A few years ago the Los Angeles Police Department was going through some tough times. The department was under intense media and federal scrutiny for the dishonorable actions of a few officers. The chief of police was intensely unpopular among the officers for his stance on that scandal, among other things. I worked in the West Los Angeles Division in the gang unit at the time. Talking to my buddies around the department, I would hear that morale was low almost everywhere. These stories weren’t anecdotal. The number of officers leaving the department were at an all time high.
The funny thing is that morale in our unit wasn’t low at all. It was very high. We were happy. I think I can directly attribute this to the leadership in our unit and in our division.
First, our sergeant, George Khoury, was an outstanding supervisor and huge hearted individual. He always came to work in a good mood, enthusiastic, and with a positive attitude that infected the rest of us. There is nothing George Khoury loves more than working clues until there is a successful arrest. He taught us how to do good police work. We worked hard and we played hard. He took care of us and we him.
Lieutenant Jim Markloff was next in our chain of command. He is a tough, hardworking cop, but he was always fair. He expected a lot out of the officers, but you always knew he was reasonable. We had a series of captains, who all had very different leadership styles, but they also had some similar traits. They liked innovative ideas and those who followed up on them. We were always coming up with new ways to try to catch bad guys. As long as our ideas were legal, moral, and ethical, our bosses backed us up.
My point here is simple. Things might be bad all over, but as a leader you can have a huge impact on the morale and welfare of your folks. No matter what position of leadership you are in, just try to make your world a better place for those in it. As a training officer your world might be your car. As a sergeant it might be your squad. No matter the rank, someone looks to you for leadership.
There are times as a leader when you might feel frustration and despair at the decisions made above you. Sometimes there isn’t a darned thing you can do about it, but if you walk around miserable, I guarantee you that your troops will, too. If your personal morale and attitude are poor, it will reflect in your officers. The best cure for frustration is action.
If things are tough where you are right now, try a couple of these time-tested techniques:
Officers want to voice their frustrations to someone who keeps their concerns in mind. Most of the time they understand why unpopular decisions are made but just want a leader they respect to know they don’t like it. If issues need to be brought up the chain of command or to the police officer’s union, then you should take the time to do so in writing.
Train for Success
Good, realistic training refocuses officers to why they became cops. Schools are golden. Sending officers to schools they want or have expressed interest in improves the officer, the unit, and the department. Well-trained cops are happy cops.
Build Unit Cohesion
I don’t recommend the drinking in the park after hours route, but I think some social time together builds relationships. Doing physical training together, sports activities, and going to community events are some ways to get officers interacting outside of work. Participate. This is how leaders get to know their folks.
Attend to Personal Needs
Cops are human. They need their vacations, their comp time, weekends off occasionally, and they need to take sick days when they are legitimately sick. I believe the mission comes first, but you have to take care of your people. Whatever rank you hold, someone looks to you for leadership. Make their world and yours a better place.
The only safe ship in a storm is leadership.