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Coping with the Organizational Terrorist

In the past, there has been a great deal of discussion relative to the generational differences in the police workforce. Regardless of the labels that we attach to each generation, the recent changes in officer behaviors and value systems have significantly altered the culture of police supervision. When added to the evolution of employee rights, these factors have helped to create and protect the “organizational terrorist.”

The terms “International Terrorist” and “Domestic Terrorist” have been used for many years to describe specific types of individuals who attempt to force change through fear and intimidation. However, very little attention has been paid to the employees within law enforcement organizations who attempt to “force change through fear and intimidation” at the department level.

Definition and Traits:

By definition, a traditional terrorist is a person who uses or threatens violence to instill fear in people, intending to force and/or influence decision-making processes. Traditional terrorists are willing to employ acts of deceit, treachery, and violence upon innocent victims to attain their goals.

“Organizational terrorists” share many of these traits. They may not engage in overt acts of violence and use weapons of mass destruction, but they are willing to commit character assassination by attacking the credibility, integrity, and motivations of department leaders. Terrorists will quickly abandon “Truth” and replace it with rumors and innuendoes, and they will misconstrue and misrepresent facts in attempt to discredit and embarrass the organization. Abuse of agency equipment and destruction of data are acceptable means for discrediting the organization, and unethical conduct becomes encouraged or accepted behavior. On a smaller scale, terrorists discourage professional work, and they tend to engage in non-productive or counter-productive activities.

The terrorist mentality can be infectious, and it can be transmitted to others. If terrorist behavior is ignored and allowed to flourish, then it may proliferate throughout the organization resulting in fear, intimidation, and distrust. Poor command level decisions have the potential to add fuel to the fire.


In his work “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement”, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin explains the motivations of problem officers who become disruptive influences in law enforcement agencies.[1] In his research, Dr. Gilmartin describes a transition that often occurs in officers, from a balanced life perspective to victim-based thinking. When officers allow their professional self-image to become welded to their jobs, they seek to control the elements of their jobs. Eventually, they want to control everything about their job including duty assignments, appointments, promotions, equipment, shift schedules, evaluations, pay, and benefits. One tool for them to force or influence changes is to use the power of fear.

One of the oldest axioms in competitive sports is, “The best defense is a good offense.” This suggests that the best way to defend ones’ interests is to attack the source of opposition. For the terrorists, an attack is successful as long as it creates fear within the organization.

Fear has the potential to paralyze an organization, and it enables the terrorists to push self-serving agendas. If leaders react out of fear, then they effectively relinquish control of the organization to the terrorists. At that point, the terrorists dictate policies, discipline, and standards for the performance of the organization and the individuals. Terrorism can result in supervisors fearful of supervising, agencies frequently embarrassed in the news media, political influence obstructing organizational operations, constant labor and union problems, and dismal morale throughout the organization.


The traditional terrorists use WMDs or Weapons of Mass Destruction. The organizational terrorists utilize WMDs or Weapons of Mass Disruption. The most common weapons are discussed below:

Personal Attacks: Any deficiencies, weaknesses, or flaws of the supervisors will be revealed and exploited. This applies to the supervisors’ personal and professional lives. Every decision that the supervisor has made during his/her career is subject to being questioned, misinterpreted, and second-guessed.

The use of a supervisor’s flaws will not necessarily occur at the time the flaws are actually discovered. Mistakes or errors on the part of a supervisor may be “tucked away” until needed. When the supervisor makes a decision that offends the terrorists, then the flaws will be revealed, and they will be used as mechanisms to blackmail or extort a change in the supervisor’s position.

If a supervisor’s actions are lawful and appropriate, then the terrorists may well question the supervisor’s motivations. This is an effective tactic for the terrorist, because it makes big news, and there is no definitive way to fend off the attack. No one can prove intent, so there is no way for a supervisor under attack to prove his/her innocence.

