The Mollen Commission Report 25 Years Later – Lessons in Police Management

On July 7, 1994, the Mollen Commission publicized its findings related to police corruption in the New York City Police Department.  One of the focal points of the Commission’s work was depicted in the 2015 documentary The Seven Five.  The acts of corruption and brutality committed by the likes of Officers Michael Dowd, Kevin Hembury, and Bernard Cawley (nicknamed “the Mechanic” for his habit of “tuning up” suspects) and others spawned a two-year investigation into the “the nature and extent of corruption in the Department,” “the Department procedures for preventing and detecting corruption,” and concluding with the Commission’s best attempt “to recommend changes and improvements in those procedures.”

Like the Knapp Commission before it in New York, and the Christopher Commission in Los Angeles, the Mollen Commission Report was the latest in a lineage of investigations driven by investigators from outside the department in the wake of corruption scandals involving police officers. It resulted in diagnoses of pitfalls in police management that applied then, and now, well beyond the New York City Police Department. These reports should be studied by law enforcement leaders across the country. The loss of public trust associated with these scandals should serve as cautionary tales that are universally relevant.

There are so many lessons to be derived from failures of leadership at all levels described in the Mollen Commission Report that a brief article cannot begin to cover it all. But, as an attorney focused on the legal liability and best practices associated with personnel management in law enforcement—from hiring to discipline to termination—I was struck by how familiar some of the Commission’s key findings sound in 2019. These lessons go well beyond egregious and unlawful acts of corruption. The findings of the Mollen Commission should be viewed in light of an agency’s ability to effectively manage all types of officer misconduct and performance issues.

The Hiring Frenzy

What could easily be missed in the lengthy Commission Report may be the most frighteningly applicable to law enforcement in 2019. Agencies across the country are struggling to recruit qualified applicants to serve as law enforcement officers. This presents an opportunity for unqualified men and women to gain employment because agencies need “warm bodies.”

The Mollen Commission Report found that the rising crime of the 1980s led to a striking increase in the rate of hiring new officers that was accompanied by a systemic failure to conduct thorough background checks and hold applicants to standards beyond the stated automatic disqualifiers.  

“There is a widespread perception among officers of many ranks that hiring standards have fallen dramatically over the years,” the report stated. The Commission determined that “approximately 20 percent of the officers suspended or dismissed should never have been admitted into the Department. This is based merely on information available in these officers’ personnel files at the time of hiring.” In other words, 20 percent were deemed unfit, not because of a thorough background investigation but rather due to obvious red flags that made their way into the personnel files and were apparently ignored.

A particularly disturbing example of lackluster background investigation procedures is found in the Commission finding “that the Department has routinely admitted applicants to the Department—and put them on the streets as sworn officers with guns and shields—before their background checks are complete. Eighty-eight percent of the officers in our study, for example, entered the Police Academy before the completion of their background.”

Furthermore, the Commission found that background investigations often were not completed “until after the applicant becomes a sworn police officer … This is particularly troublesome because by the time recruits have graduated from the Police Academy and become sworn members of the Department, much time, energy and money has been invested in them.  Consequently, the focus … shifts from the question of whether the applicant is qualified…to how the Department could justify dismissing a sworn police officers which carries a heavier burden of proof.” 

This idea of working hard to find a reason to keep someone should sound familiar to law enforcement professionals across the country in a time when hiring frenzies are the national norm. How much unnecessary and painfully predictable risk is taken when backgrounds are rushed, steps are skipped, and it is all rationalized by the idea that if there’s a real problem they’ll catch it in the academy or they’ll catch it in field training?  

The Mollen Commission Report echoes what agency leaders are learning and re-learning across the country: when people show you who they are, believe them and act as soon as possible to remove them from the hiring process.

The critical issue is not just one of liability management, but of leadership. Are agency leaders willing to take the time and use the resources necessary to conduct adequate background investigations in spite of the pressure to hire anyone who is not automatically disqualified?  Meeting this obligation requires a conscious acknowledgement that the integrity of any law enforcement agency is dependent upon the character of the men and women chosen to serve and protect.

