What Cops Can Learn from Mother Teresa

The officer morale issues plaguing law enforcement agencies across the country in recent years have been well-documented.  Rank-and-file officers, and those tasked with leading them, often experience a profound sense of futility in the face of the addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and criminality that cops face every day.  The challenges that they face in their work, and the lack of meaningful political support, are likely unprecedented in the history of American policing.  So, what model should law enforcement professionals look to, as they struggle to muster the fortitude to continue to do their jobs each day?  What about a model from outside of the policing profession?

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) was an Albanian-born Catholic nun who became famous for founding missions of charity, primarily in Calcutta, India.  Her missionary work focused on the sick, the poor, the disabled, the widowed and the orphaned.  Her religious order grew to include over 4,500 nuns across 133 countries.  Although Mother Teresa did not carry a gun or a badge, she nonetheless represents the kind of steadfast commitment to doing good that cops desperately need today.  Her life and work can act as a model to those in the policing profession who are searching for inspiration to combat a sense of futility.  The five-foot-tall nun, who spent most of her life in city slums, was admired throughout India and the rest of the world during her lifetime for her works of charity, selflessness and compassion.  Her legacy, solidified by her canonization as a saint by the Catholic Church in 2016, continues to inspire countless people, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Mother Teresa felt called to serve in the slums of Calcutta precisely because it was a place of hopelessness.  She felt called to serve the poorest of the poor and the most hopeless of the hopeless.  She did it for half a century, and amazingly, she did it joyfully.  So, what can cops serving in 2023 learn from her example? 

Accept Your Limitations

Any veteran cop, jaded by years of experiencing society at its worst, might sum Mother Teresa’s life up in a more pessimistic way.  In a way that cuts to the core of the sense of futility that many officers so often experience, they might say, “When she went to the Calcutta slums, it was a hole.  She was there for 50 years, and when she died, it was still a hole.”

By most objective measures, this sentiment seems reasonable.  At the time of her canonization in 2016, the former mayor of Calcutta, who criticized her work, claimed, “she had no significant impact on the poor of this city.” [i]  No significant impact.  If we are critical enough and cynical enough, we can also make the same assessment of any cop.  Look at the crime statistics in any jurisdiction and you can easily conclude that the men and women who have served as cops there have utterly failed for generations.  Never once has there been a law enforcement officer’s retirement ceremony, during which it was honestly claimed that the retiring cop ended crime, disorder and useless suffering in the town, city, county or state.  No matter how much good work the officer did, eventually there were new victims, new crimes and new gangs.  So, what was the point?  What was the point?

Once, when asked if she and the sisters she worked with were able to accomplish all that they would like, Mother Teresa did not sugar-coat the reality of her limitations.  “Unfortunately, the needs are always greater than our ability to meet them.”[ii]  That frank and honest assessment is also applicable to law enforcement officers and agencies who see the high volume of calls for service and need for proactive enforcement activities, compared to their staffing levels.

Mother Teresa also warned against a stats-driven outlook so familiar to those in law enforcement: “Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”[iii]

It is important to note that she was not naive to the enormity of the tasks before her.  Rather, she accepted them and kept pushing forward without the naive hope that she and her fellow nuns would somehow put an end to pain, poverty and suffering.  Without ignoring the brutal realities of life and of her work, she refrained from focusing on the whole system instead of focusing on what can be accomplished today—one person at a time.  She accepted her limitations and worked in spite of them.

Help the Person in Front of You

For someone like Mother Teresa, it seems that accepting her own limitations was an important precursor to throwing herself into what can be accomplished, instead of focusing on what cannot“I never think in terms of crowds in general, but in terms of persons.  Were I to think about crowds, I would never begin anything.  It is the person that matters.  I believe in person-to-person encounters.”[iv]

How many law enforcement officers have had an immeasurable impact on a person’s life because of something they did in the line of duty?  And yet, as genuinely inspiring as many of those individual stories may be, their actions inevitably did not result in putting a permanent end to crime and disorder in a community, let alone an entire city or county.  If the focus is on eliminating crime entirely, rather than what positive impact can be made in each and every encounter, disillusionment and burnout are nearly guaranteed.  Much more is accomplished, Mother Teresa asserted, if the focus is on the person-to-person encounters.