Unions: While most bargaining units are comprised of professional and ethical individuals, others are coached and encouraged to use their influence to intimidate and coerce administrators. Terrorists have been known to hijack unions and take control of the collective bargaining process. They file “recreational grievances” which are grievances lacking any value other than harassing and distracting management from performing their professional duties. Hijacked unions may also threaten or engage in “no confidence” votes to discredit and embarrass police leadership. If organizational terrorists gain control of the bargaining unit, then the members may engage in highly objectionable behavior while hiding behind the union to avoid personal responsibility.

News Media: The news media can be used as an effective weapon by organizational terrorists. In this context, the use or abuse of the news media is not a matter of releasing public records to which the news media is entitled in a free society. The use of the media as a terrorist weapon is predicated on the release of confidential information which could embarrass the department, or on the release of inaccurate information that misleads the public and embarrasses the department. Terrorists will attempt to befriend sources in the news media to manipulate the source to adopt and support the terrorists’ positions. Very often, the terrorists manage to create enough distrust that the department administration will cut off its legitimate ties with the news media. This creates a void for information that the terrorists are happy to fill.

Newsletters, Email, Blogs, and Web Pages: In the electronic age, terrorists have the ability to broadcast information and reach a sizable population very quickly. They also have the ability to conceal their identities to protect themselves from being identified or held accountable for their actions. Depending on the specific cases, there may be technological, legal, or disciplinary actions that may be pursued. However, this typically creates a legal minefield for department leaders, and it requires legal counsel for direction and guidance.

Political Interference: Police Chiefs and Sheriffs positions are inextricably tied to local politics. As a result, organizational terrorists can easily conclude that political pressure is a viable mechanism to force and/or influence change. The terrorists are likely to seek a sympathetic local politician who has authority over the decision-making and/or the budget of the law enforcement organization. At the political level, terrorists can threaten the job security and the organizational resources of the department leadership. Most people are very sensitive to job security issues, and the misguided behavior of local elected officials can create significant fear within an organization.

Lawyers: Today, department terrorists have discovered that they can hire an attorney to do their dirty work. As noted in a popular joke about substituting lawyers for rats in scientific experiments, it was explained that the reason for this change was because “There are some things that a rat just won’t do.” The implication is that rats are more ethically grounded than lawyers, and that there is nothing that a lawyer won’t do. Organizational terrorists have learned this lesson, and the use of an attorney tends to insulate terrorists when they are attacking the department administration. Often, an attorney is misled or simply compensated for attacking and disrupting agency operations with inquiries, threats, and legal challenges.

Recruitment: Organizational terrorists seek to recruit others to their point of view. They look for vulnerable, naïve, impressionable, and disenfranchised employees to become part of their subculture. The most obvious employees are typically the newest and youngest members of the department, and the employees who have been disciplined or passed over for a promotion or appointment. When terrorists expand and infect other employees with their victimized mentality, then factions tend to develop within the ranks of the department, and morale may be destroyed.

Responses to Terrorism

Many years ago, if someone challenged supervisory authority or engaged in terrorist behavior, then their employment opportunities were opened up for them to be successful somewhere else, unfettered by existing employment ties. In other words, their employment was terminated. Today, there are mechanisms that allow the organizational terrorists to spread their venom and fear without regard for consequences.

However, there are effective strategies for dealing with department terrorists to minimize the damage that these individuals can do to a law enforcement agency. Some of the recommendations are specific, while others are broadly based and may be adapted as necessary.

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”[2]

Doing nothing is not an option. According to behavioral theorists, actions that are not rewarded will usually be abandoned or become extinct when they do not provoke a positive response. However, when terrorists recognize that their behavior has not provoked the desired response, they will increase the frequency and the depth of the attacks until they achieve success, or until they are held accountable for their behavior. When terrorist tactics are ignored, the tactics will probably become worse.

Don’t negotiate with Terrorists.