Utilizing the Probationary Process as a Unique Vetting Opportunity

The Commission echoed a key conclusion reached by its 1970s predecessor (the Knapp Commission) when it noted, “[A]s the Knapp Commission recognized a generation ago, often the most reliable predictors of an officer’s performance first appear in recruit training and during the eighteen-month probationary period. And yet the commission report found that in the years leading up to the creation of the Commission, “probationary officers are seldom dismissed.”

The probationary employment period presents law enforcement leaders with a unique opportunity to evaluate performance, identify “red flags” and take proactive measures to address misconduct. For most officers, the close supervision and continual feedback that they receive from their Field Training Officers (FTOs) during this period will not be replicated for the entirety of their career. If, during this period, FTOs find probationary officers demonstrate fundamental character deficiencies, then there is no better time to have the difficult but critical conversation concerning whether the officer is salvageable. 

While it is certainly normal for probationary officers to make mistakes, there is often a clear distinction between understandable mental mistakes, versus performance issues that reflect on core character issues such as honesty, willingness to accept responsibility for errors, and ability to receive corrective feedback. 

There is no good time for agency leaders and front-line supervisors to determine the severity of performance issues with the possibility of termination on the table. But, from a legal liability and risk management standpoint, there is no better time than during the probationary process—prior to an officer’s status shifting from probationary to permanent, with all of the arbitration, appeals and/or due process rights that come with this change in employment status. 

Agencies across the country often realize too late that the chance to streamline the evaluation and possible termination of the few bad apples inside the department has come and gone only after the probationary process has ended and a problem officer’s status has gone from probationary to permanent status.

“Copy and Paste” Performance Evaluations

The Commission found that, beyond failing to aggressively pursue indications of corruption among their subordinates, supervisors in the New York City Police Department were not accurately evaluating the performance of those officers they supervised more generally.  “[M]any [supervisors] have even abandoned their responsibility to evaluate officers in their command—and to flag ‘problem’ officers … supervisors admitted that performance evaluations were typically boilerplate … performance evaluations often covered suspected corruption problems.”

Even Michael Dowd, the focus of The Seven Five documentary, managed to receive “meets standards” evaluations. “Dowd, like many other openly corrupt officers with whom we spoke, reported that this lack of strong supervision and many supervisors’ apparent willful blindness made him believe that he could ‘do just about anything and get away with it.’”

Why are we conducting performance evaluations and how are they making the agency better? These are fundamental questions for agencies that require standardized performance evaluations. Without clearly answering these questions, supervisors are often put in the position of pursuing the “path of least resistance” when it comes to conducting performance evaluations. This path is understandably tempting for supervisors, but it often results in serious agency problems relating to legal liability in discipline and promotions—not to mention officer morale.

When problem officers are given positive performance evaluations as standard operating procedure, personnel decisions become much more difficult to defend in court or in arbitration.  The “copy and paste” evaluations essentially become “get out of jail free cards” that serve to insulate officers from negative employment actions that can withstand scrutiny in arbitration or in court. Too often and to the great detriment of the profession, the only time that these individuals’ real performance issues are openly discussed is when criminal charges are involved, as we see in the characters portrayed in the Mollen Commission Report. 

25 Years Later—What Have We Learned in Personnel Management?

It seems clear to reasonable observers that the law enforcement profession in the United States has continued to improve in professionalism and transparency over the last 25 years, as has generally been the case throughout the history American policing. However, with regard to the fundamental pitfalls of (1) hiring frenzies, (2) the failure to utilize the probationary period as a vetting opportunity and (3) the “copy and paste” performance evaluations that are all too common throughout the profession, the Mollen Commission Report seems extremely relevant.   

The Mollen Commission Report serves as an important reminder that the fundamental challenges facing law enforcement agencies are not new. When it comes to personnel management, identifying the points of failure within police organizations is simple—although correcting course is not necessarily easy.  

We have case studies that answer questions like, What happens when we throw warm bodies into police uniforms for the sake of getting our numbers up at any cost? What happens if we don’t believe people when they show us who they are in the probationary period? What happens if we have ineffective performance evaluations that boil down to checking a box?

The answers are fairly clear. What happens? Nothing good.

