Role Conflict in the Midst of Disaster

Missing and Out of Action:
Role Conflict and Role
Abandonment among Law
Enforcement Officers in times of
Terri Adams, Ph.D.
Research Assistant: Mila Turner
Howard University
First Responder Behaviors
In the event of a
disaster or any
major crisis event,
first responders are
relied upon for
response, and
recovery efforts.
They are relied upon
heavily in the midst
of a crisis; hence, it’s
imperative that we
seek to better
understand first
Failure to do so can
result in inadequate
mitigation, and
recovery efforts.
First Responder Behaviors
 Currently, most of the nation's preparation, response,
and recovery plans for potential man-made and
natural catastrophic events presuppose that first
responders will respond in the event of a disaster.
 However, media reports of neglect of duty among
police officers in New Orleans, during the Hurricane
Katrina crisis challenges this assumption.
Research Questions
 The divergent responses of NOPD officers to the
Katrina crisis raises at least two critical questions:
 What can we expect when first responders are
personally impacted by a disaster?
 Is abandonment of duty a potential issue that
needs to be considered by first responder
agencies during high consequence events?
The ineluctable threat of future natural
and manmade disasters makes it
imperative to advance the
understanding of key issues that first
responders face, and to develop
meaningful strategies for preparing
them for disaster response.
First Responder Behaviors
 “Society demands that the police shall
function even in unexpected and
dynamic situations.” Lyle, 1996
 …however, they remain human.
 Although trained to respond under pressure, first
responders are susceptible to the same fear induced
cognitive processes that are associated with human
response to extreme stress.
 The degree to which individuals can effectively
respond to threats is heavily influenced by the amount
of fear elicited by the threatening stimuli (Leventhal &
Niles, 1964; Leventhal & Watts, 1966).
Core Themes Discussed
of Duty
What is role conflict?
 Role theory informs us that there are a variety of
different kinds of roles that exist for individuals
within society.
 These roles can be categorized as being formal or
informal, and can be associated with familial,
societal, or occupational responsibilities and
identities (Adams & Turner, 2013).
The role of law enforcement officers is defined by
a set of ideals
The Police Subculture
 The ideal officer, according to police subculture:
 Takes risks (honor)
 Is first on scene to aid a fellow police officer (loyalty)
 Can handle any situation in his/her own way (individuality)
 Officers’ coping strategies:
 Humor
 Keeping emotional distance from themselves and stressful
 Blue wall of silence: Figurative protective barrier erected by
police in which officers protect one another from outsiders,
often even refusing to aid superiors or other officials in
investigating wrongdoing of other officers
Role C0nflict
 When the expectations of the role and the needs or
values of the individual occupying the role are
incongruous, a person-role conflict occurs.
 Another type of role conflict that has been distinguished
in the literature is inter-role, which is the incompatibility
among two or more roles held by one individual.
 The latter is most commonly associated with the basic
term “role conflict.” However, role conflict has been
conceptualized in numerous ways with dissension
about what the term actually constitutes.
What is role conflict?
 “…the dilemma of making an immediate choice
between various roles” (Killian, 1952).
 “…conflicting group loyalties and contradictory roles
resulting from multiple-group membership” (Killian,
 “…[when] situations are so ordered that an actor is
required to fill simultaneously two or more roles that
present inconsistent, contradictory, or even mutually
exclusive expectations” (Getzels&Guba, 1954).
 Roles are often rooted in one’s social identity and
group affiliations.
 Tajfel and Turner (1979) have noted that a person’s
self-concept is derived from their personal identity as
well as their social identity.
 Which did you consider first: your role in
your family, your job, or what you do
during your spare time?
Role Conflict
 Killian (1952) suggested that the primary group membership would
trump secondary group membership during times of disaster, and
predicted that role abandonment was possible among emergency
 White (1962) informs us that responders will make decisions between
their job and family responsibilities based on “whichever opportunity
happens to present itself first.”
 Rogers (1986) discovered that the first responders’ proximity to a
significant other “both victims and socially related,” during the impact
of an event was related to the “type of emergency response possible
and the nature of any associated conflicting role expectation.”
 Dynes’ (1986) work lends support to the concepts of “role moratorium,”
“role reduction,” and “role simplification” whereby only tasks relevant
to the emergency situation are performed while irrelevant roles and
duties are eliminated or temporarily suspended.
What is role strain?
 The difficulty in fulfilling role obligations (Goode, 1960).
