective Memory

Stress, information overload, competing priorities, and life events all impact our ability to recall data. Sometimes two people fail to communicate properly. Toxic managers, on the other hand, have a nasty habit of frequently remembering some facts while apparently forgetting those that are troublesome. Toxic bosses receive and process only what they want to hear.

The dishonest manager uses selective memory conveniently, particularly in instances where they were incorrect. Excuses such as “you misunderstood” or “you remembered that wrong” are some of the least invasive of these cons. You “never gave that to me” or “I was not notified” can be the next steps up the devious ladder of mistruth. The most despicable examples of malicious selective memory may be the infamous renunciations of, “I never said that” or “that never happened.”

Convenient memory loss is simply a form of manipulative untruthfulness. It is an assault on interpersonal decency that simultaneously violates the implications of the employer-employee contract. If no email, witness, or formal document exists, the victim has virtually no way to refute the detrimental, fictitious assertions.

You’re Not on My Team

It seems likely that most of us will generally agree that the majority of law enforcement employees are good people with wholesome motives and habits. Noble causes, integrity, collaboration, and doing the right thing are professional cornerstones that draw many into the profession of public safety. The experience of belonging to the brotherhood or sisterhood usually lasts a lifetime, and almost never leaves the innermost essence of most law enforcement officers.

But, just as predictable as the sun rising in the morning, the toxic uses this powerful part of officer psyche to control, divide, and conquer. The dreaded label of troublemaker, or failing to support what the organization stands for, will simultaneously attack individual confidence, isolate the targeted officer, and marginalize the effectiveness of the professed enemy. Undeniably, being deemed “not a team player” can become the career kiss of death.

Toxic administrators will often affix the label of disloyalty upon their target as they attempt to paint the picture of the offending individual as “you’re not on my team.” The self-perceived King demands and expects absolute loyalty to the ruler. The inherent fallacy of this thinking escapes those who tend to see themselves as the almighty. No one has the right to twist the concept of loyalty into some perverted unquestioned allegiance to an individual. It is possible to disagree with the organization’s leaders, yet still be steadfast to the mission.

Safety is a hallmark of the law enforcement business. Yet, large numbers of public safety officers consistently identify a toxic work environment as their greatest source of stress and threat. Leadership intervention on this issue is long overdue, and the solution is undeniably straightforward. Consistently rewarding appropriate behavior, and unfailingly punishing toxic behavior, will diminish or eliminate the poison of the toxic practitioner.

I have enormous respect for all in law enforcement who serve admirably. Performing principled work in the streets is an astoundingly honorable endeavor. Each of us has a duty to keep law enforcement employees healthy by identifying and neutralizing the deadly management viruses that combine to form the threat from the enemy within.

Captain Steve Neal (Ret.) served as a VA LEO for 29 years. During his tenure he was fortunate to experience a wide range of assignments which included Uniform Operations, Criminal Investigations, Covert Operations, Director of the Emergency Communications Center, Director of Training, Support Services Commander, and Inspector for the Office of Professional Standards. He has comprehensive knowledge on the subject of selection and development of a public safety workforce, expertise regarding covert investigations, and a special affinity for media relations.   He is the co-founder and partner of the Leatherman & Neal public safety consulting team, Steve enjoys providing leadership training for peace officers. He currently works as a media contributor; furnishing analysis, consultation, and crime commentary for television broadcasters.  Steve Neal is also the author of a new book Toxic Boss Blues.