How To Motivate Law Enforcement Officers

With the challenges facing our country, highly motivated law enforcement officers and respected law enforcement agencies are needed now more than ever in our communities. Motivated officers with strong ethics are the most important elements in the long-term success of a law enforcement agency.

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With the challenges facing our country, highly motivated law enforcement officers and respected law enforcement agencies are needed now more than ever in our communities. Motivated officers with strong ethics are the most important elements in the long-term success of a law enforcement agency. Properly motivated officers are critical to ensuring a safe community and a respected agency.

The individual officer's productivity is key to the effectiveness of American law enforcement. Most municipal and county agencies now deploy single-officer patrol cars with no direct supervision; therefore, if an officer is not highly motivated it will directly and negatively impact the safety and security of community members and other officers. Furthermore, positive or negative agency reputations can be formed by the actions of a single officer or a single incident.

The single officer model is also prevalent in investigative operations, as most investigations are often the responsibility of a single detective. Larger and more complex investigations, of course, often require a team to successfully conclude a case. In such investigations, it is paramount that the lead investigator or case supervisor remain motivated to lead the investigative team. If the investigator lacks motivation, creativity may suffer, and then all investigative leads may not be fully explored and the perpetrator may never be identified, arrested, and prosecuted. A poorly executed investigation may result in victimization of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. And the broad implications of poor motivation across the law enforcement profession can lead to increased national crime rates, increased threats to national security, and an adverse impact on community relations.

Protect and Serve
More than 60 years ago, Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs theory, which identified five broad areas to motivate employees. At the bottom of the pyramid is basic survival and at the top is self-actualization or reaching one's full potential.

Over time our society has changed the value placed on the five elements in Maslow's hierarchy. The needs of most employees have changed from the basic level of simple survival to the highest level of the pyramid, a desire to feel satisfied with their lives and make meaningful contributions to an organization. Generally, employees want to maximize their levels of potential and provide meaningful contributions at work. In addition, the type of work performed by an employee is also a component of this theory. This is of particular relevance to the law enforcement profession, and it contributes to understanding and developing effective motivational strategies.

Based upon Maslow's theory, it is clear that no motivational strategy will be successful if the basic needs of employees are absent within an organization. Although officers may prefer to be employed with a law enforcement agency because they find intrinsic value in the type of work, they must have an adequate salary; otherwise, the organization will not attract and retain quality employees.

But for most law enforcement officers, intrinsic motivation is primary; the money is important but secondary. Very few people have ever gotten rich from a law enforcement career, which is well known to recruits.

Intrinsic motivation occurs when the action is the reward. In his book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," Daniel Pink argues that intrinsically motivated people usually achieve more than their reward-seeking counterparts. In fact, another researcher, Edward Deci, argues that care must be given to ensure rewards are not used as a motivator because they are likely to fail and become a demotivator.

An understanding of what motivates persons to accept positions in public service organizations is the key to the recruitment and the retention of law enforcement officers. Scholars have hypothesized that an ethic to serve the community and help others drives individuals into public service careers. A law enforcement career is characterized as a "calling" by many in the profession. In many instances, successful law enforcement officers say their "calling" to law enforcement was at a young age. Furthermore, officers who think of police work as a "calling" tend to meet and overcome ethical challenges much better than those who view it as just a job. These intrinsic motivators, coupled with a competitive salary, are major reasons why individuals are attracted to careers in law enforcement.

Historically, law enforcement positions were poorly paid, but this has changed in recent decades through the professionalization of law enforcement agencies. Science shows that the secret to high performance is not biological or a promise of rewards but a deep-seated desire to make a contribution. Making an important contribution to society is the foundation of public service positions, and law enforcement officers have a unique role in making sustained and auspicious contributions to society. The internal desire to make the community better by protecting and serving should drive police applicants. Which means law enforcement leaders must make every effort to recruit and hire candidates who are intrinsically motivated to succeed in the profession.

Rising to a Challenge
Experts say law enforcement officers, regardless of the agencies they work for, need to be afforded the opportunity for challenge and training in the workplace. This may be the most difficult employee need for a law enforcement leader to meet because it requires the agency to balance the individual officer's needs with the organization's needs.

