The impact of police leadership on public trust

The factors influencing public perception of police services are much bigger than officers on patrol can control


Over the past several years, there have been increasing levels of community and media discussion regarding waning levels of public trust in North American policing.

Much of this has emerged after high-profile police use of deadly force incidents – some being blatant criminal acts that resulted in nationwide protests across the USA. Some of those events then jaundiced public perception around future well-publicized use of force events that were ruled to be legally justified.

At the same time, any allegations of criminal behavior by police – on duty or off – receive a great deal of media and public focus, as do the disciplinary and/or court processes to follow. All of them, whether proven to be false or not, leave a stain on the profession that honest and committed officers are left to bear.

Police cannot survive without the trust of those they are sworn to serve. It is vital that effective policing and leadership strategies must be employed from top to bottom to sustain it.
Police cannot survive without the trust of those they are sworn to serve. It is vital that effective policing and leadership strategies must be employed from top to bottom to sustain it. (Getty Images)

It is critically important to be aware of the linkages between public trust in police and police leadership, as the factors influencing public perception of police services are much bigger than officers on patrol can control. I don’t believe there has been sufficient acknowledgment of the leadership impacts on these crucial matters. Police cannot survive without the trust of those they are sworn to serve. It is vital that effective policing and leadership strategies must be employed from top to bottom to sustain it.

As I asserted in my previous Police1 article, “What really impacts morale in policing,” effective leadership can positively influence the morale of the workforce in any organization, including policing. Although difficult to define, morale ultimately impacts the productivity and performance of the workforce, as well as behavior, in terms of professionalism. In a police service, performance and professionalism weigh heavily in the development and sustainability of the trust of the public the agency serves. 

“Trust” in the leaders of an organization is paramount to its success. If officers don’t trust their leaders’ decision-making, they can’t be expected to trust them in dire situations, and that lack of trust can lead to behavioral issues.

Impacts of morale

What is the impact of morale on a police service? Here's how morale impacts businesses: 

Improving morale is good for business. The Gallup Organization estimates there are 22 million actively disengaged employees costing the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity, including absence, illness, and other problems that result when workers are unhappy at work. Leaders who keep their employees involved, engaged, and connected are ultimately improving business performance through their people. Employees want to believe their ideas are being heard and want to feel empowered to make decisions and changes in the workplace. Taking time to build relationships with employees through personal interactions is a key step that managers can take to keep morale high.” [1]

In addition to the negative impacts low morale can have on the day-to-day performance and professionalism of police officers, i.e., attitude, public interaction and motivation, severe challenges can arise when leaders aren’t properly engaged and are not providing the best of leadership to those they lead.

When incidents of employee criminal activity arise and cause no end of embarrassment for a police service, it is often uncovered that some supervisors or managers – the “leaders” in organizations – neglected to do something along the offending officer’s career path that may have mitigated or totally prevented the eventual offenses.

Public trust

“Trust” is a critical nexus to organizations ultimately earning and retaining public trust. Jim Burke, former Johnson and Johnson CEO, said:

You can’t have success without trust. The word trust embodies almost everything you can strive for that will help you succeed. You tell me any human relationship that works without trust, whether it is a marriage or a friendship or a social interaction; in the long run, the same thing is true about business, especially businesses that deal with the public.” [2]

Trust impacts policing in a number of ways. The officers and personnel within the department can earn and sustain a level of public trust by their actions, on duty and off. There is a high expectation from the public that the police will be the “good folks” and incidents that portray the police in a negative light, deserved or not, totally shake public confidence in the officers as individuals and in police organizations.

Unproductive and unprofessional police officers undoubtedly hurt public trust. People are less likely to report crimes they have witnessed or suspect to police officers they do not trust to treat them fairly and with integrity, and or protect them from reprisal. And even more so, people will be very reluctant to disclose horrific details regarding cases where they have been victimized by public officials they do not trust. It also negatively impacts the profession in many other ways, including recruiting and retention issues.

In a message from the Director-General entitled: “Management of the RCMP Disciplinary Process 2009-2010 Annual Report,” Chief Superintendent Richard Evans said:

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and indeed all law enforcement agencies in Canada depend on public trust to do their job well. When citizens start to question the actions of the police and that public trust is shaken, police work becomes immeasurably more difficult. This is readily apparent to the RCMP which works in communities, both large and small, all across Canada. Since local Mounties are well-known within their communities, any questionable police conduct will likely have a direct impact on the reputation of the local detachment. Law enforcement agencies depend on the willingness of the public to share information and provide assistance; neither will be forthcoming when citizens do not trust the police. Earning public trust may take years while its loss can take seconds. It is the foundation upon which rests the RCMP’s ability to protect Canadians and to enforce the law.” [3]

That statement truly applies to all police departments across the world. 

Leadership and trust

The issue of internal trust also impacts the ability of leaders to effectively lead and ensure morale and thus professionalism and productivity remain high. That trust doesn’t come because a leader has rank or positional power, it has to be earned.

Trust in a leader isn’t earned overnight, but it can be lost in a minute without a continuum of honest effort and a high level of integrity.

In its 2012 “Professionalism in Policing Research Project” paper, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) stated:

A number of questions suggest that police officers do not believe that the organization or its senior managers take an interest in their concerns. Lack of support is related to reduced trust and lower commitment to the organization’s success. To enhance support, police agencies need to communicate their concern for employees’ well-being, solicit employees’ input on decisions affecting them and provide support for employees’ goals.” [4]

The same principle holds true in terms of police leadership and the trust in him or her by the community. Open, transparent communication with media, public and governing entities; meeting with them as appropriate and being front and center in good times and in bad, is a big part of a police executive’s role. Ensuring a similar and consistent leadership culture throughout the organization is a must.

If the leader isn’t seen publicly except to shake hands and hand out awards on occasion and isn’t regularly heard speaking in response to various policing and public safety issues, when the chips are down the public isn’t likely to be reassured that they’re in good hands.

As well, the quality of investigations and response times aren’t just the responsibility of the officers on the road. All supervisors/managers have an important role to ensure quality service is delivered and guaranteeing that the members are properly resourced, supported and led to be successful in doing what they do. The leaders cannot simply tell governing authorities and the public that it’s “Not my fault,” but the fault of their employees. The buck should always stop at the top.

CONCLUSION

In summary, I contend that morale profoundly impacts productivity and professionalism, which then impacts public trust. Public trust greatly influences the success of the police service, which in turn further builds the trust of the public. Key to all of this is the ability of leaders to build the trust of the employees and the community being served, therefore keeping morale and public trust both high. Employees and the community deserve the effort.

This article includes excerpts from "Never Stop on a Hill" by Chris D. Lewis and "Impacts of Leadership on Professionalism and Public Trust in Policing," (April 23, 2012) Professional Standards in Policing (POL-4001-12W-20293), Georgian College, by Chris D. Lewis.

NEXT: The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors in 2022

References

1. Harrison T. (May 2007) Change Morale Improve Productivity. InTech. 

2. Constantino J. (March 2011) How Do You Build Trust. Business Marketing Success. 

3. Message from the Director-General. (2011) Annual Report Management of the RCMP Disciplinary Process.

4. Maguire S, Dyke L. (June 2021) CACP Professionalism in Policing Research Project - Survey Results.

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