Police officers are always equated to the ideal concept of “common good”. And in this sense – both in the public’s perception and of their own – members of police forces seem to have a view that they should never make mistakes. This idea is what the National Police Agency (NPA) is trying to stamp out in its latest nationwide memorandum to forces in Japan.
Because of the proliferation of this “ideal” that police officers should never make mistakes, a number of incidences have ben discovered where they concealed their mistakes – no matter how minor they were – for fear of a scolding from their superiors, situations that often lead to complicating what should have been a minor and fixable issue. One case shows a senior officer of the Tochigi prefectural police hiding investigation files to cover up his error, saying, “I was afraid of being scolded by my boss.” In another case, an officer realized that he had photocopied investigation documents without permission from superiors and so tried to hide his mistakes by shredding the copies and in the process erroneously shredding one of the originals. The officer aggravated the incident by hiding the remaining documents in a locker, again fearing punishment and scolding from his superiors. “If the officer hadn’t hid his mistake, the punishment would not have been as severe as a salary cut,” a senior NPA official said. Last year, 63 officers were punished for wrongdoings related to police documents, including forgery – a new record for this number.
As police work comes with a great deal of power and responsibility, the prevailing sense is that failure is unacceptable. Until recently, senior police officers have educated their subordinates this way, adopting an attitude of intolerance to errors, with officers known to fiercely scold younger officers for minor things. This issue is further complicating the already stressful nature of police work, NPA says. “Even police officers make mistakes,” the senior NPA official said. “We have to create a workplace culture that allows for small mistakes.”
In its latest memorandum, the NPA states that instead of scolding officers and scaring them into hiding their mistakes, it would be better for senior officers to constructively show the younger officers their mistakes and how to fix them, as they have considerably less experience and knowledge. The NPA is looking for proper handling of mistakes in documentation and process, encouraging officers to approach their superiors for assistance. “For organizations, it’s essential to minimize damage from mistakes. But since police officers are encouraged to have a high sense of mission, they have this idea that their judgment must be infallible,” said Tatsumi Tanaka, a crisis management consultant. “Training based on the premise that everybody makes mistakes is a major step toward reforming an organization,” he added.
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