Constant attention must be given to developing officers for new positions of greater responsibility within the organization. By doing so, officers will be motivated and feel a sense of reward and, ultimately, increased compensation. One way to implement this plan is to encourage and afford officers the ability to take on assignments that will allow them to professionally develop. Dependent on the officer's rank, there may be full- or part-time positions available as an investigator, school resource officer, hostage negotiator, K-9 handler, mounted officer, motorcycle officer, SWAT operator, or forensic/evidence specialist, just to name a few. All of these types of assignments contribute to developing the officer and provide meaningful public safety resources to the organization and society. In addition, these types of duties will allow for exposure to other more permanent assignments and possibly contribute to rank advancement, which will lead to increased salaries and benefits. It is important for law enforcement leaders to use this process as a motivator and developmental process to encourage officers to apply their creative abilities to diverse duties that will contribute to overall organizational success and long-term effectiveness.

Power of Autonomy
Good police work is often conducted by a single officer acting alone in a professional manner while applying his or her training to a needed issue. Autonomy has a powerful effect on an individual's performance and attitude.

Behavioral science studies have concluded that autonomous motivation promotes a greater understanding of a problem, higher productivity, decreased officer burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being. These results are desperately needed in law enforcement. For example, on a macro-level, the need for a greater understanding of the problem is exactly what is needed concerning community relations in law enforcement. On a micro-level, finding ways to increase productivity, reduce officer burnout, and improve psychological well-being of officers is a constant challenge.

Autonomy used as a motivator promotes officer empowerment and has an important place in the law enforcement profession. The challenge is for an employee to acquire a strong sense of autonomy in his or her work even when as an individual officer he or she may not control the final decision, which is a common occurrence in law enforcement.

Organizational Culture
The positive culture or reputation of an organization or unit within an agency can be a very strong motivator. Typically, law enforcement officers have a strong sense of pride associated with their agencies. Officers have an emotional connection with their agencies that is based upon how these organizations are seen both internally and externally.

A recruit may elect to join an agency based upon its history and reputation. By joining the agency, he or she is overtly endorsing its culture. Many law enforcement agencies have very strong and proud traditions that are sometimes taught to new recruits during their first days of onboarding at the police academy.

Onboarding should be done early in the employment process, and include lessons on the agency's history, mission, and vision. In addition, law enforcement agencies need to articulate their core values to their employees. One very effective way to accomplish this goal is to use real-life examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior to demonstrate the values and ethical obligations of employees. To reinforce this training, have new recruits and veteran officers participate in intensive discussions and lectures concerning the core values of the organization, which will serve as a positive and strong professional motivator.

The Role of Leadership
Currently, the law enforcement profession is facing many challenges nationwide. The need to understand what fully motivates law enforcement officers to perform a dangerous and stressful job is an important key to the success of law enforcement leadership. Law enforcement leaders must appreciate and be committed to developing effective motivational strategies within their agencies.

By linking employees' daily work to long-term goals, employees will remain motivated. By doing so, it will help leaders to devote their energy and time to long-term strategic issues. Every successful law enforcement leader benefits from understanding the value of employee motivation and dedicating time and effort to increasing it within the organization.

Motivational strategies can be implemented to embrace the current challenges facing law enforcement agencies and make advances in community relations and enforcement operations. Every effort should be made to recruit and retain intrinsically motivated employees for law enforcement positions. Upon entry into the profession, officers should be properly challenged and afforded specialized training to develop them for increased levels of responsibility with their organizations. Law enforcement leaders must strive to create an environment to promote autonomy within the ranks, which will ultimately encourage increased creativity, problem-solving, and productivity. The organizational culture is crucial to providing a strong foundation and ongoing positive motivator for officers. Progressive law enforcement leaders realize the value of motivation within their agencies to maximize the effectiveness of their policing efforts. Motivation and strong ethics in law enforcement are critical to ensure safe communities and national security.

This article does not reflect the views or opinions of, nor is in any way endorsed by, the author's agency. It was prepared by and strictly represents the work of the author.

James Jancewicz is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement who is employed as a federal agent and has primarily investigated street gangs and violent crime matters. He can be contacted at

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