About the Author

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability. His training focuses on helping agency leaders create sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing their exposure to costly liability.  A member of a law enforcement family dating back three generations, he serves as both Director and Public Safety Instructor with Dolan Consulting Group.

His training courses include Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Supervisor Liability for Public Safety.


1 Holzman, E. (Producer), & Russell, T. (2015). The Seven Five  [Motion Picture]. United States, Sony Pictures.

2 City of New York (1994). Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption

Procedures of the Police Department: Commission Report  . New York, NY: City of New York; p. 1.

3 Mollen Commission Report, p.65

4 Mollen Commission Report, p.111

5 Mollen Commission Report, p. 111

6 Mollen Commission Report, p. 112

7 Mollen Commission Report, p. 113

8 Mollen Commission Report, p. 117

9 Mollen Commission Report, p. 117

10 Mollen Commission Report, p.80.

11 Mollen Commission Report, p.81.

Why are We Grading Performance Evaluations?

Why are we conducting performance evaluations and how are they making our agencies better? Ask this question to groups of sergeants, command staff, chiefs and sheriffs across the country and you will get shrugs, smirks, and eye rolls. It is the fundamental question that often gets lost in the day-to-day realities of personnel management in law enforcement.

The official, textbook answers to these questions tend to fall somewhere along the lines of the following:

Regular performance evaluations are intended to ensure (1) that supervisors are communicating clear performance objectives to subordinates, (2) that subordinates are aware of their areas of needed improvement as well as the areas in which they excel, and (3) any questions associated with subordinate performance are answered and performance objectives are clarified with specificity.

Performance evaluations improve agency functions by providing a pre-disciplinary setting in which to address performance deficiencies as early as possible before formal discipline is necessary and before performance issues results in significant damage to agency operations.

These types of policy manual descriptions are rooted in a simple idea: supervisors should be continuously “kicking tires” and evaluating the work being done by their officers to find problems early and “nip them in the bud” as quickly as possible. This is in the interest of the individual officer who is under-performing and in the interest of the agency. But how are the benefits of continuous communication and early intervention affected by forcing supervisors to grade or rate their subordinates through annual evaluations?

How Attaching Ratings to Evaluations Hurts Communication

Accurately evaluating performance and communicating expectations to subordinates—whether on the side of the road after a traffic stop, or as part of a pre-scheduled performance appraisal meeting—inevitably involves difficult conversations. Many law enforcement supervisors seem more comfortable confronting violent offenders on the street than they are confronting a subordinate at the precinct. This tendency to shy away from confrontation with subordinates is often exacerbated by the fact that, beyond a difficult conversation and documentation of areas of some deficiency, the subordinate is getting a “failing grade” in the form of a number or rating that amounts to a D or an F.

In most agencies, officers don’t grieve the narrative facts of the evaluation—they grieve the grade. Many supervisors and officers readily admit that, as long as they are receiving positive ratings on the evaluation, officers don’t even bother to read the narrative notes and comments. This is a huge problem—the notes and comments are supposed to be the point of the evaluation, not the rating score.

How Attaching Rating Scores to Evaluations Impacts Defensible Promotions and Discipline

Broken performance evaluations that don’t accurately reflect the realities on the ground can do a great deal of damage to a department. They can de-motivate high-level performers who are keenly aware of the fact that their pay and evaluations are the same as the “bad apple” in the unit. They can undermine, or even demoralize, supervisors who feel that they are expected to “check a box” without causing any waves rather than actively taking ownership of their subordinates’ conduct in furtherance of their duties. But possibly the worst outcome is that broken performance evaluations can often serve as “get out of jail free cards” for the worst officers in the agency.

The pressure to circle a 3, or “meets expectations,” can be strong when the supervisor knows that circling anything less than that puts the onus on the supervisor to meticulously document why the performance is substandard, how long it has been a problem, and what the supervisor plans to do to improve it. 

When the time comes to suspend, demote, or even terminate an officer, stacks of these yearly “meets expectations” evaluations—no matter how truly inaccurate—prove to be one of the best friends that a “bad apple” officer ever had.

What if We Conducted Feedback Sessions Without Grades?

