Roundtable: How to improve officer morale in 2022
Experts interpret the results of Police1’s State of the Industry survey and implications for the law enforcement workforce
By Police1 Staff
Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey explored how supported officers and deputies feel by their first-line supervisors, chiefs and sheriffs. We asked law enforcement professionals to analyze what the results mean for law enforcement leaders and how they can use these findings to maintain officer morale, improve retention and prioritize officer safety.
- Terry Cherry, Senior Police Officer, City of Charleston Police Department, South Carolina
- Jim Dudley, Criminal Justice Faculty, San Francisco State University
- Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., Assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York – Ulster
- Anthony Gibson, Sergeant, City of Charleston Police Department, South Carolina
WHICH FINDING SURPRISED YOU THE MOST?
Dudley: I was disheartened to read negative responses to questions that asked respondents if they regularly receive constructive performance feedback or recognition from supervisors, if agencies ask officers for input on policy updates and if agency leadership solicits feedback on policy changes, training requirements and human resources issues.
All these questions are about listening to the troops, clear communication and providing explanations regarding policy. The last two years have been crucial in the need to circle the wagons and close ranks – not to separate from the public, but to explain and encourage the troops to continue to do the best job possible. The negative responses seem to indicate that there are serious communication gaps.
Sergeants and above should be giving regular briefings and explaining new policies and why they were constructed. If not, officers are left with doubts about use of force, intervening in protests, enforcing health rules and other situations that are in flux over this time.
Gasparini: The findings that surprised me the most were related to responses given on perceptions of the roles of supervisors and how they perform in the eyes of officers. It left me wondering if we have overlooked the value and importance of the role first-line supervisors in particular play in terms of officer morale. The data suggest that first-line supervisors are significant players in bolstering officer morale and what they decide to do (or not do) has a cogent impact on officers.
Most survey respondents believed their supervisor cares about their professional development and that they care about them as a person. The perception is that supervisors are mostly receptive to officer ideas, requests and suggestions, i.e., they are willing to listen.
Some themes across the written commentary exhibiting what officers want from their supervisors centered around the desire for more constructive performance feedback, a weekly or monthly one-on-one meeting, good communication, equitable treatment for all officers and the ability to receive and offer feedback effectively.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE FINDINGS TO TAILOR RETENTION EFFORTS?
Cherry and Gibson: There is a significant gap in perceived leadership competency as the respondents reported they liked their first-line supervisor and agency head but cited poor communication and leadership from the command level. This is interesting because the frontline supervisors will eventually transition to command and there seems to be a disconnect after this transition.
Dudley: Officers who participated in the poll were thoughtful in their answers and suggestions. Those who offered detailed responses simply want to be acknowledged and treated fairly. They want policies explained to them. They want good, strong and consistent leadership.
Most agencies have some sort of early warning or intervention program that seeks to identify factors that may indicate the need to check in on an officer before wrongdoing. A reward system should be added to the list to counter the negative aspects of early intervention for things such as missed court dates, collisions, lawsuits and the like. Acknowledge officers at line-ups with “attaboys or attagirls” to recognize them for positive efforts in the community or excellent police work.
Rotate officers on committees where policies are constructed to get their participation and input. Some policies are still made without input from the end-user of the new policy.
Gasparini: A common response across the data was that officers want public disinformation and the lack of public support that has come about as a result addressed by their administrators. Some issues that officers were asked about, and for which written commentary was provided, included: anti-police protests, media portrayal of law enforcement, political efforts to reform/defund police, politically motivated prosecutions of officers and the removal of qualified immunity.
By taking every available opportunity to present information and to accurately depict the realities of police job duties and the workings of the law for members of the media and the public, administrators can simultaneously bolster morale among officers and address the egregious levels of disinformation circulating in the public and media arenas.
I believe that this is a critical cause to pursue based on research and datasets we have seen over the past two years on recruitment and retention. With morale pummeled (and this was made clear throughout the present survey’s findings), officers are leaving the job in droves and are not recommending the job to others. This is compounded by the public’s perception that is now resulting in a lack of support for young people who are expressing a desire to enter the profession.
Eradicating lies and errant information in the public forum makes current officers feel respected and heard. It also diminishes anti-police sentiment in communities. I have argued in the past that in many instances, we have fallen short as a profession in saying “our piece” on issues as they arise. Instead, conjecture and the reinforcement of media-driven narratives have prevailed in the place of a unified, factual and expert response from the profession.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING POLICE LEADERS CAN TAKE FROM THE SURVEY TODAY TO IMPROVE OFFICER MORALE TOMORROW?
