When officials fall from grace

Just how can organizations go about healing themselves as daily aftershocks cause distraction?

By Cherrie Greco

When well-known officials fall from grace, members of the general public express a variety of emotions and impose vigorous vocal judgment. Feelings of shock, disgust, and disappointed head-shaking are commonly exchanged at the water cooler. Faith in a system once trusted becomes fragile; trust caves in and is replaced by cynicism.

In time, the scandal plays itself out, often repeated again, with a different cast of characters. Unfortunately, however, when long-respected, high-ranking law enforcement officials fall from grace, an entire community of public safety personnel are shaken to their core and start floundering in an attempt to make sense of what happened.

Correctional organizations across the country watch the train wreck in disbelief as staff members make poor choices, like taking the bait when an offender promises to pay off a mortgage tomorrow, or bringing contraband into the facility for a price, or engaging in sexual conduct.

Professional boundaries and standards erode slowly at first, then greed begins to color sound judgment and, most important, staff begin to believe they won't get caught (and are shocked to see themselves on video tape in the act). When the house of cards come tumbling down, and the employee is escorted from the facility by investigators, or arrested in the facility parking lot, unsuspecting colleagues get that unmistakably sick feeling, casting a dismal pallor over the entire work force.

When public safety's organizational leaders – those at the very top – are arrested and every media outlet is screaming the ugly details of the story, staff start huddling together and asking tough questions: "What was the sheriff thinking?" "Did the warden lose her mind?" "Just how will this organization heal itself again?" Offenders generally react with an "I told you so –another one bites the dust" cynical comment. Staff are stunned.

Just how can organizations go about healing themselves as daily aftershocks cause distraction? It is important to vigorously tackle issues, cooperate fully with the investigation process, and show courage during the mop up by re-grounding everyone in their professional duties and responsibilities.

Using case study examples (appropriately redacted) for training helps staff understand that temptations are real and the cost of violating the code of ethics is high. Rumor control is essential, and as staff process the event, they should be encouraged to never lose hope and to understand the part they play in the big story.

Law enforcement and corrections folks are, by their very nature, both independent and clannish. They know the importance of a well-functioning team and are highly supportive of one another. But when one of their own fails and is drummed out of the agency, remaining staff pull back and become more reserved and careful about investing too much heart.

Correctional staff are mostly dedicated to their jobs and push hard in order to please those top leaders whom they admire and want to emulate. Seeing those same leaders in handcuffs on the six o'clock news is enough to cause the best and brightest to consider another line of work. But with the right tools and circle of support, staff can and should be guided through this grieving process.

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