What if a supervisor sat down every 3 or 6 months with every subordinate and briefly went over a couple of pages of concrete feedback? What if the supervisor laid out the positives, the negatives, and their expectations moving forward? Then, what if the supervisor simply required an acknowledgment of receipt signature from the subordinate without attaching a grade? 

If an officer is demonstrating significant deficiencies, the supervisor should be engaging in progressive discipline—beginning with “knock it off” verbal warnings and continuing with more formal performance improvement plans. If an officer is outstanding—the agency should consider how excellence is recognized within the organization, whether through commendation or some other form of formal recognition.

But if an officer is neither a problem employee nor an outstanding performer, why are agencies spending time handing out grades? After all, the narrative feedback between the grades is supposed to be the rationale for conducting these evaluations in the first place. What better way to minimize the risk of the rating score becoming the focal point than to get rid of it all together?

This idea is far from guaranteed to have a positive impact on agencies’ personnel management. If what your agency has done for years isn’t working, however, then it might be time to try something different.

About the Author

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability. His training focuses on helping agency leaders create sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing their exposure to costly liability. A member of a law enforcement family dating back three generations, he serves as both Director and Public Safety Instructor with Dolan Consulting Group.

His training courses include Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Supervisor Liability for Public Safety.

Diversity in Police Recruiting—What Draws Members of Racial Minority Groups?

Many law enforcement agencies today are struggling to recruit enough quality applicants to fill the law enforcement officer vacancies they currently have or will have soon. At the same time, these agencies are under increasing pressure to achieve greater racial diversity in their pool of qualified applicants. To do so, law enforcement agencies need evidence-based information about how to increase the effectiveness of their recruiting efforts and how to attract more qualified applicants who are members of racial minority groups.

Dolan Consulting Group (DCG) recently conducted a large survey of existing law enforcement officers from across the nation in order to determine what factors influenced them to pursue a law enforcement career. Specifically, we surveyed 1,673 law enforcement officers, knowing that all of these participants had already successfully become law enforcement officers, proving they have the necessary backgrounds and skills to successfully gain employment as law enforcement officers. We were interested in determining what factors influenced these officers to choose their current profession. We examined if any significant differences existed in their answers between officers of different racial / ethnic groups.

The Sample

All sworn law enforcement officers who attended the various training courses offered by DCG between August 2018 and March 2019 were given the opportunity to participate in our DCG Police Recruiting and Hiring Survey. A total of 1,673 sworn personnel took the survey, of which 286 (17.1%) were female and 1,387 (82.9%) were male. The racial composition of the respondents were 83.4% White (non-Hispanic), 6.8% African-American, 5.4% Hispanic, 1.4% Multiracial, 1.0% Native American, 0.4% Asian, and 1.6% all other groups. In terms of highest education level, 30.8% had less than an associate’s degree, 18.2% had an associate’s degree, and 51% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. A total of 52.8% of the respondents held the rank of officer, deputy, or trooper, while another 10.0% held the rank of detective. About 23.0% held first-line supervisory ranks (corporal or sergeant), 4.5% held middle-management ranks (mostly lieutenants), and the remaining 9.7% held command staff ranks (captain or higher). Approximately 65% of the respondents were assigned to the patrol division of their agency, while 14% were assigned to investigations, and 14% to command or administration. The remaining 7% indicated other assignments such as training, community policing unit, or media relations. These respondents came from 49 different states and agencies ranging in size from less than a dozen officers to agencies with thousands of officers.   

Reasons for Selecting the Career

The survey respondents were presented with a list of 17 factors that might have influenced them to pursue a career in law enforcement. The respondents were asked to reflect on their own lives and indicate if each of these factors played a role in shaping their decision to become a law enforcement officer. For each of these 17 factors, the respondents were to indicate their level of agreement (from strongly disagree to strongly agree) on the extent to which each factor influenced their career choice decision. As revealed in our earlier article published on July 9, 2019, Why do People Become Cops?, only seven of these factors played a notable role with 25% or more of the sample saying these factors were an influence. The remaining ten factors were each identified by less than a quarter of the respondents. Therefore, we focused on these seven most important factors which are displayed in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Reasons for Selecting a Law Enforcement Career (Entire Sample)


Racial Group Differences

The three largest racial / ethnic groups among the survey respondents were Non-Hispanic Whites (1,395 respondents), African-Americans (114 respondents), and Hispanics (90 respondents). The remaining 74 respondents were spread out across five more categories, including multiracial, so the analysis was limited to only the three categories with substantial numbers of respondents—Whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics. The responses of the participants in the survey are displayed by race within Table 2 below. As Table 2 reveals, some notable racial differences were found when it comes to why individual respondents pursued a career in law enforcement.

