Police Psychology | Morale

Posted: September 16, 2016 in Rank and Leadership
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Police Psychology | Morale

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


My very first job and first elected office, I was voted president of the Mighty Mouse Club by the kids in my neighborhood.  Mighty Mouse was a cartoon mighty-mousesuper hero mouse character that beat up cats in the 40’s 50’s and early 60’s.  The club members talked behind my back and all got a penny from their parents and each gave me a penny for my being the president.  I was so honored.  They didn’t tell me I was going to be paid!  I remember I was about kindergarten age at the time.  I remember I snuck to the ice cream truck when it came by later in the day, and I spent that seven cents on seven ice cream cones and gave one to each of the seven kids in the club.  I remember I didn’t order one for myself because I didn’t think I had enough money, but the ice cream man gave me one anyway.  (When I look back, my mother probably really paid for the cones, she had to watch while I went into the street).  I thought I was doing something that made all the kids happy.  I remember a girl named Margery, who lived two doors down from me, saying before we left that day that it was the best club in the whole world.

I had a conversation this week with an officer from a Midwest state who called me out of the blue.  He said he was a reader and that he wanted to get it across to his superiors that morale was very low and the trainings they are having don’t seem to address this issue or things that were important to the officers.  He said there has been a little bit of research in their department that showed that job satisfaction was in the low 20 percentiles and that was a major issue.  It was heart wrenching to have a guy say that 80 percent of his department isn’t crazy about their job anymore, a job many of them probably dreamed of taking.  He asked me how do I get a training on something that really mattered to his officers doing the job.

I personally have seen low morale across the country lately and want to spend a couple of paragraphs to address this issue.

Difficult Times

When times are difficult, it is easy to forget to make the people who work in our departments happy, but it is ultra-important.  When we are busy fighting negative opinions that come from all directions, how do we make a work environment happy and keep morale up?  Why should we be worried about inside things when the outside is falling apart?  In the theater, it is said if you are not enjoying yourself on stage, why would anyone enjoy watching the show.  In sports, you should rid yourself of the negative influences in the locker room if you want a better chance to be a winner.  A family run with only negativity will not likely produce good kids.  The examples go on and on.  Why would we not want good morale in our departments?

“So Doc, are you saying I should buy ice cream for all my officers.”  Actually, that might work temporarily.  The Hawthorne Effect is a way psychologists look at morale.  There was this shop in Cicero Illinois, Hawthorn Works, and they commissioned a study to find out whether workers would produce better under low lights or higher lighting.  This was back in 1925, well before most of us were born.  What the researchers found is that neither lighting was the most effective, what was effective was the fact they were observed and there was change.  Essentially, the employees felt that someone cared about them as was shown by changes in lighting.  Even to this day, this result is produced over and over in many studies.  Some say it is an observer effect, but to me it just shows people care about you caring.

What Works?

So “hokie” motivational posters and  ice cream truck buys do have an effect.  Giving officers attention does have an effect especially when the attention is positive and perhaps not earned.  Caring about an officer’s family has a huge effect, or caring about their dream.  “How’s the condo at the beach going Bill, or does your daughter want some police mini badges – I have a few for her from Wisconsin and Indiana.”

When I worked consulting for the FBI the phrase “family first” started circulating.  I saw an immediate impact to job satisfaction back then.  When I had a chief instill a police trivia contest and give out weekly prizes, big effect.  Joke of the month – good morale booster.  All of these kinds of things can have a big impact on a department, but there is much more.  Trainings, roll call videos, programmed smiles, family involvement, kid’s involvements, public awards, public relations, recognizing the everyday officer, etc. all can have an effect on officers.  I heard of one department’s respond to minority tensions in the community by having a barbecue for the residents.  Here on Long Island they do an annual Cops vs. Transvestites volleyball game on one of the surrounding beaches with many, many people in attendance.  Ask yourself, how do I let people know I care about them, or we care about each other, and then make it happen.

There are tons of articles on building morale in companies, but it really is more art and not so definable.  Morale building cannot be learned from an article.  Morale takes some creativity and a lot of support for the people doing the work as well as for you.  Cops tend to forget the last part, and any morale system will never work if you don’t take care of yourself first.  It is not about being a popular boss, but about being a good boss.  In these times, it may be more about making a family of your precinct or department, within your community.

I made a commitment to the man that called that I would work with him to get his satisfaction rating up past the 20 percentiles.  I would come up with ways to help his morale and the morale of his department.   I have hours of ideas on my own, but I want to also ask my readers, what have you done that has brought good morale to your departments?   I will collect the ideas together and let you see them when I have finished, if you give me any ideas that work.  That’s what a family does!

Mighty Mouse hasn’t been on in years.  The club probably didn’t last more than a couple of days.  But the Mighty Mouse’s theme song seemed to have lasted my whole life.  “Here I Come to Save the Day!”   I suspect a lot of you were in the Mighty Mouse Club too.


Site Editor:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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  1. Ben Moon says:

    Hello Dr. Aumiller, just wanted to share a couple ideas I have incorporated within my unit that seems to have helped with morale and team building.
    First let me tell you a little about myself. I just turned the big 50 and have been employed with my department for 28 years. I hold the rank of Lieutenant and currently in charge of the Criminal Investigations / Evidence department / Narcotics Unit. Combined I supervise 1 Sergeant and 18 sworn and civilian employees.
    So, one of the first things I implemented was monthly birthday breakfast or lunch. Each month those employees who have a birthday during that month, we as a unit provide lunch or breakfast to include a unit birthday card.
    Another idea I implemented was once a month having an off site briefing meeting. I let the members of the unit select the location (within reason) where we all meet to discuss unit issues, active investigations and current crime trends or upcoming operations.
    The newest idea being implemented is allocating parking spaces that are clearly marked “On call investigator parking only”. Investigators are on call status for a week at a time. During their assigned week each will have their own dedicated parking space which will alleviate having to search for an open space. Also recognition is given to those who are responding to calls all hours of the day and night.
    Hopefully my ideas will help my collogues as we struggle during these difficult times.

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