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Rallying the Troops

Build morale at your agency with strong leadership and open communication.

August 01, 2004  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author


Morale. It is a very subjective word. In law enforcement we often hear that a department has poor morale or great morale, or maybe no morale. But what exactly does that mean? As someone once said, "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." But even if you recognize your agency's morale status, what can you do about it if it's less than stellar?

Webster's New World Dictionary defines morale as the "moral or mental condition with respect to courage, discipline, confidence, etc." To members of a military or paramilitary organization this definition is adequate and understandable, but perhaps leaves something out.

Countless officers serving in agencies with "low morale" have reported to work every day and performed heroically and brilliantly in the face of danger, criticism, verbal abuse, boredom, mounds of paperwork, and the feeling of being unappreciated. What our strict dictionary definition leaves out are the attitude and feelings that each officer expresses toward his fellow officers, supervisors, command staff, and the organization as a whole. When morale is high those attitudes and feelings are expressed in positive ways, and when morale is low the expressions are negative.

Although the diagnosis and remedies are complex, the simple truth is that good morale equates to a better police department and happier citizens overall.

Assessing Morale

Knowing where your agency stands is the first step in improving morale.
So what are the indicators of low morale? There can be many, depending on your department.

Sgt. Bob Bauer of the Burlington (Vt.) Police Department looks at it like this, "First, the level of service provided to the public drops. More citizens complain. More vacation and even abuse of sick time are often [first] signs." Most departments keep month-to-month records of public complaints and use of compensatory time, vacation time, and sick time by officers. Command staff and supervisors should be reviewing these statistics monthly. Sharp increases in these categories might be an indication of a problem.

Evidence of a drop in morale may also be visible in many day-to-day activities. Are the officers sharp in their uniform and personal appearance? Are the vehicles being washed and maintained properly? Are weapons and equipment serviceable and clean? People who do not take pride in themselves and their equipment most likely do not have pride in their organization.

But Lt. Col. William Harkins, the provost marshal of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton believes that how people on the department interact with each other is also an important indicator. He advises, "Lead by walking around, observe how your troops interact with you, customers, and each other. Just like a family, problem children are easily detected and even great families have them."

But Harkins notes that you might need to recognize if yours is not a great family right now. He says a widespread combination of a problem in attitude and appearance is a dead giveaway of poor morale, and that the two can feed off each other. "Dysfunctional families are also easy to detect. If uniforms are not properly worn, tempers are short. If police cars and office spaces are trashed, morale is poor."

These outward signs not only send bad signals to the public and other agencies, but also can be hazardous to officer safety and a street-safe mindset. Conversely, a well-groomed personal appearance, squared away uniform, clean weapon, and clean vehicle show that officers are proud of themselves and their department, and that they have the attention to detail needed to conduct quality police work.

If you've taken a look at your department and find officers have good attitudes and maintain squeaky-clean appearances, that's great. But it still doesn't hurt to do what you can to keep your department that way.
For those agencies that could use a boost in morale, the best place to start is the beginning.

Building a Good Foundation

The perception an individual has toward any organization begins with initial contact and continues through the hiring process, basic training, and on-the-job training. In law enforcement this process takes much longer and is more extensive than in the civilian sector. While this can be a trying period for job candidates, it's also an excellent time to instill in them the values of the organization. And make sure they're the values you want them to learn.

This is the time impressionable young police officers will learn the organization's identity, philosophy, attitude, mission, work ethic, and vision for the future. The attitudes and perceptions officers develop during this period may be sustained through the next 20 or 30 years. When an officer first goes out on the street it is essential that an organization make an investment in his or her potential through tough, but fair training, in not only police procedure and physical training, but also department core values, morals and ethics, mission, and basic leadership principles.

Because the process and training is difficult, it forms bonds between officers that give them a sense of teamwork, pride, and esprit de corps. This crucial period of an officer's career establishes the foundation on which the good future morale of a police organization rests.

Building a Better Leader

Don't blame low morale on other officers. If you find it's low, build it up. Keeping morale high among new recruits and seasoned vets alike is a difficult job, but one that is essential to an effectively run department. Effective leaders are key to making this happen.

According to Dep. Chief Michael Hillmann of the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Operations Bureau, "Morale is the responsibility of the leadership of the organization. The attitude and the demeanor of an organization's leadership is a direct reflection of that organization's morale."

Hillmann has written down some of his principles of leadership. Under the word "Morale" he notes, "It is the leader's responsibility, and no one else's."

Make no mistake, from the first line supervisor all the way to the chief or sheriff, morale within a department falls squarely on the shoulders of its leaders.

Rare is the police officer who comes into the law enforcement field for the outstanding pay and benefits. If you ask a cop why he or she became a police officer, the most common answers are, "because I wanted the chance to make a difference," and, "because I wanted to help people."

The majority of officers entering the force are motivated by intangible factors all directly related to leadership. Motivation, positive attitude, and enthusiastic work environment are much more important than brand new equipment or a shiny new station.

This is not to say that updated equipment and resources aren't appreciated. They can contribute greatly to police officers' morale by giving them the means to do their jobs well and making them feel that they matter enough to receive these benefits.

Regardless, morale is something that leaders within a department must work hard at boosting and maintaining. All the idealism found in new recruits won't last forever if they're never given reason to feel good about themselves and their job. Especially if veterans of the department unhappy about their treatment pass on their jaded views of the job.

Sgt. Mike Loarie of the Escondido (Calif.) Police Department firmly believes that maintaining morale is a continual job, and is not to be taken lightly. "Leadership sets the tempo and example for morale. It has the opportunity to initiate it and the responsibility to maintain it," he says. "Morale is a goal that needs to be assessed and not left alone. If not cared for and considered carefully, the minimum that can be expected is mediocrity."

Cpl. Tony Miranda of the Santa Ana (Calif.) Police Department agrees that leading by example is important in maintaining the structure of an organization. "When troops see strong leadership, they usually have a better understanding as to their role in the organization. They become more confident in their own abilities and show more pride in their work and the organization."

To enhance the capabilities of its supervisors, Escondido PD runs a "Leadership Development Program."  Many departments maintain similar programs because they believe building leaders can build morale.

The most obvious benefit of enhanced leadership training means officers are going to be better led. Such training sessions focus on honor, integrity, and taking care of people. Not just any people, but your people. This includes taking into consideration officers' personal lives and obligations when making schedules and helping them when they are hurt.

Also, motivational leadership training fosters team building, esprit de corps, and morale among supervisors. Through providing this training, the department's senior leadership has an opportunity to promote its department mission and objectives to front-line supervisors, ensuring that everyone has the same goals in mind.

When the training is over, attendees' positive attitudes and compassion for their officers should spill over into the rest of the department, improving morale, at least in theory. But doing so requires maintaining open lines of communication among all officers.

Talking it Over

As a function of leadership, communication may be the single most important aspect of building good morale in any organization. It's also one of the most difficult to keep running smoothly.

Burlington PD's Bauer sees the importance of two-way communication. Everyone wants to feel that his opinion is recognized as important. He advises higher ranking officers to "seek feedback from officers on what can be done better and allow them to help address issues either within the organization or their district."

But this is often easier said than done, on both ends of the line. Bauer understands that officers must be open to communication. "The officer needs to understand the constraints management is working under, i.e., budget issues and staffing, as well as many others," he says.

Bauer is also aware that it's important to officers that management work toward meeting their reasonable requests whenever possible, despite constraints. "We as managers need to be able to help officers see that attempts are being made to improve the work environment and support our people," he says.

Tags: Patrol Morale


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