More than two-thirds of the respondents in each of the three groups selected a career in law enforcement because it was interesting / exciting work, but responses differed by race for several of the other influences. While a strong majority of all three groups indicated they were drawn to the career by a desire to help people and serve society, the African-American respondents ranked this desire to help people much higher than did White or Hispanic respondents. This difference was statistically significant. Placed into context, this means that out of every 100 white officers, about 68 indicated they selected the career to help people, and about 71 out of every 100 Hispanic officers did as well. Out of every 100 African-American officers, however, about 83 indicated they chose their career to help people or service society. 

Table 2. Reasons for Selecting a Law Enforcement Career by Race / Ethnicity


Compared to Whites and Hispanics, the African-American respondents were less likely to be drawn to the career by seeing the police at work in their community or interacting with these officers. Perhaps this suggests a greater need for outreach and citizen interactions by beat officers working in predominantly black neighborhoods. This difference, however, was not statistically significant.

Compared to Whites, the African-American and Hispanic respondents were much more likely to say they chose their career to correct injustices in society. About 40 out of every 100 White officers indicated this was an influence, compared to 50 out of every 100 Hispanic officers and 58 out of every 100 African-American officers. This difference was statistically significant. Compared to Whites and African-Americans, the Hispanic respondents were less likely to indicate they selected their career due to a recommendation from a friend or family member. 

Our results also revealed that, compared to Whites and Hispanics, the African-American respondents were more likely to have been influenced by popular media portrayals of the law enforcement career (i.e., television shows and movies). In terms of advertising mediums, this finding reveals important racial and ethnic differences. According to a large study published by the Nielson ratings organization in 2014, African-American households generally watched more television as compared to White, Hispanic, and Asian households. According to that study, the form of entertainment media most consumed by African-American households was traditional television (cable, dish, or antenna). Among Hispanic households, the most consumed media was radio. Among White and Asian households, the form most consumed was Internet content. Recruiting efforts may benefit from strategically targeting these media forms with advertising about the career, with advertising content targeting each group by the media source.    


Our findings suggest that there are noteworthy differences between racial / ethnic groups in what influenced their decision to become law enforcement officers. The primary motives for pursuing the career for all racial groups was a desire to do interesting work and help people, but the “helping people” part was a markedly stronger influence for African-Americans as compared to other groups. African-American and Hispanic officers were also found to be more attracted to fighting societal injustice than were White officers. Recruiting messages directed toward minority groups should emphasize these aspects of the job.

As White officers were more likely to have known a law enforcement officer personally, and have someone in their life recommend the career, this also suggests we need to be more proactive in establishing personal relationships with members of minority communities and encouraging qualified individuals from those communities to consider the profession.  

Interestingly, African-Americans also appeared more likely to have been drawn to the career by entertainment media portrayals of the career field. The law enforcement profession can lobby for positive entertainment media portrayals of the law enforcement career, especially featuring African-American officers. Nielsen research has also revealed that radio is one of the most effective ways to reach the Hispanic community, so recruiting efforts targeting this segment of the population should include radio advertising. 

It is obviously difficult to lump all African-Americans or all Hispanic-Americans in one uniform group without recognizing that individual motivations vary for reasons that have nothing to do with race. However, as agencies struggle to find a more diverse pool of qualified applicants, evidence-based strategies seem much more likely to succeed, rather than those based on purely anecdotal examples.

About the Author

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability. His training focuses on helping agency leaders create sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing their exposure to costly liability. A member of a law enforcement family dating back three generations, he serves as both Director and Public Safety Instructor with Dolan Consulting Group.

His training courses include Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Supervisor Liability for Public Safety.


1.Nielsen Corp (2014). The Total Audience Report, December 2014. New York, NY: Nielson.