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Police1 asked: Does public perception of law enforcement impact officers’ morale?

Leaders should be alarmed by this data, which indicates widespread issues affecting morale irrespective of location, suggesting systemic problems within departments

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This data should be a wake-up call for all law enforcement leaders.

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In recent years, the role of law enforcement has come under intense scrutiny due to widespread media coverage of high-profile incidents. In turn, this has led to a shift in public perception in some areas, begging the question: how does public perception impact police officers’ morale?

Feedback from Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey highlights a concerning trend, revealing that the morale of law enforcement officers is significantly influenced by public sentiment and media portrayal.

The “What Cops Want” survey, which gathered responses from officers across rural, suburban and urban settings, uncovers stark differences in how officers feel supported by their agencies during times of public and media scrutiny.

Let’s dive deeper into the data to understand the challenges faced by officers.

[Want a downloadable deep dive infographic that you can share to start discussions within your department? Click here to complete the “Access this Police1 Resource” box!]

What officers are saying

In the survey, we asked the question: Over the past year, how effectively did your agency leadership communicate with the public about the impact of each of these issues on police officer morale? Respondents were asked to choose between one to five – one being highly ineffective and 5 being highly effective.

Here’s the data for the following issues:

Screenshot 2024-05-23 110149.jpg

As you’ll notice, many respondents rated their agency’s communication regarding these issues as highly ineffective – consistent across rural, suburban and urban areas. However, urban officers consistently reported the highest levels of ineffectiveness in communication across all issues.

For example, 42% of urban officers rated communication about anti-police protests as highly ineffective, compared to 32% in suburban and 25% in rural areas. This pattern is mirrored in other issues, such as media portrayal and political efforts to defund the police.

What’s most unsettling is the low number of respondents who rated the communication as highly effective. Using urban areas as an example again, statistics show the least satisfaction, with only 3%-6% of respondents rating communication as highly effective. Rural areas are slightly better, but they still reflect low satisfaction, with a maximum of 11% rating communication as highly effective on any issue.

Zoom in

Based on the data and challenges identified in communication regarding issues impacting officer morale, here are four recommendations for law enforcement leaders:

  1. Implement a schedule for regular updates to keep officers informed about ongoing issues: The data doesn’t lie: departments need to develop better communication strategies, including more frequent updates on critical issues. This could look like weekly briefings, bi-weekly emails, or consistent department-wide meetings. In these forums, leaders inform must officers about the steps they’re taking to address the issues.
  2. Seek and incorporate feedback from officers to ensure their concerns are addressed: To accomplish this, some leaders may need additional training on effective communication techniques, specifically during times of crisis and politically charged situations. This training should focus on skills such as active listening and empathic engagement. With this additional training, leaders can address officers’ concerns and foster a more inclusive environment.
  3. Find ways to improve transparency and engagement: To bridge the communication gap and ensure officers feel heard and valued, consider establishing a regular open forum where officers can voice their concerns directly to leadership. For transparency, include officers in your decision-making process, especially those related to policy changes and responses to public and media scrutiny. They need to know the rationale behind decisions and the expected outcomes.
  4. Start fostering community relations and public engagement: Community support is key to officers’ morale. Think about how your department can increase efforts to engage with the community and build positive relationships. You could achieve this by launching a video campaign to inform the public about the roles and challenges of police officers, as well as the importance of community support. This can help improve public perception and, in turn, positively impact officer morale.

[Want a downloadable deep dive infographic that you can share to start discussions within your department? Click here to complete the “Access this Police1 Resource” box!]

Zoom out

Another question we asked in the “What Cops Want” survey was directly tied to providing insight into the changes in officer morale over the past year. The question, “Over the past year, has officer morale in your agency increased, stayed the same, or decreased?” was also segmented by rural, suburban and urban areas.

Here’s a breakdown of responses:

Increased morale:

  • Rural: 8%
  • Suburban: 7%
  • Urban: 4%

Stayed the same:

  • Rural: 23%
  • Suburban: 18%
  • Urban: 13%

Decreased morale:

  • Rural: 69%
  • Suburban: 76%
  • Urban: 83%

Leaders should be alarmed by this data, which indicates widespread issues affecting morale irrespective of location, suggesting systemic problems within departments. To reverse this troubling trend, leaders should implement (if not already) support programs tailored to their geographic areas to address the unique challenges faced by each group.

For example, officers in urban areas reported the highest decrease in morale (83%). While this could be attributed to higher exposure to negative public perception, increased scrutiny and more frequent interactions with anti-police sentiments, this large-scale challenge should not be ignored.

For these urban officers, as well as those in suburban and rural areas, leaders need to improve their communication strategies to ensure officers feel informed and supported. Additionally, leaders must address the mental health impacts that low morale brings. Ensure your department has access to mental health resources and counseling to help officers cope with stress, especially during crises or public scrutiny periods.

Lastly, but most importantly, leaders should focus on strengthening community engagement. This will ultimately foster better relationships between the public and law enforcement, potentially improving public perception and officer morale.

The bottom line

This data should be a wake-up call for all law enforcement leaders, as it highlights issues across rural, suburban and urban areas. These widespread challenges with officer morale are significantly impacted by public perception and ineffective communication from leadership.

Start addressing these systemic issues today, so your officers of tomorrow will be more resilient, motivated and feel more supported in their efforts to serve their communities effectively.

NEXT: The journey to effective leadership in policing through experience, mentorship and continuous learning. In this episode of the Policing Matters podcast, host Jim Dudley speaks with recently retired Captain William Fraass, who took his 27 years of law enforcement experience and wrote a book on leadership titled: “Leadership in Law Enforcement: 10 Key Traits and What Law Enforcement Agencies Can Do To Develop These in Future Leaders.”

Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of and, is the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.