In the spirit of humility that defines a saint, Mother Teresa reminds us that we cannot possibly know the impact that our efforts will ultimately have on people’s lives: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”[v]  Law enforcement officers who regularly encounter a toxic mix of societal ills could benefit from adopting this mindset for making an impact.

Mother Teresa also spoke to the leadership crisis that many experience within their agencies and see in their local elected officials.  Some cops grapple with constant frustration that the chief, the prosecutor, or any other number of individuals in leadership positions refuse to lead because doing so is too politically risky.  To people in situations like the ones these officers face, Mother Teresa said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”[vi]

Always Remember Your WHY

A sense of purpose—or lack thereof—may be the most significant factor in the outcome of individual and organizational endeavors.  This is not a new concept.  In fact, motivational author Simon Sinek recently wrote a book on the subject from a broader secular perspective than anything professed by a saint like Mother Teresa.[vii]  But the need for consistent reminders on the importance of purpose only indicates how universally true it proves to be.

If the why, or the purpose, is to solve all of the world’s problems, then we have created a sure-fire path to the frustration and disillusionment that is all too prevalent among law enforcement officers.  Mother Teresa’s why was not to solve the world’s problems.  It would seem impossible to make sense of her life—starting with decades of work in the slums of Calcutta before the world began taking notice of her—without understanding why she did it.  Her why is what drove her in the face of insurmountable societal ills and heartbreaking suffering that she knew she could never eradicate.

When asked about the constant difficulties in carrying out her work, she once responded, “Of course it would not be easy without an intense life of prayer and a spirit of sacrifice.”[viii]  As expected for a nun who felt called by Christ at a young age to serve the Church, Mother Teresa’s Catholic faith was the driving why behind everything that she did in her life.  Daily prayer and daily Mass were ways in which she continually reminded herself of her why

Your why, as a cop, does not have to be the same as Mother Teresa’s.  You don’t have to share her Catholic faith, or in any religion for that matter.  But you do have to possess a why that is more important than stats, and it must not be the doomed goal of eliminating crime and disorder entirely.  You should know your why and remind yourself, and those around you, of that purpose as often as possible to keep it firmly in the forefront of your mind.

There are many admirable role models in the realm of law enforcement that we can look to for inspiration in discussing the challenges facing law enforcement officers in 2023.  But since the challenges are indeed unprecedented, we may want to look beyond the profession for role models who have more in common with today’s cops than we would have thought.  Mother Teresa is a good start, as she shows us the importance of accepting our limitations, helping the person in front of us and remembering our why.

About the Author

Matt Dolan, J.D.

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability, risk management and ethical leadership.  His training focuses on helping agency leaders create ethically and legally sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing liability and maximizing agency effectiveness.  

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 Internal Affairs Investigations: Legal Liability and Best Practices, Supervisor Liability for Law Enforcement, Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Confronting Bias in Law Enforcement.


[i] Bengali, Shashank. “Was Mother Teresa a saint?  In city she made synonymous with suffering, a renewed debate over her legacy” The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2016.  Accessed: https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-india-mother-teresa-snap-story.html

[ii] Sri, Edward. No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk through Christ’s Passion. West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2019, p. 164.

[iii] Sanders, Alice. Mother Teresa: Greatest Life Lessons and Best Quotes. Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2015.

[iv] Sri, No Greater Love, p. 69.

[v] Sanders, Mother Teresa.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, NY: Portfolio, 2009. [1] Sri, No Greater Love, p. 163.

[viii] Sri, No Greater Love, p. 163.

Negligent Hiring Liability for Law Enforcement in 2023

Over a year ago, we at Dolan Consulting Group published an article entitled Negligent Hiring Liability for Law Enforcement in 2022.  Unfortunately, 14 months later, the cause for concern in this area has only grown.  More and more conversations we have with law enforcement leaders involve concerns about lowering standards in order to hire “warm bodies”, and more case studies are emerging.  Sadly, it seems that an updated article on this crucial topic is necessary.

Over the course of the last few years, and in the months ahead, law enforcement agencies have and will continue to struggle to fill vacant positions in an extremely difficult recruiting environment.  Beyond the labor shortage that appears to be impacting countless professions, from nursing to transportation to hospitality, law enforcement vacancies seem particularly difficult to fill.  This is the case, not only because of the rigors of the job, but also because of the sustained anti-police rhetoric which has dominated so much of popular culture in the last two years.  