 Individuals “may face different types of role demands
and conflicts” that she/he “feels as ‘role strains’ when”
she/he “wishes to carry out specific obligations.”
 Occurs when an individual finds it difficult to fulfill the
multiple demands of a role.
So What’s the Difference?
 Role Conflict occurs when a person has to try to fulfill
multiple role expectations.
 Role strain occurs when a person experiences
difficulty in fulfilling the expectations of a role.
 Role abandonment can occur as a response to role
conflict or role strain.
What constitutes
abandonment of duty?
 Permanently leaving place of duty without
permission from superiors;
 Leaving place of duty without permission from
superiors and with no intention of returning during a
critical period of time;
 Leaving place of duty for an extended period of time
without permission from superiors; and
 Temporarily leaving place of duty for a short period
of time without permission from superiors.
General Findings
 A large portion of the literature examines role conflict
in relation to the conflict between family life and
occupational responsibilities.
 Most of the literature argues that role conflict is not an
issue among first responders.
 In general abandonment of duty appears not to be an
Analytic Approach
 Qualitative & Quantitative Methodological Design
 The project was carried out in three phases for each of the study
sites: (1) collection of background information, (2) collection of
survey data, and (3) collection of face-to-face interview data.
 Concepts associated with response behavior in disasters are
measured, i.e. threat perceptions, role conflict, role strain, role
abandonment, feelings of isolation, coping mechanisms,
motivational factors, and perceptions of professional responsibility.
 The project examined these core concepts among police officers
that served as first responders during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in
New Orleans, Louisiana and Gulfport, Mississippi (2005), as well as
the earthquake in Santiago, Chile (2010).
 Focus of this talk will be on law enforcement
officers who served during the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina.
 The data reported on include:
 New Orleans - archival data
 Gulfport - survey and face-to-face interview
Hurricane Katrina, New
Orleans, LA
Contextual Information
 Major infrastructure damage
 Loss of headquarters and three police district
 Massive vehicle damage/destruction
 Loss of equipment
 80 officers were stranded & in need of
 2 officers committed
 Failed communication
Effects of Communication Loss on Operations
 Stifled flow of information between upper
management, mid-level management, and
patrol officers.
 Impacted the police operations as mid-level
managers had to make key decisions.
 Impacted the dissemination of information to
the media.
 NOPD resorted to using runners to transfer
messages and information between police
Findings – NOPD
 Abandonment of duty took place among the
New Orleans police officers.
 Media outlets reported 200 officers
abandoned post (Benjamin 2005).
 According to former Superintendent Riley, 147
officers left or abandoned post sometime
during the storm (Testimony of Warren J.
Riley 2006).
 The department lost anywhere from eight to
11 percent of the operating force of 1,750
 The officers who were accused of abandoning
their posts were categorized based on the
degree of their infraction; those whose
actions were considered to be most egregious
were fired from the department, while others
were suspended without pay for up to four
 Eventually 51 NOPD employees were fired - 45
officers and six civilian employees - for post
abandonment before or after Hurricane
Katrina (MSNBC, 2005).
 Review of archival data illustrated the
 Over 90% of the officers who left their
post left to attend to loved ones; some
of whom did not evacuate the city prior
to the storm, while others had family
members who evacuated to other cities
What factors influenced officers who
abandoned their posts?
In their own words:
Female officer absent for 5 days after the storm
 “I’ve been on the job for 7 years. I’m a very good
officer, a very good officer. My work speaks for
itself. It wasn’t about me being a coward. It was not
about me being scared because I’ve worked in the St.
Bernard, Iberville, and Lafitte Housing Developments
for four years and I’m considered one of the toughest
even among the men, so it wasn’t about me being
scared. My main objective was to take care of my
four year old daughter. I was abandoned as a child
and I didn’t want my daughter to feel that way. And
that was my reason for leaving, my only reason for
leaving. “
In their own words:
Male officer absent for 2 days after the storm
 “I mean, like I say, everybody had their own
circumstances that they had to deal with during
Katrina. Some – you know some panicked. A lot – I
mean a lot of us panicked. I’m not going to lie and say
that, you know I wasn’t a little bit upset or scared
about what was going on. I just feel that, you know,
each individual case should have been taken
individually and not maybe across the board standard
for all disciplinary actions.”
Concerns about family members
I know I am a police officer and I had a duty to perform
but I could not perform that duty because I was thinking
Concerns about personal safety
I left the city due to the fact that “everything was in chaos.” I could
not locate my supervisor and I was not given any directives as to the
proper course of action to take after the storm. Basically, it was every
man for himself.
