Lose the Bad Apples

Like many police departments these days, Seattle’s is under fire for the handling of a number of incidents, and the possibility that the officers overreacted. I’m not going to dive into the depths of the argument over individual cases. It is so hard to be sure of the facts, and all sides immediately jump to polar positions. No, I’m more interested in the effect this has on the department and its leadership.

Unfortunately that effect is not good. And it’s not at all assisted by the Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who has spent the last few weeks angrily lashing out at the various review boards that have criticized the department and specifically his leadership of it. His reaction has been shrill, and embarrassing. It’s achieved a level that the only reasonable result can or should be his resignation.

But then today comes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with an interesting article about this issue. In the article entitled “Few police officers trigger complaints” the Police Officer’s Guild (the union) attempts to shine a good light on the department.

Their main point is that, in a department of over 1200, something around 10 officers get more than three complaints a year. That’s less than 1%, they argue, and that shows this is a good department. Their point is that everyone should get their knickers out of a twist, this just isn’t that big of an issue.

To me, this is just a leadership problem

In some sense, they are right. This is a small number, and we shouldn’t overreact. However, to me, this is just a leadership problem… and a union problem.

You see, I’m a strong advocate of losing the bad apples promptly. I have always advised leaders to cut their losses, and to escort the poor performers, the troublemakers, and the bad attitudes quickly to the door. And choose again from the barrel of apples.

I always tell managers: “wouldn’t you like to be done with this problem, and have a chance at getting a superstar in the exchange?” Imagine life without the hassle of this person, and with the true possibility that you replace them with someone who could really light the place on fire. Most managers with whom I have this conversation realize the logic immediately. Their eyes glaze over and they dream of life in the post-hassle era.

I even advocate moving on from the only average performers. “Wouldn’t you want to change that C player for a chance that you could get an A+ player?” As long as you hire carefully, make decisions quickly, and cut your losses often, you’ll end up with an A team in no time.

In the case of the Seattle Police Department, my question after reading this article, is “why the heck do these officers still work there?” Move them on. Choose again from the barrel of apples.

Why the heck do these officers still work there?

I’m not advocating firing officers who get any complaints. Clearly some complaints are baseless. But when only 13% get one complaint, fewer still get two, and only 10 get three or more, the course is clear. Move them on. I don’t even care if these complaints are questionable. By the time you get three complaints, something is wrong. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

And this is especially true when there are people lining up to be police officers. They got 1200 applicants for their last police academy class. Surely somewhere in that mod are some truly good apples.

The stickler in all this, of course, will be the Guild themselves. They have, no doubt, negotiated a terrible contract where firing someone takes years and something just short of an act of God to accomplish. They should be embarrassed themselves to be creating an environment where these bad apples can sully the reputation of the whole department.

But the lesson here is clear, if you are spending time managing the bad apples, lose them and choose another from the barrel. You will thank me for it.