July 6, 2023

Extreme Ownership: The Secret to Navigating Toxicity in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement isn’t for the faint-hearted, and navigating the dynamics of large and small departments alike can often feel like walking a minefield. Favoritism and nepotism may run rampant, causing the most qualified individuals to be overlooked. A lack of support from bosses when you’re dealing with high-stress incidents, a hushed silence around post-traumatic stress, and backstabbing colleagues add to an already heavy burden. In my past career, it was a lack of leadership and support from my superiors, the people I was supposed to count on for mentoring and support, that ate away at me the most. I felt alone and abandoned, ultimately blaming “the job” for not “helping me”.  

Too add to the difficulties, the daily traumas of handling violent arrests, fatal accidents, robberies or sexual assault cases can take their toll, leading to PTSD symptoms that many are reluctant to admit due to stigma or lack of support. It is a heavy burden and should make it obvious why, according to a study published in 2019, that police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession.  In fact, suicide is so prevalent in the profession, that the number of officers who die from suicide is more than triple that of officers who are fatally injured in the line of duty.  This job can get under your skin, into your head, and eat away at your mental health.  

But let’s flip the script.

In his book, “Extreme Ownership”, Jocko Willink talks about how you can’t control everything around you, but you can control yourself.  There’s no room for excuses, no room for passing the buck. You are responsible for your actions, your decisions, and their outcomes. You and you alone. It was not up to “the job” to help me.  Instead, I was responsible for helping myself.  

If we find ourselves in a toxic work environment, we can look for allies, those fellow officers who offer positivity and support. Thanks to the internet and social media, there is no shortage of positive mentors in law enforcement out there to connect with.  

We can choose to work hard on ourselves, demonstrating patience knowing that even the worst bosses aren’t permanent fixtures and educating ourselves while we wait patiently, acquiring skills that will place us in a better position for promotion. And when all else fails, and the department shows no signs of improving, we can make the hard decision to seek out an agency that aligns better with our goals and lifestyle. 

When I was in my 20s and early 30s, patience wasn’t my strongest virtue. Neither was humility.  But patience and humility are worth learning, developing, and practicing.  We’re all human. We all stumble, fall, and mess up, especially when we are younger.  That’s just life.  But the past?  As Jim Rohn says, let the past be a teacher, not a hammer.  Don’t beat yourself up over the mistakes of the past.  Instead, learn from them, rise up, and be better prepared the next time you get into a similarly challenging situation. 

Look, law enforcement is tough. I won’t sugarcoat it. Most of us are probably walking around with the invisible scars of PTSD that’ve been ignored or brushed under the rug. A toxic work environment only makes it worse. But it’s on us to demonstrate extreme ownership—to control what we can, to seek help, stay humble, and keep growing. The actions of others shouldn’t dictate ours.

Strive to do the right thing, even under the most challenging circumstances. You’ll likely falter at some point—we all do (I certainly have!). But if we’re lucky, we falter before it’s too late to learn from it. And that’s the thing about mistakes—they’re often our most powerful teachers.

About Eric Basek

Eric is the co-founder of Stay Safe Foundation, a former law enforcement officer and a current Coast Guard reservist. He is the author of “Lessons in Cadence,” and is passionate about helping people better themselves through fitness. Eric is our director’s husband, and dad to Logan and their dog Rajah. They live in Florida.