Although organizational terrorists suggest that they simply want to have a voice in decision-making, negotiating with them is an exercise in futility. Concessions by administration are perceived as weaknesses, and the terrorists will continuously alter their positions to assure that conflict continues. Unless terrorists occupy collective bargaining positions that mandate negotiations with staff members, negotiations are best avoided.

It is important not to reward terrorism.

If rewarded, terrorists will grow in courage, initiative, and in numbers. A reward encourages other personnel to follow or emulate the terrorists. Terrorists should not be provided with a platform that elevates them or allows them a favorable position from which to negatively influence others. This means no special assignments, no special privileges, and certainly no promotions. There is no legal or ethical requirement to reward an individual who is creating hate, discontent, and fear within an organization.

The administration needs to provide support and instill confidence and courage in supervisors.

Supervisors need to know that they will receive administration support when they make decisions, and supervisors will be encouraged to make decisions without fear of reprisal. It is the responsibility of the administration to teach, train, and encourage its supervisors to make good decisions, and to assure that decisions are based on fair, legal, ethical principles. This holds the administration responsible for the quality and the competency of its supervisory staff.

Supervisors need to hold terrorists accountable for their behavior.

Terrorists are prone to engage in misconduct including non-performance of duties, violations of policies, and violations of laws. When they engage in improper behavior, terrorists must be held accountable. Corrective action should be swift, fair and firm.

Media relations need to be maintained and nurtured, even after a bad experience.

Often, a law enforcement executive will sever ties with the media after a member of the media has ambushed or embarrassed the department or the executive. This is a natural reaction to a negative encounter. However, if a law enforcement executive does not seek to correct and maintain a positive relationship with the news media, then the terrorist wins the media support. The news media is going to provide information to the public, and in the absence of official information from the agency, the media will fill the void with unofficial information from questionable sources.

The union and the terrorists are separate entities.

The fact that terrorists may use the bargaining unit to create fear and discontent, should not lead to a blanket condemnation of the union or its members. The union may represent the entire workforce, but in most cases, the terrorists only comprise a small faction of the union membership. The administration has the legal and moral obligation to deal fairly with the union, and it would be counterproductive to penalize all union members in an attempt to seek retribution on a few individual terrorists.

Administrators must maintain positive political support.

It is incumbent on department leaders to keep political entities accurately informed relative to departmental issues. When terrorists spread rumors, lies, and misleading information, the best mechanism to correct the inaccuracies is the truth. This requires a reasonable flow of communication, and an established relationship of trust between the administration and the elected officials. Political relationships can place a manager in a very tenuous position, but it is necessary to develop trusting relationships to facilitate communication and neutralize the terrorist propaganda. Even when elected officials are quick to believe negative information, they can usually be won over with tact, diplomacy, and accurate information.

Up-to-date legal guidance is a critical component in effectively addressing terrorist behavior.

There are complicated legal issues, especially relative to electronic media, that will need to be analyzed and evaluated by the organization’s legal counsel before engaging in corrective action. Department leaders must recognize the officers’ right to free speech and assembly, as well as various whistleblower laws. Chiefs, sheriffs, and legal advisors must accept that litigation is likely, and they must be willing to fight battles that matter, and fight battles that they can win.


Most senior police executives recognize that police officers have changed significantly in their values, motivations, and tactics. As a consequence of these changes, there are some police officers that are willing to engage in behaviors that are intended to impose fear as a weapon to intimidate police supervisors. If the supervisors are unprepared to deal with these tactics, then the department may suffer from reactionary decision-making that serves to reinforce the negative behaviors. The results can be catastrophic for the organization as well as the command staff.

If police executives and supervisors are educated relative to the tactics of fear, then they will be better able to develop effective coping skills, and they will be better prepared emotionally, to protect themselves and their organizations from organizational terrorism.

[1] Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families, Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.d, E-S Press, Copyright 2002.

[2] Edmund Burke

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