Many of the agencies that were defunded only two or three years ago are now being tasked to pull a “U-Turn” and increase staff in the face of a surge in violent crime.  Confronted with pressures to hire officers as quickly as possible and generate recruit classes that are more diverse, leaders will inevitably face the temptation to cut corners and ignore red flags to get “boots on the ground”

These increasing pressures may regrettably mean that those boots are not filled with qualified men and women who demonstrate the character traits and competencies necessary to successfully serve their communities.  Making these short-term fixes even more appealing are their delayed consequences–bad hires may not become public safety, legal liability or public trust disasters for many months or even years.  Short-term thinking could motivate hiring decisions that will fill the ranks today, but make for negative headlines and lawsuits for years to come.

At this moment, the law enforcement profession, and the citizens who depend on it, need agency leaders and other key personnel to meet the ethical challenge of resisting the temptation to hire unqualified applicants.  In the long run, these applicants have the potential to inflict tremendous damage on agencies, the profession and the communities that these agencies serve. 

The last thing that officers and citizens need now is “warm bodies” hired into the law enforcement field who will ultimately bring disrepute to the profession, rather than further the mission to protect and serve.  By learning from the mistakes of the past, being wary of common hiring pitfalls and understanding the long-term impact of negligent hiring practices, agency leaders can uphold their integrity and that of the profession without contributing to the detriment of their agencies and communities.

What We’ve Seen Since the Start of 2022

In May of 2022, the mayor of San Jose, amidst what he described as a “drumbeat” of disturbing police misconduct cases, acknowledged that improved screening of new applicants was vital to addressing the personnel problems facing the San Jose Police Department.  Then-mayor Sam Liccardo, noting the prevalence of newer officers among those facing criminal and/or administrative charges, publicly stated his concerns surrounding screening protocol.  Mayor Liccardo asserted, “I expect and I know the department is looking into this right now and in the next several days, we’ll be able to identify the specific actionable steps the department will take to ensure that we don’t see news like this again.” [1]

In September of 2022, a Colorado officer parked his patrol car across train tracks and placed a handcuffed arrestee inside. Shortly after the arrestee was placed in his patrol car, a freight train struck the vehicle, causing severe injuries to the woman inside.  In October of 2022, local news outlets uncovered recent personnel files from his former department, including performance evaluations and Internal Affairs investigation findings.  These documents raised red flags concerning the officer’s competence and regard for officer and public safety.  Local media inquiries for comment were met with standard statements regarding background processes but did not speak to the past employment problems in question. [2]

In late October of 2022, a Maryland Sheriff’s deputy was arrested and charged with raping a woman while on duty and in uniform.  The deputy had been employed with the agency for less than one year.  In a media interview in early November of 2022, the Sheriff stated that, “[i]t’s very difficult to recruit good quality candidates…So what do we find ourselves doing? Hiring people that didn’t wow us during the interview.  But we need warm bodies on patrol still in these vacancies that we have within our agencies.  And inevitably, what does that do? It lowers our standards. This is how individuals are able to get through the cracks.” [3] 

In November of 2022, a newly-hired Virginia Sheriff’s deputy traveled to California and allegedly murdered a young woman he had met online, along with her parents, before killing himself with local police officers surrounding him.  In December of 2022, it became clear that the deputy had previously worked as a Virginia State Trooper—having been hired in spite of the apparent availability of a 2016 police report detailing a police encounter during which he was held for a psychiatric evaluation after threatening to kill himself and his father.  A Virginia State Police spokesperson indicated that “human error” was to blame for his hiring in 2021. [4]

And finally, in February of 2023, in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death and the filing of criminal charges against several officers involved in his arrest, former members of the Memphis Police Department recruiting unit came forward with allegations that the MPD had lowered hiring standards in the years leading up to Nichols’ death.  One retired MPD lieutenant formerly in charge of recruiting claimed, “[t]hey would allow just pretty much anybody to be a police officer because they just want these numbers.” [5]

Going Beyond Automatic Disqualifiers 

An agency’s automatic disqualifiers, whether related to past criminal convictions, drug use or other clear “red flags”, are a vital part of the vetting process.  However, no compilation of automatic disqualifiers—no matter how well drafted—will render a thorough background investigation less important.  In a thorough background investigation, possible disqualifiers related to temperament and character will inevitably emerge that do not fit neatly into one of the automatic disqualifier categories.  Past supervisors, neighbors, family members and others are invaluable sources of information.  The insight they provide may not be in the form of a criminal conviction or even an arrest.  It may not point to prohibited drug use.  It may, however, reveal issues pertaining to anger management, mental health, substance abuse, trustworthiness or any other of a multitude of concerning character traits.

