Why increasing officer morale should be a priority for every police leader

Officers worked hard to get into law enforcement so be one of the reasons they love coming to work every day


By Brian Smith

I have wanted to be a police officer since I was 5 years old. Everything I did centered around that goal.

After I graduated from high school, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps and obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

When morale increases, loyalty, happiness and productivity increase.
When morale increases, loyalty, happiness and productivity increase. (Getty Images)

Since I was stationed in California for three and half years, I applied to the California Highway Patrol. I made a lot of sacrifices along the way, including leaving my family on the East Coast and attending a six-month live-in academy.

I hoped that my dream job would be as great as I always imagined. I retired as an assistant chief, and I have to say that working for the highway patrol was better than I ever imagined.

I started the article with my background because I know so many officers and deputies who made a lot of sacrifices and attended long academy classes away from their families to achieve their lifelong dreams of becoming law enforcement professionals. So, if a person is going to go through all those challenges, why would they ever be unhappy at their job?

We face so many challenges from the media, Hollywood, academia and even politicians who have an overall agenda and use us as pawns, but that is an article for another time. Today’s article is about how you, as a supervisor or manager, can make sure your officers and employees enjoy their job and feel appreciated.

The impact of a positive leader

When I graduated from the academy, I was sent to a beautiful beach community. What could be better? I was living my dream in a gorgeous location. However, many of the supervisors and a manager caused a lot of employees to be unhappy and not want to go to work. Most of us just accepted their over-controlling methods and did our job every day. Then one day, a new sergeant promoted into our office. His style of supervision was nothing like we had ever seen. He treated us like family. In fact, he worked the beat with us, he asked about our families, he let us know he was always available if we or our families ever needed anything, and he always backed up his promises and offers.

Some of the other sergeants resented him because he did not rule with an iron fist. He actually cared about us. He also developed each one of us into better officers, clerical staff, dispatchers, auto technicians and maintenance workers. Most of us who worked for him ended up promoting due to his direction and assistance. I learned a lot from him, and I continued to follow his examples throughout my career and life.

As a commander, anytime a new supervisor or manager transferred or promoted into one of our offices, I always sat down and had a discussion with them. I told them that my two greatest concerns in the office were officer/employee safety and morale, and one was just as important as the other.

Having said that, you would think it would be easy to follow that guidance, but some people just didn’t get it. Subordinates would dread going to work when they worked for certain supervisors. As I mentioned earlier, it should be easy to keep people happy when they choose their profession. They went through a lot to get that job. It’s not like most people where they must take an undesirable job so they can get paid and make ends meet. So with that in mind, here are 12 steps to increasing morale in your office or department:

1. Get buy-in

I always worked like we were a family. You may not always get along with all your family members, but you still care about and take care of them. In disagreements, always look at their perception or point of view. You don’t have to act on it, but you should consider it. When giving directions or orders, explain the purpose when time allows. It’s even better if you get their support. The goals will be accomplished more successfully when they “buy in" to an assignment.

2. Know your people

Every employee has their own personality. Some just want to be noticed, others want verbal recognition and others want documented praise. Find out what motivates them and deliver. Even though I had over 150 employees at one office, I could tell when they passed me in the hall if something was wrong. I wouldn’t pry, but I would take them aside and ask them if everything was alright. Nine times out of ten, there was something bothering them. Always be available to listen.

3. Understand your employees are not you

You may have been a hard worker and produced a lot of activity. Many employees may not have the same work ethic as you. You can require a minimum standard of performance and you should try to motivate them to improve. However, always keep in mind that they are not you. They may not be a hard charger. If they are meeting the standards, do not attack, single out or punish them. Recognize personnel when they do perform at a higher level.

4. Check on their welfare

Anytime one of your employees is injured or sick, call to check on their welfare. In the beginning, many officers may think you are trying to get them back to work sooner. And although there are policies and procedures for that, you just need to let them know that you are only checking on their welfare to see how they are doing.

Ask if they are getting the proper treatment they need and if you can assist them with anything. See if the spouse or family needs any assistance. How many of your employees are at home on injury leave? When was the last time you called to genuinely check on them or invite them to lunch? They will realize that you actually care about them and are not just following policies.