Feelings of distress
My house was completely submerged in water. I was forced to wait on the roof
until rescued by NOPD…I made it to the station where everything was in
complete chaos... I was distraught from the incident at my home but they
wanted me to patrol the streets. I was not mentally ready to work and needed
time to regroup but was told that I did not have the luxury of time.
Hurricane Katrina,
Gulfport, MS
•Private and public housing was
•Casinos and other businesses
were destroyed
•Historical infrastructures were
severely damaged
•Hospitals were greatly damaged
•Government buildings were
•Police headquarters was destroyed •Roadways were blocked due to
•Electrical power was wiped out
•Cell phone towers were wiped out
•Highway 90 was ravaged
storm damage
•Gasoline was in short supply
GPD - Findings
 There were no media reports of abandonment of
duty among the law enforcement officers in Gulfport.
 When officials were asked if any of their personnel
abandoned post, the general response was that this
was not an issue in this department.
 Collected both qualitative and quantitative data
 This analysis is based largely on the quantitative data
 Surveyed officers in the Gulfport Police Department:
Participant characteristics:
 Female 2.6%
 Male 97.4%
Patrol officer
Administrative officer 2.6%
Quantitative Findings
 84% of the respondents felt that their personal safety
was at risk as a result of the predicted severity of the
 42% of the officers reported not having any
evacuation plans prior to Katrina.
 Less than one-third of the officers reported being
able to safely assist loved ones in evacuating before
Katrina made landfall.
Preliminary Findings
 79% of the officers felt that participating in the
recovery and law enforcement activities during the
Katrina crisis conflicted with their family
 88% of married officers reported experiencing role
conflict compared to less than 67% of single or
separated officers.
 All of the female officers reported experiencing
role conflict compared to 82% of the male officers.
 70% of those who could not safely evacuate loved one
prior to the storm experienced role conflict
 53.5% of those who suffered property damage as a result
of the disaster experienced role conflict
 37% of those who reported that the predicted severity of
the storm made them concerned about the safety of their
loved ones indicated that they experienced role conflict
 60% of those who were not able to maintain
communication with their loved ones indicated they
experienced role conflict
In their own words:
The guys on the force were all being tough, and part of her was feeling that
too, but the other part “just wanted to be like a girl and curl up and cry.”
“stole time” from GPD to get personal affairs in orders.”
“Sick to say, but I think your going to find most guys in law enforcement…
very sick to say, but most of us because of our personalities, and what we do
and why we do what we do, we have a tendency to put our job before our
In their own words:
“Sure, there was role conflict. I lost everything I owned but I’m still or even at
the time, was married to the department.”
People realize that you have to take care of your family first and your job
“No. I was fortunate enough to be the only one in my family down here. And
me and my girlfriend we took care of each other so it wasn’t an issues going to
work, so it wasn’t an issues going to work I wasn’t bother by it at all. “
Parents lived nearby, took 3 days to find out they were okay and lost house;
handled it with denial
Summary of Findings
 Dissimilar to previous research, this study found support for the existence of role
conflict among police officers during the Katrina disaster.
 The inability to communicate with loved ones heightens the concern among
 The inability to safely evacuate loved ones heightens levels of concern among
 Despite felling conflict between roles and duties, abandonment of duty does not
appear to be a major problem among responders. The differences experienced
by the NOPD and GPD may be a result of the differences in situational conditions
(types of conditions, degree of chaos experienced), department size, and culture
of the department.
 However, context matters, some officers may leave post temporarily without
notice to take care of personnel responsibilities.
 Is this post abandonment? CONTEXT MATTERS
 Previous findings indicating that role conflict is not a
problem among first responders may be contingent upon
the nature of the disaster incidents on which the data are
based, as well as the types of reporting agents used in
each of the studies. For instance, Dynes (1986)
interviewed organization officials who may be less inclined
to disclose role abandonment among their employees.
Additionally, a disaster may cause less role conflict if it
does not immediately impact the responder or his/her
loved ones at the time of the initial occurrence of the
 This study’s findings highlight the existence of role conflict
among responders who are personally impacted by the
disaster in which they are expected to respond.
Implications of Findings
 Establish alternate communication networks
 Establish evacuation plans prior to threat
 Develop social support and caretaker systems
 Provide education in disaster stress & strains

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