How respect, communication and care boost officer morale
A young officer discusses the qualities of high-performance leadership, which were first demonstrated to him during the civil unrest in 2020
By Andrew Trevino
May 31, 2020. Roll call happens at the same time as always. The team is gathered, and the command gives the brief. We loaded our gear and made our way to the heart of our city where we would be tasked as a quick-react team if needed. As my partner and I drove downtown it didn’t take long for a group to yell obscenities our way. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Watching squad cars burn on national television was becoming the norm: nationwide protests had been rocking the nation.
With a growing frequency, peaceful protests were turning destructive: an all-too-common theme that was sweeping across the major cities of the country, and ours was no different. At nightfall, windows were broken, shots were being heard, police cars were destroyed, and vandalism was occurring faster than officers could respond. Then, during all the turmoil and unrest, the piercing emergency tones sounded over my police radio. In the chaos and confusion, the dispatcher said something that I had never heard before in my young career. All available officers report downtown! That was an unprecedented statement to be heard over the radio for a large city such as ours. A sense of unease came over me, unsure what the long night would bring.
Leadership was on full display that night from every rank of police officer manning the line. Standing side by side in a formation with supervisors and senior teammates, a sense of calm came over me. Even command personnel were dressed in full gear and were on the front line alongside us. They may not have known it but witnessing this lifted my spirits and morale during that challenging night. High-performance leadership had been displayed without speaking a single word. That night, and the ones to follow, were some of the most difficult for any supervisor to navigate, and we needed their leadership to keep us together. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have supervisors who rose to the occasion.
What makes a good leader?
At the start of my career, I worked patrol and was that beat cop. Eventually, I moved on to working a proactive Street Crimes detail, and now I am currently assigned as a Detective Investigator with the same Street Crimes Unit: all within a 6-year time frame, starting as a 22-year-old and now in my late 20s.
Being a part of a tight-knit unit of men and women comes with its share of discussions. The team is comprised of veterans with more than 20 years of service to newer officers with only two years under their belts. A wide range of knowledge and experience fills our office on any given day. Leadership and morale have been a hot topic in our space, as I’m sure it’s been in many squad rooms. We came out with a consensus on three areas of leadership that have boosted our morale, in good times and bad.
As clichéd as it may sound, respect should be earned and never be expected. This works with both supervisors and the troops. Officers should be seeking to earn the respect of the supervisor just as the supervisor should be vying to earn the respect of their officers. Valuable attributes such as knowledge of the job, previous experiences and prior assignments are all something that can gain respect. Most of our supervisors have prior tactical or investigative experience and can bestow that knowledge when applicable.
Keeping respect is a task in and of itself. Discipline is a must and something that can’t be avoided. We know that supervisors will eventually have to issue discipline, and when that does happen, we want a clear explanation of how we messed up, so we know what to do to fix the issue going forward. If a supervisor can effectively explain something that requires discipline and, in the process, treats the troops like grown adults and not like children, we, as the subordinates, will value that and see the respect being shown to us.
Officers also want to know when they are doing something right. In today’s world, mistakes are quick to be pointed out, but it’s good when a supervisor is just as quick to point out all the good things officers do. Showing awareness for hard work is appreciated. It shows the officers that the supervisor really is interested in what his workers are doing, and even something as simple as verbally recognizing a quality proactive arrest made is an invaluable morale booster to the proactive street cop.
2. Effective communication
It is vital to have clear expectations for what is needed on the job. If the team respects the supervisor, then the team will actively want to work for them. Effectively communicating the task for the shift or how we can help achieve a common goal is a substantial morale booster.
Effectively communicating expectations is crucial to the success of the officers but being able to explain the purpose of certain tasks is also just as important. It is essential that the team can understand the mission and believe in it. The team may not be excited at the task of sitting for hours on surveillance to apprehend a wanted felon, but it’s an unenviable undertaking that must be done. Effectively communicating the importance of a task or how it can impact the end goal is paramount. Understanding through effective communication and believing in why we’re doing the task, is a morale boost in itself.
3. Genuine care
“Care” is a multifaceted term. Caring for the troops by calling them by their first name, asking about something non-work-related, or even finding shared interests are all ways that show a supervisor genuinely cares about his officers, but genuine care is also about the job at hand.
If the unit sees that their supervisor is honestly invested in the task at hand, then they will be ready to give it their all to accomplish the mission.
Police1 resource: A roadmap for effective law enforcement leadership
High-performance leadership in action
I’ll finish with a quick story on how effective leadership boosted my morale in another real-life example. One day out on the beat, I key up on my radio, “Dispatch, I have a car not stopping.” The direction of flight and description are given in one fluid transmission. Being on a unit that is consistently tasked with hot spot policing, a fleeing suspect vehicle isn’t that uncommon. What was uncommon for that day was that we were short on cover officers since the other teams had been stuck at the county jail or were buried in paperwork. Eventually, some units were able to come and assist us.
The car was followed until it came to a stop in a neighborhood, with the all-too-frequent bailout following after. Four younger males take off running in different directions. I lock in on one of the fleeing males as my partner homed in on another. I jump a fence in the foot pursuit and eventually corner two of the fleeing occupants in a backyard. With the adrenaline in full effect, I knew that I had a cover officer next to me, but I didn’t know who it was. I order the suspects to the ground and then tell my cover officer that I’m going to “go hands”: the cover officer replies, “I got your cover.”
I knew that voice and glanced over for a split second. My supervisor was to my right and was holding cover on the suspects; the same supervisor who stood side by side with me during the riots. The other supervisor on the scene was next to my partner as they were in a full-on sprint after the other fleeing suspect. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that those supervisors cared about their team and the mission at hand. Morale boost was an understatement at that time. I would have walked through fire to achieve the goal for those supervisors.
The author would like to thank Christopher Boyd and Jesse Allen for their assistance with the article.
About the author
Andrew Trevino has been with a large Texas Police Department since 2015. Born and raised in Texas, he is a proud alumnus of a small Catholic high school named Holy Cross. After high school, a local community college and then the University of Texas at San Antonio were the next steps in formal education.
He joined his police department at the age of 22, starting out working the 2nd shift on patrol and was able to excel and be selected to a proactive unit (Street Crimes/Gang Unit), where he stayed for the majority of his patrol time. He was most recently promoted to Detective Investigator and is currently assigned to a Violent Crimes Detail.
He has always been an advocate for proactive policing and genuinely believes in its proven benefits. He has received numerous awards for high-profile apprehensions due to the proactive policing approach and strategies implemented. Proactive policing, 21st-century policing and the realities of being a younger officer on the streets are some of the topics he has written about on his blog, where this article first appeared.