Rallying the Troops

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?

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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.[PAGEBREAK]

Getting the Word Out

Maintaining effective internal dialog requires using both formal and informal means of communication.

Formal communication includes cle­arly written policies on everything from uniform regulations, weapons and equipment care, and report writing, to booking of evidence, prisoner handling, and a system of discipline. Well-defined policies help eliminate the possibility of future mistakes and misunderstandings.

Formal communications should be disseminated through the chain of command, during training and roll calls, on read boards, through weekly or monthly publications, and via the Internet. They should also include the means through which employees can submit ideas, make requests, and address grievances back up the chain.

Policies are important. But if you think formal communication is the main means of transmitting information you're wrong.

In 1939, the so-called Hawthorne Experiments, conducted by Mayo, Roethlisberger, and Dickson, proved that informal communication within organizations is more powerful than the formal. Due to the nature of law enforcement, morale can be heavily influenced by this effect.

Anyone who's worked in law enforcement knows that officers often receive information not through the department's formal system, but through gossip, rumor, locker room conversations, coffee breaks, or off-duty functions. These communications can sometimes have negative effects on morale.

Because of this, Escondido PD's Loarie believes supervisors need to address problems right away. "Get feedback from the team members and identify the specific issues that are causing the problem. Remove the red herrings, rumors, and the irrelevant-the problem will most likely present itself to a point that a solution can be discovered."

But informal communication isn't necessarily a bad thing. Depending on a department's size, there are different ways to use similar methods to your advantage to provide management-employee communications. Various departments use informal processes such as suggestion boxes, open-door policies, or perhaps an ombudsman, to facilitate conflict resolution.

In fact, sometimes communications outside the normal chain of command, such as conversations that occur in hallways, the briefing room, offices, or by the lunch truck, accomplish more than formal meetings. However a department best decides to maintain informal communications, the key is to keep everyone informed and focused on the department's mission, goals, and objectives.

Debriefs can be an important tool for communications and can be either formal or informal. Whether it is a very formal process after a major incident, or simply an informal meeting in the field among a sergeant, training officer, and a probationer on the tactics of a traffic stop, debriefs are invaluable tools to critique tactics, policies, and procedures.

In these meetings, criticism should be constructive, not destructive. The purpose is to evaluate how things can be done better and ensure everyone is on the same page. Timely and thorough debriefs promote officer safety, both mental and physical.

Whatever the situation, remember that communication is not just about writing and speaking, but also listening. As Hillmann writes in his leadership notes, "Pay attention; someone else may have a good idea."

Recognizing Excellence

The importance of recognizing the accomplishments of a police department's employees extends not only to those actually awarded, but to all who see that appreciation is being properly bestowed on their peers.

Since law enforcement organizations cannot monetarily reward individuals, like businesses can, it is critical that the efforts of all employees are appreciated. Encourage supervisors to know the policy on awards submission and to submit awards and commendations as appropriate.

Formal awards should be presented regularly in a ceremonial environment. Awards for heroism, achievement, and service are great examples of formal recognition. Another is the Officer of the Quarter or Officer of the Year award, which, if possible, should be voted on by peers.

In some areas, community groups also present awards to public employees for service or merit. Take advantage of these opportunities for this very public recognition of deserving officers.

But you don't necessarily need to hand out an award to commend an officer on a job well done.

Informal recognition may be as simple as a pat on the back or a note on a report thanking an officer for outstanding work. Try reading commendations in roll call and posting positive letters from citizens in conspicuous places for everyone to read.

Find creative ways to recognize deserving officers. One of Harkins' innovative informal awards was very popular among military policemen. "At one of my PMOs (Provost Marshal's Office) my leaders and I awarded the 'Backbone Award' to the Marine, of any rank, who best displayed the qualities of a (noncommissioned officer," he remembers. "The award was literally a deer backbone, about a foot long, tied to a bootlace. The award was voted on by peers and awarded as if it were a true military award. Sometimes it looked like the Marines would rather have that than a promotion."

Maintaining Morale

During the First Gulf War, Gen. Alfred Gray, the Marine Corps Commandant, told Marines staged for the attack in Kuwait, "There will be morale." The general took some criticism from the media and others who might not understand, but Marines knew what he meant.

They were living under severe and austere conditions, but they were well trained, well led, and had the courage, honor, and commitment instilled in them when they earned the title "Marine." Gen. Gray was merely reminding them that when times were tough, morale would be good because they were doing what Marines are paid to do.

There are some officers you'll never be able to reach. They'll be happy to complain no matter their situation. But if you focus on taking care of your people as best you can and on letting them know they are valued, it will show.

For the most part, well-trained and properly motivated police officers will return to the foundation of their training in tough times; they will respond to inspired leadership; and...they will have good morale.

Mark Stainbrook is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department and a major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He has served tours in Kosovo and Iraq.

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