Today's police managers - the Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs, Captains, and those of equivalent rank - are leading departments facing challenges forcing them to rethink the way they lead and carry out their agency mission. They face these challenges under tremendous pressure from the politicians and managers who oversee them, and sometimes at whose pleasure (or whim) they serve, from the public, from the media, from employee unions, and from subordinates.
One of the challenges they face is not uncommon at all, but one that is exacerbated by current issues - police morale.
New Twists on an Old Problem
We have studied and written about police morale in the past, and from those early articles received a wealth of feedback from readers. In short - and this is about as brief a summation of the matter you will get, culled from comments and emails from active and retired cops of all ranks - Poor morale has been, and continues to be, a serious problem in law enforcement. The reasons given vary, and some are age-old, but lately there are new relatively new twists that further threaten morale.
New Twist #1 - the Economy
Out of the economic turmoil that has marked the past couple years have come calls for fiscal austerity from a public suspicious of government spending, disgusted with perceived wastefulness, and calling for greater accountability of how their tax dollars are spent. Calling for cutbacks on public safety spending, once a third-rail topic, were no longer off-limits as voters and politicians took aim at first-responders.
Public pushback has resulted in large-scale cutbacks on equipment, overtime, training budgets, and manpower. Layoffs of sworn officers were once unheard of but are now common and, in some states (such as our own state of Illinois), cries for pension reform - if not the outright abolition of the pension system - are in full-throat.
Just try suggesting a corresponding reduction in police service and see what happens...
New Twist #2 - Media Influence
Law enforcement is one of the most highly visible but least understood professions. Someone can watch every episode of every crime drama or police reality show ever made and never come close to understanding the job. People think they know police and policing based on snippets of information and dramatizations and are quick to offer their thoughts about not just what cops do, but how they should be doing it.
Whether the ever-increasing but still largely faux intimacy with police work most people have developed is a good thing or bad is open to debate. It has spawned such developments as the CSI Effect and awareness - if not necessarily an understanding - of police response, tactics, and weapons. It has raised expectations unrealistically high about investigations, or kept them low, as when fictional depictions of corruption or bad behavior are experienced not as anomalies driving a plotline but as normal behavior.
Cops have long groused about perceptions of unfair news media coverage, so that is nothing new, but what is new is threefold:
First, news sources now extend beyond the traditional outlets (network TV or radio, and traditional print mediums) to reach a wider audience through nontraditional outlets. While this information explosion is generally a good thing, it has also provided equal access to fringe players with little or no journalistic training, values, or integrity competing for readers/viewers/listeners, including more than a few cop-haters ready to bash law enforcement.
Second, no longer is local media coverage local. Breaking news in Akron becomes breaking news in Annapolis, Anchorage, and Atlanta as fast as someone can download and send it. Lose your cool on a traffic stop while a video recorder is running and watch how fast it goes viral!