During my recent interactions with the public as well as over the past 24 years of my law enforcement career, I have made references to the law enforcement culture. Culture is what defines any group, business or organization based on its values, behaviors and practices.
Every culture has aspects that are both lauded and loathed; the law enforcement culture is no different, although the U.S. population is more apt to conjure up negative connotations with the term “law enforcement culture” than to affiliate it with our rich traditions of service. Simply having a culture in and of itself is neither a positive or negative trait.
For centuries, officers across our nation have protected the citizenry at the cost of sacrificing their own lives.
Less recognized is the somber fact that suicides within the law enforcement profession occur at a rate more than twice that of the rest of the U.S. population. Sadly but truthfully, officer deaths are a part of our law enforcement culture.
Law enforcement culture is noble and commendable when officers support fellow officers by coming together to reaffirm their commitment to the families of slain officers or selflessly backing up other officers in distress. This commitment to the law enforcement brotherhood is highly revered.
Alternatively, when officers protect wayward officers who perform illegal or unethical actions by favoring loyalty over integrity, this camaraderie becomes reprehensible. For both its good and bad, officer camaraderie is part of our law enforcement culture.
Regardless of our appreciation or disdain for the values, behaviors and practices that are components of this culture, they are what define our law enforcement culture.
The ratio of lauded versus loathed values, behaviors and practices within any individual law enforcement agency dictates that agency’s unique culture. The degrees to which individual agencies’ cultures are established are a product of the officers and leadership of those agencies.
It is incumbent upon all law enforcement officers, agency leaders and affiliated law enforcement organizations to put their efforts into always increasing the positive and noble aspects of the profession’s culture while simultaneously working to reduce and eradicate the less desirable behaviors and practices.
Culture is not static; it can change, and the direction in which it does will be a direct result of the current values, behaviors and practices of an agency. The end product of valiant and committed efforts within the law enforcement community to continuously change its culture in positive directions will ensure public confidence and trust in the entire U.S. law enforcement community by increasing that which is lauded and eliminating that which is not.
Changing culture often brings awareness and unwanted attention to the very behaviors or practices that an organization is determined to reduce. For example, keeping the high rate of law enforcement suicides concealed prevents awareness campaigns and appropriate departmental attention from being advocated and supported to eliminate these needless deaths. Therefore, exposure of this unfortunate quality of the law enforcement culture is paramount to the leadership challenge of eliminating it.
The U.S. law enforcement culture is my culture. Throughout my career, I have contributed to its current condition during my service as a university, municipal, state and federal law enforcement officer. My family has shaped it for over a century with more than 75 years of combined service in New York.
I take ownership in the culture, both the good and the bad, and recognize my role in always changing it for the better because at the end of every day, it is part of what defines me and it is what our citizens expect and deserve.
Brian P. Boetig is special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo.