What really impacts morale in policing?

Three critical factors – one more than others – shape an agency’s spirit


Although difficult to define, morale is often quite apparent when it falters. It’s a positive confident feeling, an energy, an enthusiasm, a spirit, or a committed and united will to succeed.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined the now-often-used phrase, “I know it when I see it,” in a 1964 decision (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). I couldn’t agree more. “Morale” is often quite apparent when we see it, whether it is good or bad.

As a longtime police officer, supervisor and executive, I believe that morale can make or break a law enforcement agency and that effective leadership and organizational morale are inextricably linked.

Staffing levels and access to equipment are important for officers, but the overriding factor impacting LEO morale is effective leadership.
Staffing levels and access to equipment are important for officers, but the overriding factor impacting LEO morale is effective leadership. (Photo/Getty Images)

Most of us have experienced both ends of the spectrum in our careers, and remember how our morale ultimately impacted our professionalism, productivity and behavior. But do we know what factors lead to either good or bad morale? As leaders, do we consider those factors during our daily interaction with those we are proud to lead?

Years ago, I was placed in charge of a region within the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) that largely comprised uniformed officers. After years of leading mostly hand-picked investigative or tactical personnel while hearing rumors of poor morale in our uniformed stations, I was determined to assess the level of morale in my new command. I also wanted to explore the “where” and “why” issues surrounding morale among our frontline personnel.

After months of visiting detachments and talking extensively to people from all ranks, I actually discovered that there was poor morale in some locations, extremely high morale in a few stations, and pockets of high morale and low morale within others.

External factors (i.e., growing negative media coverage, increasing oversight, the rising threat of violence, and protracted protests) undoubtedly had an effect, but few employees focused on those outside pressures in our discussions.

WHAT’S AT THE ROOT OF POLICE MORALE?

In my view, the internal factors impacting the level of morale there at that time and largely throughout policing related to either one or more of three things, which hold true to this day.

1. Staffing levels

There were detachments that were very poorly staffed to meet workloads. We had intentionally left positions open to offset challenging budget shortfalls at that time. Where six officers on a platoon were justified, at times only a couple were on duty. Where there should be 60 constables in a detachment, at times only 40 were posted there. Many officers were overworked and, therefore, felt unsupported by their leaders.

2. Facilities

By facilities, I largely mean infrastructure (i.e., technology, vehicles, equipment and buildings). 

There were detachments that were in deplorable physical condition, there weren’t enough computers at the best of times and police cruisers were in poor repair. However, surprisingly, the morale in some was high.

There was a similar station that was so old and run-down that there was an infestation of rats and snakes in the building. But the bottom line was, despite the facility failings and poor staffing levels there, again, morale was high. Coincidentally, that detachment had a strong leader in command.

Conversely, there was a detachment that had a large, modern building, newer cruisers and a pretty good staffing level for their workload. But the morale there was rock-bottom. Other detachments had high morale on some uniformed platoons and investigative units, low on others. 

3. Leadership

Almost without fail, the detachments or platoons with low morale, other impacting issues being relatively equal, suffered from the third and most critical factor – a lack of effective leadership. They had commanders who seldom left their office, did not communicate effectively, took credit and passed blame, picked favorites who could do no wrong and unfairly targeted good folks.

Those commanders did not inspire anyone to do anything positive or to be their very best. They created unnecessary stress by their very presence. They were not true leaders in any way, shape, or form.

It became obvious that leadership was the overriding factor. It raised morale in poor situations and lowered it in otherwise good conditions. It was abundantly clear to me at that time that the effectiveness of leadership directly impacted employee morale.

The good leaders kept morale high, and the weak, poor or nonexistent leaders dragged it down. Based on the feedback I’ve received from thousands of serving and retired police personnel across North America in the 20-plus years since I am convinced this remains a recurring theme everywhere.


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IMPACTS OF MORALE

When people think back on their careers, I’m sure many have had times when they felt better about themselves, the job and their organization than during others. Most of us have experienced peaks and valleys, including weeks, months, or years where we felt so disconnected that we considered changing departments or professions. I was in that position myself – more than once in fact.

When we have been in those work-life “valleys,” were we working for supervisors who inspired us? Did they give us the confidence and support to be the best that we could be? Did they really care what motivated us as individuals or what our strengths and weaknesses were? Did they do and say the right things and provide us with the right mentoring and encouragement to be successful? Likely not.

It’s more probable that they provided little or none of that. In fact, in some cases, they were probably guilty of deliberately trying to make the lives of some people a living hell. They may well have been the sole cause of the valley.

People do not work their hardest and treat people they interact with professionally when their morale is in the toilet. It’s more likely that those are the times when they will do dumb things, slough off calls and conduct inadequate investigations, as opposed to when they are feeling supported and inspired. It’s simply human nature to be more productive and professional when you go to work feeling good about yourself and your organization.

Consider the downstream impacts of poor behavior and productivity on the public those employees interact with 24/7 – including victims, witnesses and even suspects.

It is my belief that the performance of employees can greatly affect public perception of a department – positively or negatively. Obviously, that image can significantly impact the police recruiting pool and more.

CAN WE CURE THE CRISIS?

During a presentation at an Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Canada in June 2008, former U.S. police officer, lecturer and author Jack E. Enter summed up the issue. He stated that based on his studies, he believed “law enforcement is in a leadership crisis” and that “90% of U.S. law enforcement managers are rated as inconsistent and ineffective as leaders.” 

You owe it to those you lead and ultimately serve to do all you can to build and maintain morale. Through honest communication, encouraging feedback, effective and fair decision-making, and showing appreciation for those you lead, you will build employee trust and your team will be inspired to do their very best. 

The downstream impacts of that high morale will be endless. 

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.

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