Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why Police Officers Have to Help Build Morale within Police Departments

Edward Brown, M.S.

Becoming an effective leader is a notion bandied about within the private and public sectors, regularly. Leadership pundits from John Maxwell to Jim Collins have created a cottage industry on the subject of leadership. However, there is very little written or said about the power of front line employees to improve organizational morale. With the inordinate amount of information on leadership development at the supervisory and upper management levels, what role can police officers play in the global economy for improving departmental morale?

Edward Brown, M.S., of Core Edge Police Professional Development, provides questions and answers about the bigger role police officers can play in building department morale.

Q: It appears that you are shifting leadership and morale building initiatives from police management to police officers. What is the rationale behind your thinking?

Brown: I have had to evolve 180 degrees in my thinking on morale building initiatives due to the changing work environment in the global economy. If effective leadership is somehow connected to morale building, and we are not producing more and better leaders based on statistics, our compass must be off. Perhaps the age-old question as to whether departments should be ran from the top down or bottom up in decision-making didn’t go far enough. Obviously, ultimate decision-making and responsibilities rest with supervisors and managers. A better question would have been, “How do police departments meet the needs of its mission while satisfying the needs of its personnel?” In the highly competitive global economy, individual drive and determination determines morale and performance. This level of competitive options warrants different questions that may not have been asked in the past.

Q: Besides the global economy, what other factors do you believe requires morale initiatives to be officer-centric?

Brown: Departmental poaching, budget cuts, the Millennial Generation and departmental retirement, dropout rates and death. Many new cities are incorporating or annexing from larger cities to gain more control over tax dollars. More areas that are affluent are developing, forming their own police departments, and recruiting police personnel from other departments. With larger cities losing tax dollars from breakaway cities, these new cities can offer higher pay, better benefits and a higher quality work environment.  In addition, the Millennial Generation is motivated by more freedom and entitlements than their predecessors.  Consequently, departmental initiatives have to consider this shifting mindset. Finally, officers are retiring, resigning or dying faster than they can be replaced with quality applicants. Many departments have begun lowering their standards just to attract “qualified” applicants.  Whatever leverage, large centralized police departments once had, has rapidly dried up.

Q: So, as a result of these changes, what should be done to enhance morale and productivity?

Brown: My research on employee motivation and morale led me to the works of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins wrote a book called, “The Selfish Gene,” which postulated that humans, through biology and social engineering, operate solely in their self-interests for maintenance and survival. If we accept Dawkins’ theory, then our actions towards building departmental morale should consider the self-interests of applicants and employees.

Q: Interesting. How would this  work?

Brown: Well, police vetting from application to background checks to psychological services is effective in creating an indoctrination process much like fraternities, sororities and the military. When people have to earn their way into an organization or profession, they feel more valued once they’ve been accepted. However, once inside the organization, this acceptance wears off.  “Gung Ho” turns into complaints and diminished aspirations. If during the recruitment process, the applicant’s core needs and motivations are discovered; those needs can be used as career development indicators.  An officer can be moved around  and assigned based on the needs of the department as well as the needs of the officer.  Burnout usually comes with repetition and lack of reward. This professional development cycle would take 20-25 years for the average officer, which would stave off mediocrity and pessimism.  Assignment rotation would not be punitive, but aspirational. 

Q: Assignment rotations don’t sound new. Many departments implement this process now. What’s different?

Brown: The difference is the philosophy and psychology behind it. If during the recruitment process, I express a desire to become a Homicide Investigator. If after 5 years of working the streets, I have shown exemplary performance, my supervisor should be encouraging me to submit my investigator request forms. Computer software could be utilized within human resources to ensure that hire anniversary and assignment change correlate. If I have changed my mind, based on overall performance, I should be given the flexibility to choose assignments that are available.

Q: That sounds ideal, but what about situations where resources are limited and manpower short?

Brown: Let’s take the Smyrna Police Department (Georgia) that has 94 sworn police officers. There are 5 divisions, including a uniform division that handles everything from street patrols to special operations. Additionally, there are 10 full time investigators. If there are at least 10 sections within the uniform division and investigations, an officer could be reassigned every 5-7 years. This does not include supervisory promotions.  When an informal poll was given, officers said that rotation assignments based on individual interests would boost morale and productivity. 

Q: Have all police officers bought into assignment rotations as a conduit for morale building?

Brown: No. One officer said that he had been offered opportunities within his department, but rejected all of them. He enjoyed his days off and extra jobs and felt another assignment would interfere with his plans. Now, he is feeling burned out and recently applied for a new assignment. However, since burnout has set in, he wants to move right away, admitting that getting up in the morning to work has become a psychological struggle.  Since assignments are at the pleasure of the department, police supervisors and managers should push officers out of their comfort zone for the good of the department as well as the officer. Although officers that are more ambitious will create and develop their own morale building strategies through professional development, underachievers may have to be provided compulsory options.

A supervisor to officer conversation might go, “Officer Smith, over the last 6 years you have improved the community oriented policing (COP) initiatives in the McDaniel Glen City Housing Complex. We want to move some officers to learn some of your best practices for community buy-in.  Do you want to a.) Teach new officers, hands on, by working with a specialized unit before taking the next sergeant’s exam, b.) Assume an instructor’s role within the police academy for new recruits and in-service training, or c.) Become a field-training officer (FTO)?  Which one do you want to do based on your police application response to improve the quality of life within our city by taking on more challenges and responsibilities?”

Edward Brown, M.S., is a researcher and lead instructor for Core Edge Police Professional Development.  Ed is a former Atlanta police officer and has trained command staff and supervisors throughout the U.S. on communication and leadership development skills. He also is an Adult Education instructor for the Atlanta Public School System.

He has advanced legal training from the University of Dayton School of Law and a master’s degree from Mercer University in Public Safety Leadership.

Ed is the author of nine books including: Police Leadership: The Morale Driven Police Department and The A-Team: How to Be a Top Police Department in Recruiting, Training and Retaining Employees.  For more information about improving morale within your police department, check out this information:

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