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!
Third, just about any story you find in print, on the evening news, or on the radio has a corresponding web link inviting reader comments. If the story has anything to do with the police - good or bad, it really does not matter - the peanut gallery shows up in force! Unlike traditional Letters to the Editor, which usually insist on a working knowledge of grammar, the ability to spell (or use spell check), respectful language, and at least a minimal degree of sanity, virtually anyone at all can pontificate unchecked on most comment boards.
These factors have fostered increasingly hostile environment toward law enforcement.
New Twist #3 - A Changing Social Landscape
Law enforcement is influenced by ongoing social changes, often amid rancorous debate over the direction our society should go. In some of these issues, the role and input of law enforcement is a necessary component - consider current issues as wide-ranging as photo enforcement initiatives, marijuana legalization, immigration, use of force issues, and the extent of free expression in the internet age, to name just a few - but incite strong public feelings. Whatever the ultimate resolutions of these issues, whether legislatively or by judicial fiat, implementation and enforcement will become the concern of law enforcement. In turn, LEOs become the public face of often unpopular policies. The more complicated and contested the law becomes, the more frustration will be heaped on law enforcement, the public face of the law.
Meeting the Challenges
Low morale is a real problem, as it negatively impacts the mission and efficacy of a department, and the emotional and physical wellness of officers. Supervisors and managers, responsible for directing the mission of their agencies and the well-being of the officers they oversee, are charged with great responsibility to meet these new challenges.
Think Gray, and Free…
Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true of false, black or white, friend of foe. A truly effective leader, however, needs to be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed.
-Steven B Sample, The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership
The paramilitary hierarchy employed by most police agencies serves an important function by creating command structure and accountability. Free to be you and me may work wonders in organizations less procedure-driven and rule-bound, or favoring and needing greater creativity in their workforces. The nature of, and constraints on, law enforcement require solid top down leadership and hierarchy is important.
The problem, however, is when the hierarchy quashes any creativity or input from those not at the top, or promotes stagnation over creative solutions. Hubris at the top stifles creativity below, benefitting only the most binary sycophants and fostering disillusion in the ranks.
Steven B. Sample, former President of the University of Southern California, stresses that leaders should learn to see the shades of gray in any situation requiring their attention, and free their minds to creative solutions and creative people within their organization. We believe this to be as true in law enforcement as anywhere else.
Day-to-day, nuts and bolts leadership is a crucial aspect of management and supervision. Fostering an esprit de corps is another, albeit one often overlooked or undervalued. But effectively policing the changing and challenging landscape requires motivated, creative, and adaptable officers. The challenge for supervisors is to be more than just the boss, but to really be leaders in an era of unique challenge.
Authors' note: At More Than a Cop we are very serious about police morale and its impact on the well-being of police officers, departments, and those you are sworn to serve and protect. Not only will Mike and Althea continue to study and write about this topic, but beginning this fall will be traveling to various venues to present training on Police Morale for Supervisors: It IS Your Problem. To see where we will be, or to inquire about hosting or attending a training, please click on the attached link, below.