The fact that a candidate occupies the problem house or apartment in a community is relevant.  The fact that the police are called to the candidate’s residence on a regular basis in response to noise complaints is relevant.  The fact that multiple supervisors or personal references describe him or her as somehow prone to anger is relevant.  Even if none of these pieces of information are a part of the list of automatic disqualifiers, they are still relevant.

It seems likely that the over-reliance on automatic disqualifiers is born of an interest in speed and convenience.  Conducting home visits, canvassing neighborhoods and interviewing references all require significant time and effort.  Agency leaders are tempted to expedite the hiring process by focusing less on these fundamental investigative techniques.  As important as it is to process applicants quickly, neglecting these tried-and-true background investigation strategies may lead to missing critical pieces of information that do not show up on a criminal record or social media account. 

Hiring the Wrong People Today Makes It Harder to Recruit the Right People Tomorrow 

In 2023 and beyond, hiring decisions will be made that will profoundly impact the future of American policing.  Who will be our next generation of law enforcement officers?  Beyond the legal liability concerns related to negligent hiring, the societal costs are even greater.  

If agency leaders give in to the temptation to fill recruit classes hastily and short-sightedly in order to “hit their hiring numbers”, without due regard for the quality of the people being hired on, what is the predictable impact on the occurrence of police misconduct on and off the job?  If the past is repeated, and these hiring frenzies continue to result in unqualified individuals being hired, and in turn a rise in instances of misconduct, police recruiting will only become more challenging.

It has never been more difficult for law enforcement agencies to hide their problem people than it is today.  The odds of a bad hire becoming the face of the agency is greater than ever before.  Therefore, the legal, public safety and public trust costs of negligent hiring decisions have never been a greater risk.

For the generation of law enforcement leaders who will be retiring in the coming years, the most significant impact they will have on their agencies and their communities may be the role they play in vetting and hiring the next generation of officers who will answer the call long after they retire.  That may well be their legacy, for better or for worse.  

About the Author

Matt Dolan, J.D.

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability, risk management and ethical leadership.  His training focuses on helping agency leaders create ethically and legally sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing liability and maximizing agency effectiveness.  

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 Internal Affairs Investigations: Legal Liability and Best Practices, Supervisor Liability for Law Enforcement, Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Confronting Bias in Law Enforcement.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.  The information herein is presented for informational purposes only.  Individual legal cases should be referred to proper legal counsel.


[1] Lin, Summer. “San Jose: Liccardo calls for improved screening, background checks after slew of police misconduct allegations: Police confirmed this week an officer is on leave over an allegation he traded a meth pipe for information.” The Mercury News, May 12, 2022. Accessed: https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/05/12/san-jose-liccardo-calls-for-improved-screening-background-checks-after-slew-of-police-misconduct-allegations/

[2] Maass, Brian. “Police officer who parked on train tracks called ‘incompetent’ by fellow officers, demotion recommended at previous department.” CBS Colorado, October 27, 2022. Accessed: https://www.cbsnews.com/colorado/news/platteville-police-officer-parked-train-tracks-called-incompetent-fellow-officers-demotion-recommended-sgt-pablo-vazquez/

[3] Wallace, Danielle. “Maryland cop arrested over in-custody Kohl’s lot rape allegedly had more victims, history of misconduct. At least 6 more women have come forward after the arrest of fired Wicomico County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Abreu, who is accused of rape.” FOX News, November 7, 2022. Accessed: https://www.foxnews.com/us/maryland-cop-arrested-custody-kohls-lot-rape-allegedly-more-victims-history-misconduct

[4] WTVR CBS Channel 6 News. “’Human error’ made when Virginia State Police hired man now accused of murdering California family.” WTVR CBS Channel 6 News, December 7, 2022. Accessed: https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/human-error-austin-edwards-december-07-2022

[5] Condon, Bernard, Mustain, Jim, & Sainz, Adrian. “Amid soaring crime, Memphis cops lowered the bar for hiring.” Associated Press, February 7, 2023. Accessed: https://apnews.com/article/law-enforcement-tyre-nichols-memphis-crime-93033874b99a4893c6c996fd56676795

Sexual Harassment Liability in Public Safety

The national media has placed a keen focus on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace over the past several weeks.  Media and political figures are accused of sexual misconduct and, possibly even more importantly, a multitude of men and women in positions of power are found to have been aware of misconduct to some extent but did little to prevent or report it.

