A roadmap for effective law enforcement leadership

Police1's State of the Industry survey results provide critical insight into the current leadership needs of law enforcement officers


This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2022, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 2,376 officers about the support they need from their first-line supervisors, chiefs and sheriffs. Download the complete report here.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we have seen reports of police officers leaving the profession at above-average rates. Along with many of the other seismic changes we have witnessed within our communities over the past 24 months, this loss of officers has created a significant problem for our organizational leaders.

The results of Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey, which asked, “What support do cops want and need from law enforcement leadership?” provide critical insight into not only the short-term future of our profession but also the current leadership needs of our organizational members.

One of the more alarming outcomes of this survey indicates that nearly 45% of those surveyed plan to leave their department, and perhaps the profession, within the next three to five years. Coupled with the personnel losses we've already experienced; this creates a nightmare scenario for law enforcement agencies.

To complicate matters even further, 34% of those that indicated their intentions to leave their department are younger than the traditional retirement age, and 51% are currently in patrol or first-line supervisory positions. In short, if these predictions turn out to be accurate, in the next 5 years the profession could experience a mass exodus of younger officers and supervisors at the service level. With recruitment numbers at their lowest in years, these are valuable people we cannot afford to lose.

With the ongoing scrutiny and criticism of the policing profession, it is understandable that a percentage of policing professionals would be looking to move on. What makes this more puzzling however is that the survey also indicates that less than 20% of the respondents had an overall job satisfaction rating that was below average. If the majority of respondents rate their job satisfaction at average or higher, why are so many looking to leave their agencies?

Perhaps the key to this can be found in further analysis of the survey results. For example, 77% of respondents indicated that officer morale in their agency had decreased over the past year. We know that morale is a significant issue in today’s environment but, as we have already seen, despite the current state of affairs, overall job satisfaction is still relatively high.

These two results don’t seem to align with each other and clearly show that there is a causal factor impacting officer morale that is not having a similar impact on job satisfaction. One respondent explained this apparent discord between job satisfaction and morale by commenting, “The job is excellent, but department leadership determines morale.”

To be certain, being a police leader or supervisor in today’s policing profession is more difficult than at any time in memory. Our men and women are feeling the pressure of anti-police sentiment and lack of appreciation for what they do, and in some cases are being threatened with the elimination of their jobs. In addition, we are all dealing with the ongoing stress of COVID, and the uncertainty of how the pandemic will continue to evolve and affect our lives. Leadership is an extremely difficult task, but it is made even more so in times of high stress and significant change.

Many studies have shown that effective leadership influence is at its strongest when it comes from an employee’s direct supervisor and that employees’ sense of discontent grows in direct proportion to their sense of absence of effective leadership. This is not unique to the policing profession, but we are especially susceptible to it now.

Fortunately, the responses to some of the other survey questions provide a more detailed picture of the current leadership needs of our officers and can help to provide a roadmap for our leaders as they seek to address these issues. Let’s look at what we can dissect from some of the responses to the survey questions.

Question: Do you regularly receive constructive performance feedback from your supervisor?

Of the 2,376 respondents, 54% indicated that they do not receive regular or constructive performance feedback from their supervisor. Performance feedback is a critical component of effective leadership. Regardless of an employee’s rank, seniority, or assignment, everyone wants to know that their supervisor is paying attention to what they do and will provide support and guidance as needed.

Constructive feedback can be considered a form of positive reinforcement, it is an effort to improve or get a better result, but must be messaged in a positive and supportive way to avoid demotivation. Constructive feedback comes without admonishment or judgment and, when delivered appropriately, should positively impact performance while maintaining a strong leader-follower relationship.

Question: My supervisor explains department decisions that impact the work I do.

Approximately one-third of those that answered indicated that their supervisor rarely or never explains department decisions that impact their employee’s duties. In fairness, there could be several reasons for this, and the lack of communication might stem more from an organizational issue than an individual supervisory issue. For example, a first-line supervisor in a larger organization may not have information that could help explain departmental decisions and may not have been included in that communications loop to begin with.

It remains, however, a good lesson for supervisors at all levels to keep their subordinates informed and to make sure they understand both what to do, and why they are doing it.

Question: Do you consider your supervisor to be a good role model?

While it is a positive sign that 35% of the responses to this question indicated that their supervisor is always a good role model, it is also concerning that 29% of the responses indicated that their supervisor is never a good role model. It should be the primary responsibility of every organizational supervisor to set the standards of behavior and performance, and then to exemplify those standards through their own actions. This is not a question that should be graded on a curve, or for which there should be received partial credit.

Think for a moment about the best supervisor you’ve ever known or worked for. Then think of three personal traits they possessed that drew your admiration. Were the traits of the supervisor that you thought of also the traits that you aspired toward for yourself?

A study by Pennsylvania State University researchers concluded that people prefer to have ethical leaders whose behaviors they admire. When employees perceive that their leaders play fair, communicate directly and in general demonstrate that they hold high standards for themselves and others, other people do look up to them and consider them role models.

Does that mean that role models cannot make mistakes without undermining themselves in the eyes of others? Of course not. If anything, honest mistakes that are acknowledged and corrected can enhance the status of a role model. This notion was strongly supported by the comments submitted by one respondent:

“My supervisor could become a better role model by simply taking responsibility for his words and actions, becoming a true mentor for his team members, and working hard to create an environment where officers can come to work and not feel devalued.”

Question: Does your supervisor treat everyone on the team fairly?

In a continuation of the trend, we have seen so far, only slightly over 50% of the respondents indicated that they believe that their supervisors treat everyone on the team fairly. The term “fair” can have a slightly ambiguous meaning in the context of an organization and its members and should not be misconstrued with the term “equal.” In general, most employees would have a hard time defining or identifying treatment from their supervisor that they perceived as fair, but nearly everyone could tell you of an incident in which they or someone they know was treated unfairly.

This can be especially problematic in policing organizations where values such as equality and justice are paramount to our organizational missions. When members feel as though their own experiences within the organization left them with perceptions of unfairness it creates organizational dysfunction. This mixed messaging, in which external expectations of fairness and equal treatment for all don’t match up with experienced internal outcomes, can be difficult for our people to reconcile. To be sure, leaders will never be able to address or resolve everyone’s sense of inequity, but the worst thing that can happen is to ignore it.

Question: Do you think that your supervisor cares about you as a person?

In comparison to some of the other questions, the responses to this question were very positive. Only 19% of the respondents indicated that they did not think that their supervisor cared for them as a person, while over 60% indicated the opposite. This is an encouraging sign.

The number one rule of leadership is, “It’s not about you.” When followers believe that their leader cares about them and has their best interest in mind, the ability and effectiveness of leadership grow tenfold. It is a simple fact that if you want to be a better leader, you need to know your people.

Next steps

The most meaningful outcome of these survey results confirms that basic leadership skills are needed now more than ever. The responses spoke loud and clear of the support our officers want and need from their law enforcement leaders:

  • Provide constructive feedback as often as possible.
  • Explain department decisions and seek answers where they are not readily apparent.
  • Be a role model and remember that role models don’t need to be perfect.
  • Be fair and consistent in your words and actions.

The collective quality of leadership in police organizations today is probably the highest it has ever been, but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve to meet the current needs of our officers and employees. Meeting the leadership needs of our officers, with skillful application, might just reduce the probability of losing valuable department members in the years to come.

For our department members, it could mean the difference between a long and rewarding law enforcement career or starting over. 

For our police leaders, it is a significant challenge, but one that was accepted as part of the role of leadership. As one of my mentors once commented, “If you don’t think leading other people is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in your life, then you might not be doing it right.”

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

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