Current Events: Corruption in Law Enforcement

Here in California, a news article by the LA Times was recently published discussing the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department being investigated for their involvement in gang activity within the department. Based on work locations within LA County, some sheriffs were found to have matching tattoos and neighborhood names with corresponding monikers. This is something that, as recent news has shown, extends throughout State and Local Law Enforcement agencies including the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). So why does this happen?


Here in the State of California, candidates for law enforcement have to undergo a pre-employment evaluation to determine whether or not they are an appropriate candidate for this rigorous job. These screenings look for specific personality traits, historical factors, and underlying psychological conditions that would negatively affect them on the job and/or contribute to counterproductive work behaviors. Most Peace Officer candidates are, at least initially, young and/or out of high school. They do not require a degree to be eligible for the academy. Many do not possess any viable work history. Imagine an 18 or 19 year old applying to become a Peace Officer with no real history of self-discipline in work or life? In the State of CA two senate bills were passed (SB260 and SB261) that allow a parole hearing for offenders whose crime was committed under the age of 23 and are serving a life sentence. They have had to have served a specific amount of time on their sentence before their youth offender date can be considered, but these bills were passed after research has proven that the brain does not fully develop until age 23. Prior to that, the frontal lobe (where executive functioning, problem solving, and decision making occur) is not fully developed and thus affects the individuals ability to fully assess the cost and benefit of their choices.

In terms of screening for mental illness of any kind, there are some psychological conditions that statistically do not become symptomatic until one’s early 20s. Conversely, there are some conditions that are not discovered until after exposure to a traumatizing event.

Many candidates are screened around an age in which no counterproductive work behaviors or negative risk markers are evident for these very reasons. However, we find that many, after a length of time on the job and influence from their peers, begin to develop counterproductive work behaviors and negative personality traits.

The only time a peace officer is screened after their employment, at least to my current knowledge, is if their direct supervisor refers them for a fitness for duty evaluation out of concern regarding their erratic behaviors, substance abuse, and/or exposure to a traumatic call.

So what is happening to create the concerns and behaviors addressed in the media? In psychology and sociology there are two terms called “group think” and “polarization” that occur among groups of individuals.

Group think is phenomenon in which the desire for conformity within the group results in irrational or destructive decision-making. The members of the group then begin to attempt to minimize conflict with their peers by suppressing their opposing viewpoints and isolating themselves from outside influence. In law enforcement this could present itself in many ways, one example of which could be that they all tell the same story regarding an incident, even if not entirely true, in an effort to protect each other and confirm to the “brotherhood” that’s inherently taught in the academy. Some members may not feel comfortable doing this, but fear lack of conforming more than the risks to their job for being fraudulent.

Polarization is a phenomenon in which members of a group become very extreme in their opinions or viewpoints when they otherwise wouldn’t when acting alone. An example in which this could present itself in law enforcement is a mindset of “us against them” or “everyone is a criminal that doesn’t wear a badge.” This type of phenomenon can become influential in a group setting like law enforcement and in turn can become excessive and cloud the judgement or objectivity an officer needs to appropriately assess a situation. Another example: is to become your own crime fighting gang and get matching tattoos to commemorate your loyalty to your side and further alienate and/or label everyone else as less than (thus the inspiration for this post as previously mentioned).


Coming from a family of law enforcement, I will be the first to buy an officer their coffee, or give up my seat to a military member on an airplane. I used to bring baked goods to my local fire department for their hard work in fighting wildfires near my home. I fully support our first responders and hold them in high regard. However, that being said, there are some bad apples in every bunch in EVERY profession. In law enforcement, many are not born with these negative traits, psychological factors or counterproductive work habits- they’re trained and molded to be that way.

In light of the ongoing media attention to the behaviors of law enforcement, I had been thinking about considerations for mitigating these issues that have been prevalent for many years. My conclusions is to ensure that a psychological evaluation not only occur for pre-employment and fitness for duty referral reasons, but should be required at least every 7 years while on the job. This standard of assessing will begin with a baseline (pre-employment) and evidence any significant changes throughout their career. This would be very efficient in identifying the individuals who have developed dangerous behaviors and traits that pose a threat to their partners, civilians and the community.  At this point, the department can make appropriate interventions to ensure public and officer safety.

Thoughts? Leave me a comment!

Make someone smile today!

Dr. Engels



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