As disturbing as these well-known cases are, the steady flow of accusations against some in public safety are, in many respects, more concerning.  Not because police officers or firefighters are routinely engaging in some of the types of misconduct reported out of Hollywood, but because the men and women of public safety are expected to uphold higher standards than celebrities and media moguls

First responders are the people we call in our moments of greatest need.  They enter private homes.  They are placed in the position to care for some of society’s most vulnerable individuals, including children, the elderly and countless victims of crime or medical emergency.

A working knowledge of their responsibilities in the area of harassment allegations is too often missing from the “tool box” of new supervisors as well as seasoned public safety leaders.  There are a few key items for agency leaders to keep in mind.

(1) Utilize common sense rules of thumb. Does an individual have a widely-known nickname that indicates a tendency to engage in harassing behavior?  Is a questionable activity in the agency widely-known by a nickname?  Is the only possible defense to what happened fall along the lines of: she initiated it, she was laughing as hard as anybody, he smiled through the whole thing?

All of these aforementioned examples illustrate that the activity is not a secret and is known to supervisors.  As a result, the agency is in no position to deny that they were alerted of the issue.  Behavior that would rightly embarrass the agency is known to the public does not need to be reported if the chief, captain or sergeant is already aware of it.

(2) Prohibit retaliatory acts in the wake of complaints. Leaders in public safety, through policy and training, need to emphasize to all supervisors the importance of avoiding retaliatory acts when harassment allegations are lodged.  It is vital that a person does not see shift or work assignments affected in any negative way due to simply lodging a complaint.  Even the appearance of retaliation, when some negative employment action is taken following closely behind a complaint, can often be the most costly part of a sexual harassment lawsuit in terms of finances and time.

(3) Reserve judgment when conducting the internal investigation. This is challenging in any internal investigation but particularly so as allegations become more egregious and personal—as in the case of sexual harassment cases.  Keep in mind that just because the accuser is not someone who you hold in high regard—personally or professionally—does not mean that the allegation is necessarily false.  Furthermore, just because the accused is someone you believe to be a great professional who you would never suspect of engaging in wrongdoing does not necessarily mean that they did not engage in the alleged behavior. 

Allowing preconceived notions about agency “superstars” or agency “trouble-makers” to impact the internal investigation can be disastrous
in that it stands to compromise the integrity of the investigation and puts the agency at substantial risk of liability stemming from the original complaint and/or allegations of subsequent retaliation.

(4) Demonstrate a willingness to take disciplinary action when allegations are shown to be demonstrably false. This is vitally important if agencies are going to gain genuine buy-in throughout the agency.  If there are allegations of sexual harassment in the agency—that should fundamentally trouble agency leaders for obvious reasons.  Those leaders should be equally bothered by false accusations against agency members.  For an employee to essentially “weaponize” laws created to protect workers in order to attack a fellow member of the department is unacceptable and it should prove a violation of agency policies prohibiting false reporting on fellow employees.

When investigating and evaluating harassment allegations, “never mind” from the complainant is never a reason to close the investigation.  If the investigation reveals that someone engaged in harassing behavior, that must result in serious disciplinary action.  The same is true if the investigation reveals that someone is falsifying allegations, regardless of the motive.  It is both possible and vital to agency operations that leaders treat harassing behavior and demonstrably false allegations of harassment with similar severity.

Contrary to their apparent belief, most Americans do not look to Hollywood or to Washington, D.C. for models of ethical conduct.  Many do, however, hold their local public safety professionals to high ethical standards.  This higher standard is reasonable and should be viewed as a public trust to be protected.

Sexual harassment liability poses a substantial risk to public safety agencies in terms of financial costs, organizational disruption and public trust.  It is vital to agency operations that all employees—and particularly supervisors—are familiar with their fundamental responsibilities under the law when it comes to sexual harassment.