*Note: I outlined and wrote most of this post late last year. The themes hold true; I need these reminders for myself and my teams. Morale, Culture, Spirit are not things you can set and forget, or "fix" and walk away. They take cultivating and continually tending with focus and intention.
A version of this article was published in Police Chief Magazine:
2020 has been coined by many to be the worst year that has affected those alive today. Put it through the lens of police work and the stress has been overwhelming. Covid and the death of George Floyd shook law enforcement; we are still getting our bearings. Racial tensions, politics, and cops getting charged in controversial shootings has our brothers and sisters in blue shaken, disillusioned and lost.
When focusing on the whole problem of low morale in policing, it is complicated and dizzying. The following 5 reminders will help us process and filter the noise and negativity to come out on top.
1. Remember Your “Why”
Why did you get into this job in the first place? To help people? Good. No doubt that’s critical. To be an example and role model in the community? Perfect. Anyone can admit we need that more than ever. To arrest people? Right on. Last I checked, crime hasn’t stopped, much less slowed. “But booking restrictions… prosecutors aren’t filing… Admin isn’t supportive…”
Okay. Fine. Venting has a purpose. Did you get that out of your system? Alright then, let’s get to action. That brings us to the next point.
2. Affect What You Can
Stoic philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and others teach us to worry only about what we can change and discard what we can’t. It’s easier said than done, but with practice it helps build action to address problems. When dialed-in, it frees up valuable mental space that would otherwise be wasted on pointless stressing.
So the circumstances are harder than ever. The public doesn’t support us. They don’t “get it.” City Council is chipping away at our budget. Our training got slashed. Morale at the department is in the tube.
We can’t directly change these things. What we CAN do is engage. We can do outreach on a personal level. We can chat with residents, kids, and business owners. We can talk to our bosses and invite politicians and community leaders on a ride along. We can explain and show them what we do, how we do it and illustrate the “why.” Our trainers can invite them for reality-based training to show them what we have to balance on calls and why training and equipment costs are justified.
As for morale, that is entirely up to us. It is a choice. We can lead up, down, sideways to be positive. We can check in with our team and partners and facilitate healthy discussions and help them into a construction direction.
3. Focus on Who You Serve
It can be draining thinking of all the people and entities already mentioned that don’t support us. It’s natural to focus on the negative, as that is what we are inundated by in both traditional and social media. Remember there are people out there that DO support us.
People that want us there. People that call on us. Your family, friends, and neighbors. Do it for them, as you have since you started this job. Show up in the way you want an officer showing up to your family’s doorstep. Be the example.
4. You Are Not Your Job
“Live outside the blue world.” People think this means having hobbies and friends outside of police, and it does. It goes a bit deeper, though.
Look at the people in your department that are the most unmotivated, dejected, and apathetic. Do they have anything else going on in their lives? How are their family relations? What are their hobbies? What would they do for work if they left police work? You don’t know? Neither do they.
If you ask, they’ll say they have no other skills. This is all they know. They won’t be able to make as much money doing any job. These might be true. The money aspect might be true, at least at the start, but these are terrible reasons to stay in a career.
Even if you have no intention of leaving this job, feeling like you can leave if you had to WILL make you a better cop and person. Animals don’t like being backed into corners. It makes them panic and create a fight or flight situation. So what does a cop stuck in a rut do? Complain, argue, rebel (fight) or reclude, disconnect and stop caring (flight). We can agree neither are good.
Have a plan if you had to leave police work. Recognize you probably don’t need to make as much money as you do. Considering burnout could lead to you losing your marriage and house or depression and suicide, money is not the priority.
Take some classes online, read more, and network with your non-cop friends. Worst case, you have taken steps toward a plan you don’t need, you have a renewed appreciation for all the great parts of being a cop, and you’ve developed yourself along the way.
5. Take Care of Yourself
Remember what they say about oxygen masks on planes? Put yours on first, so you can help others. How are you going to look out for your partners, your family, or the civilians that count on you if your health is in a tailspin?
Take care of yourself so you can be of help to others. Be your best self. Start with the big rocks. For physical health, make sleep a priority. Be intentional about what you eat. Start doing some meal-prep and focus on real, whole foods like meat, veggies and fruit. Move more. You don’t have to be crushing two-a-days. You can start by walking or stretching daily. It is crazy how little you can do and immediately start reaping the benefits.
For mental and emotional health- talk. It could be a professional counselor, therapist, or a peer. It could be your clergy or a buddy. It could be an assistance or suicide hotline (my area has Code 4 Northwest, for example). You don’t need to feel at rock bottom to call to speak to someone to help you navigate a hard time. Would you judge someone coming to you for this? Of course not.
Clear your head. Practice mindfulness and meditation. This doesn’t have to be sitting criss-cross applesauce and saying, “Ommmmm.” This can be as simple as playing with your kids or dog and focusing on being in the moment. This could be hiking in nature, or embracing the solitude of a heavy lifting session while blasting your favorite music. Taking time to destress comes in many forms- and it will aid in your mental and emotional recovery.
It is easy to get overwhelmed, bitter, and dejected in the stressors we are faced with today. These concerns should not be ignored or minimized. However, by focusing on these important concepts outlined, we can navigate the negativity and turn ourselves, our partners, and our departments into better cops and better people.