5. Attend briefings and training days

When I was a young officer, I really respected a certain captain and I told others about him. One day, someone asked me why I respected him so much. After thinking about it, I realized it was because he visited the graveyard briefing one night and spoke with us. I had never seen a captain visit graveyards before, let alone talk to us.

You don’t have to just do ride alongs. Go out in a patrol car and work with your officers. Make traffic stops. I even carried my ticket book as an assistant chief. When you make traffic stops, write your own citations. Don’t call a beat car to do it for you. If you stop a DUI or felon, you may turn it over to a patrol unit, but always write as much of the report as possible, so it is easier for the officer. Not only do the officers appreciate seeing you out there in the trenches, but it allows you to see their working conditions. Drive the pool cars on occasion, so you know the condition of the fleet.

6. Assist at incidents

Don’t just show up at incident scenes to supervise. If you have time, ask if you can assist. You may assist with getting witness information, impounding vehicles and requesting more assistance. There are many tasks you can take part in that do not actually involve conducting the investigation.


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7. Stay informed

Advise your staff to let you know when an employee is injured or seriously sick. If an employee is taken to the hospital at any time, check on them. Do not wait until the next day unless it was a minor incident. You should also follow up with employees to check on their sick or injured family members. Visit them in hospitals when it is appropriate. Always attend your employees’ immediate family members’ funerals. Many times, that is a person’s lowest point in their life. You want to be there to provide support.

8. Remember birthdays 

Calling your employees on their birthdays is a great way to show you care, but the best part about it is that you get to stay attached to your employees and stay abreast of their lives. Document their birthdays on your calendar and call them every year. You will see that it is actually more rewarding for you than it is for them.

9. Avoid "Do as I say, not as I do"

Don’t do something you told your employees not to do. There was a sergeant who would not let officers take a patrol car home even though they worked nights and had court early in the morning, but he took a car home many times for no valid reason. A clerical supervisor asked if she could work through lunch and leave an hour early so she could run some personal errands. Her request was approved. Two days later, one of her staff asked if she could do the same thing because family was passing through the area, and she wanted to visit with them. The same supervisor who worked through lunch denied the request.

10. Don’t take credit for overturning a supervisor’s denial

If a supervisor below you denies a subordinate's request and the employee appeals it to you, do not just overturn the supervisor’s decision. One time an officer who was very loyal to his professional football team was invited to see his team play in the playoffs. He had never seen them in the playoffs before. He requested the Sunday off to attend the game, but due to the work shift, the sergeant denied his request. He asked if he could appeal it to the lieutenant, who also denied it. When it got to the captain, the captain was going to grant his request and let him go to the game. However, instead of looking like the hero and making the sergeant and lieutenant look bad, the captain went back to them and told them that the officer could go but had them tell the officer that they decided to let him take the day off to attend the game.

11. Praise when warranted

When officers work hard and accomplish great things, there are too many supervisors who say, “Well, that’s what they are paid to do.” Always remember that praise is free. You don’t want to dilute the significance of the reward system, but when someone demonstrates an effort above the expected, acknowledge them.

Avoid “cut and paste” evaluations. As a hard worker, it is insulting to get the same comments and ratings as a mediocre employee and trust me, they find out.

If someone is a substandard employee, document that on their evaluation with suggestions for improvement. If they are an average employee, thank them for their activity and efforts. However, you should really acknowledge the dedicated and hardworking employees.

Take the time to put the extra comments on their evaluation and let them know how much you appreciate the extra efforts. For the employees who really excel, you may also want to give them a commendable document of gratitude for their efforts. It goes a long way.

12. Learn employee names

Some of the most successful people I know can remember people’s names all the time. Employees feel more appreciated and part of the family when supervisors or managers know their names. They also pick up on it when you call them Buddy, Bub or Hey. Take the time to learn their names; it will improve their morale and your relationship with them.

These are just a few examples of how you can raise morale. You can’t fake being genuine, but if you look at your employees as family members and truly care about them, you will improve their working conditions and make them want to go to work every day. When morale increases, loyalty, happiness and productivity increase. However, when morale decreases, sick leave, work-related injuries, complaints and grievances increase. Officers worked hard to get into law enforcement so be one of the reasons they love going to work every day.  

NEXT: What young cops want (and what police leaders can do about it)


About the author

Brian Smith served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and retired as an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield. Contact him at bmsmith778@gmail.com.

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