Cherry and Gibson: Officers want to feel that their organization recognizes their talents and overall contributions. This can be accomplished through career development and leadership growth, such as training opportunities, career mentoring and diversity in assignments.
Gasparini: This is an unsurprising, one-word answer: communication. Regardless of what was being asked in the survey, the theme of improved communication emerged. Officers are looking for avenues to both offer and receive feedback. When they are giving feedback, officers are also looking to see that the feedback is being taken seriously and given at least a level of consideration, if not partial implementation.
An example of this involved new policies and directives handed down from administration. If something is changing, officers want to know why and what caused the change. It is not an unreasonable request. Knowledge of the full timeline and details allows for greater transparency and understanding.
The nature of most police officers is to be curious and to gather information. It is what makes them good cops. This tendency does not disappear when policies and changes are implemented at their home agencies.
The emphasis on communication throughout the survey responses suggests that police leaders should provide verifiable, operable and rigorous avenues for communication, particularly when it comes to the giving and receiving of feedback.
WHAT FINDING CONCERNS YOU THE MOST?
Cherry and Gibson: The finding that concerned us most was that officers felt their agency prioritized public perception over officer concerns. This would lead officers to feel that they are not valued or supported and would not motivate them to stay within the profession. Most of the cultural issues within policing are coming from internal factors and not external influences.
Dudley: Regarding the question, over the past year how has officer morale in your agency changed, over 75% said morale had decreased.
I am also extremely concerned that more than 50% of the respondents were less likely to not at all likely, to recommend a career in law enforcement to others. Working police officers can be the best recruiters in any law enforcement agency. If they are dissuading individuals from embarking on a law enforcement career, we are not likely to win the current recruitment crisis. The need for better leadership, to encourage morale and team building is imperative.
Gasparini: The finding that concerned me the most was the lack of assurance officers had about whether their departments support officers who are experiencing mental health challenges. At a time of unprecedented police suicide rates, this is an immediate must-fix.
One survey respondent wrote, “All command staff needs to buy in and not sneer at officer safety and wellness.” To be succinct, it is far past the time when any stigmatization about officer mental, emotional and physical wellness needs to be discarded entirely. Policing in this climate mandates that a premium is placed on officer safety and wellness. This is not being “soft” nor “weak.” This is a means to perform the job as safely and effectively as possible. We owe this to all law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve.
Survey respondents repeatedly suggested that access and improvements made to EAP and other mental health programs would help significantly with officer wellness and retention. This request should be granted with sincerity and swiftness.
WHAT FINDING ARE YOU MOST OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?
Cherry and Gibson: We are most optimistic about the fact that officers still seem to desire an engagement from their supervisor. This could indicate that officers are still looking for mentorship and guidance to improve and grow within their policing roles.
Dudley: More than 50% of the respondents agreed that their top leader (chief/sheriff/commissioner) advocates for funding, programs and equipment that prioritize officer safety. Yet most answered in the negative regarding whether the public in their community understands what police officers do.
We do not do a good job of explaining what law enforcement does to protect the public. This is a huge opportunity for department leaders to push the narrative forward by taking a proactive approach in communicating with their troops and the public. Every agency should have a social media presence and a public information officer with a finger on the pulse of incidents in the media. Leaders should gather the facts as soon as possible and present the narrative before one is created.
We are in a transition period of policing in America today. In 2020 we encountered a perfect storm of several enormous issues, including the pandemic and high-profile use of force events. The backlash against the profession was led by a vocal and organized group that held a pandemic-induced captive audience. Social experiments that included the defunding of police agencies and lawless mobs contributed to the rise of violence and high homicide rates across the country.
There is a new call for more law enforcement funding and harsher penalties for crime. Americans are recognizing the need for good policing. I am optimistic that the majority of Americans will invest in a future with improved relationships with law officers, with a different perspective. I am optimistic that law enforcement leadership will rise and improve the morale of the officers who continue to serve.
Gasparini: The finding I am most optimistic about is that despite more than 75% of respondents reporting that officer morale is down within their agencies over the past year, job satisfaction levels can be considered relatively high – even to the extent that they are out of proportion with morale levels. On a scale of 1-10, one being least satisfactory and 10 being most satisfactory, approximately 68% of respondents gave a ranking between six and ten. I did not expect to see this number on the more positive side of the fence given the current climate.
I am also feeling optimistic about officer rankings concerning what they enjoy most about the job, as this is something that seems to remain stable across time: serving the community, fighting crime and positive relationships with colleagues.
