How to boost police officer morale – it's easier than it seems

Improving the quality of your cops’ lives doesn’t have to be expensive

This list is one created from the experience of 15 years as a cop and a lot of time since teaching and writing about it.

In every community I’ve lived in, news reports of significant police involvement in an incident tend to be anonymous. “Officers of the Anytown Police Department arrested insert name, age 42...”

The only time an individual officer is named is if he is killed or charged with a crime. Everyone in a police agency contributes to its success, but arrests are generally made by a single officer or maybe a few of them. Why not give them a minute in the sun? When your cops take a bad guy off the street in a newsworthy way, get that cop’s name and picture on the news. There will be times when this is inappropriate, of course, and some cops may ask specifically to be left out of that program. Honor those wishes, but if the individual doesn’t opt out, he probably won’t mind everyone knowing that he did well that day.

A few times a year, every leader should work a shift as a patrol officer to see the challenges patrol officers deal with daily.
A few times a year, every leader should work a shift as a patrol officer to see the challenges patrol officers deal with daily. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Blow your own horn

When I worked the front desk of my agency, greeting walk-ins and answering the non-emergency telephone, several calls a day would come from news outlets, asking if anything significant had occurred lately. Unless there had been a big incident and a press release written, the standing order was to tell them, “Nope. All quiet here.”

That sends the wrong message.

On any given shift, officers respond to calls for service, write tickets, take crime reports, arrest drunk drivers, investigate accidents and perform all of the other functions that consume a cop’s day. If there’s nothing else to report, report that. Say how many calls there were, how many arrests made and how many tickets written. Pick the most interesting report out of the stack and summarize it for the reporter. Do something to send the message that every day is a busy day, and your troops haven’t been sitting around drinking coffee all shift.

Find things to celebrate

Most cops hate hearing from their chief or even their watch commander because it’s almost always going to be bad news. Most police management places emphasis on the negative, so you only hear from the boss when you’ve done something wrong.

Law enforcement agencies are a family of sorts, and families celebrate their successes and milestones. Send people a personal note or a card on their birthday. When a member of the department has an anniversary of their service on the department, make a small ceremony of it when you give them that next hash mark or service star.

Congratulate them when they complete a college degree, have another kid, get married or get an exceptional performance review. You shouldn’t have to look hard to find at least as many events to celebrate as to condemn.

Create a clear career path

Imagine that a rookie officer came to you today and said, “I want to be a homicide detective someday. What do I need to do?” Would you have an answer that was more definitive and specific than work hard, keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble? In most departments, you wouldn’t. People tend to wind up in specialized assignments like detectives or EOD tech through chance, luck and often politics.

There are certain areas of knowledge, skills and other qualities that are common to good performers in every job you can think of. Why not put together a list of these for each of the coveted assignments in your agency and publish them to the troops?

Make it known that vacancies in these jobs don’t occur often, but when they do, the candidates who have accomplished most of the items on the list will get top consideration. Don’t be afraid to make some of the qualifications tasks that can take years to complete – this is intended for people who know what they want and are willing to work for it. Just make sure that all of the items are accessible to everyone. It won’t do to have "attend and complete the FBI National Academy" on the list when you have to be someone’s special friend to get an invitation to go.

Doing all of those things won’t guarantee they’ll get the golden ring, but it can improve their chances considerably.

Get back to the basics

Many officers believe their chief has no understanding of what they do. Even if you came up in the department you now lead, younger officers may have never seen you when you were a working cop. It’s good to see the boss in the field now and then. A few times a year, take off the stars and bars and work a shift as a patrol officer, or whatever the primary function of your agency is. Require that of every sworn member, regardless of rank.

Don’t stick to just the day shift – rotate around to all the shifts and geographical areas to see what people are dealing with. If you’ve been off the street for a long time, ride with a field training officer who can keep you out of trouble, but take calls and otherwise behave like a street grunt, not as an executive on a VIP tour. You’ll greatly improve your image with the troops, and maybe understand some problem areas that were otherwise invisible to you.

You can be a manager or leader. You can manage things, like cars, reports, or stocks of uniforms, but you have to lead people.

This article, originally published 10/24/2011, has been updated. 

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