Finally, I am optimistic about how officers responded to a question asking, “What is the one thing a chief could do to improve mental health and wellness at their agency?” Officers overwhelmingly asked for better and more training, better endorsement of EAP and peer counseling and better access to opportunities for physical fitness and mental health. In my view, this aligns perfectly with what I have known to be true of most police officers, which is that despite the steep challenges before them daily, they strive to improve themselves in service to their communities.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: WHAT OFFICERS WANT POLICE LEADERS TO KNOW
“Morale has never been lower in my 30+ years in LE. Our mental stress levels have remained beyond the breaking point for years now. Some of us cannot do this job anymore. Recruits have no idea how proactive policing is done nor will they have any clue how to react when something bad happens in front of them. ‘Opting out’ due to danger is accepted by management as a valid reason not to engage. In every instance, the response becomes gather more resources and call a specialty unit to talk. This response takes time and only works when the subject will speak rationally. There are no more pursuits: vehicle or foot for anything. There are no more beat or gang policing units doing anything meaningful. As drug addiction is a disease therefore everything addicts do is because of the disease. Theft, prostitution and fraud are normalized into legality. Because of this, I don’t know how I can motivate my people into wanting to do this job anymore.”
“The most stressful part of working here is dealing with this department. I’m not scared of criminals, getting shot, hurt, killed, or anything like that. I am under constant stress that I will be fired or demoted because someone thinks what I did is not what they would do. Even when things are done with good intentions in mind, the investigation always assumes the officer acted maliciously and destroys them.”
“Listen to the patrol supervisors to get a pulse on the troops as they feel they aren’t being listened to, affecting both morale and mental health.”
“Reestablish a shift representative program where input can be given to upper administration directly from front line personnel. The chain of command is failing to provide accurate information about field issues.”
“Mandate all appointed command staff ranks to answer calls three times a month. Work a day/eve/mid-shift. Upper command is too far removed from realities of this job.”
“Send out emails FROM YOU, not from your secretary. It means more coming from you, not through another person.”
“Surveys are taken routinely at our agency and the results are posted for staff to review. Ironically, the good and relevant suggestions are not implemented. The suggestions need to be implemented.”
“Explain the why behind new general orders. Right now, they just drop from the sky with no warning or explanation.”
“Follow up with officers after intervention training. Do not just assume that early intervention fixes the problem. Stop persecuting those who need improvement help them before hanging them.”
“Annual mental health evaluations to go along with our annual PT evaluation. The first time an officer meets with a mental health professional should not be the mandated visit after a critical incident.”
“Revise the promotion system to better identify, recruit, develop and support those with proven leadership knowledge, skills and ability. Every other problem will become easier with more care/focus on proven leadership at all levels.”
“In my opinion, we need to reevaluate how we deploy police officers for patrol duties. I think the health, wellness and mental health of officers would improve if we figured out a way to reduce the hours of actual patrol time while increasing hours of rest and training, like how special operations train and deploy. We apply the average Joe’s working structure to a job that is anything but average, then can’t understand why we have issues mental and physically.”
“Have one set of standards for everyone. Every single officer notices when peers are treated better or worse than everyone else, and it destroys morale.”
ABOUT THE PANEL
Senior Police Officer Terry Cherry has been with the Charleston Police Department in Charleston, South Carolina, for over nine years and is currently serving as the agency’s recruiter. She has been recognized in the National Police Museum for her work of building strategic community partnerships with the low-country Spanish-speaking community under the Charleston Illumination Project. In 2019, she was presented with the South Carolina Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA) leadership award for her work to increase LGBTQ visibility and equality in the Charleston area. In 2020, she was selected as an NIJ LEADS scholar and was the recipient of IACP’s 40 under 40. She holds a BA from UCLA and an MBA from Pepperdine University.
James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He is currently a member of the criminal justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.
Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., is a proud former police officer who served as a police instructor, FTO and crime scene technician. Gasparini has taught collegiate criminal justice courses since 2009. She is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York – Ulster, and the coordinator for Police Basic Training at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Training Group.
Sergeant Anthony Gibson started at the Charleston Police Department as an intern in 2013 and now serves as the Recruitment & Retention Supervisor. In this role, he manages the department’s recruitment initiatives, the unit’s related research efforts, and the implementation of various talent acquisition strategies. Sergeant Gibson believes in blending the strengths of research and data with the dynamic nature of law enforcement to create precise solutions to modern-day policing challenges. He has a B.S. in psychology and an MPA.