- By Angelica Wedell -
Law enforcement as a profession faces unique challenges as the country makes cultural shifts in community-centered policing. Pandemic restrictions, risk of infection, protests, increased scrutiny, national negative attention, strained resources, and increased demands naturally take a toll on working officers.
Despite these challenges, new survey results from National Research Center (NRC) at Polco reveal silver linings for law enforcement agencies. “Our trend data are preliminary. But we are finding some positive changes in how police and sheriff employees rate their organizations,” said Polco Senior Vice President of Innovation Michelle Kobayashi.
“Compared to before COVID, we see the biggest improvements in internal communication and performance management (discipline, managing low-performing employees),” Kobayashi explained. “This may represent the fact that many law enforcement agencies are now strengthening internal protocols to avoid negative police-resident interactions.”
The National Employee Survey Database for Local Government and Law Enforcement Employees
NRC has worked with communities across the country to conduct local government employee surveys (The National Employee Survey). From this, NRC developed The National Employee Survey for Law Enforcement (The NES-LE). The survey assesses many workplace characteristics such as quality of services, workload, employee engagement, and more - all from the perspectives of department employees. The NES-LE also reports national benchmark comparisons.
NRC data scientists compared survey responses of police and sheriff employees from nearly 30 communities across the US. From before to after 2020 (pre-COVID to COVID times), perceptions of organizational climate have changed in a few encouraging ways.
Law Enforcement Employees Rate Performance Management and Internal Communication Higher, Despite Pandemic Year Challenges
NRC researchers describe these preliminary findings in further detail. Of course, not all areas of law enforcement organizations have improved, according to employees. And many police officers across the country left their jobs in 2020, some departments even losing nearly half of staff.
Positive trends may sound surprising for law enforcement agencies. But researchers explain that these early data are telling of those who’ve stayed with their departments. “It’s likely that the folks who stayed are more positive about their job. It may be that we are seeing the result of losing less-satisfied officers,” Kobayashi mentioned.
That said, these positive changes in ratings are notable silver linings to watch for. Understanding areas of improvement for law enforcement organizations can show what employees do appreciate, what they want more of in the workplace, and what may convince some to stay.
Employees now are more satisfied with how their organization recognizes high-performers. (Fifty-seven percent of respondents gave positive ratings for this recognition in COVID times, compared to 45% in pre-COVID times.)
Results also show law enforcement employees feel better about their opportunities for coaching and mentoring. (Ratings increased from 48% pre-COVID to 58% during COVID.)
Perhaps the most promising finding, employees are more impressed with leadership for encouraging employees to come up with innovative solutions to problems. (Respondents gave ratings from 57% pre-COVID to a notable 67% in COVID times.)
Survey results also reported higher ratings for effective meetings, timely communications, equally applied policies, and procedures, fair and consistent discipline, as well as managing low-performing employees.
Police Departments Empowering Employees in Collaborative Solutions
“It’s encouraging to see these data,” said Polco Director of Research Erin Caldwell. “It may be that those events of 2020 prompted some changes in police departments and we see the impacts here.” Caldwell also noted that high-performing police departments are the most likely to conduct employee climate surveys.
The data also reflect workplace priorities many police leaders have for their own departments. Montpelier, VT Chief of Police Brian Peete says departments need a culture of engagement to achieve goals and solve problems. “For those who are most energized, it’s putting them into the positions of responsibility, helping them to grow, and fostering them as leaders,” Peete said in a panel discussion with Polco.
“It also answers the issue of retention within our department. [It’s about] putting people where they want to do the most good, where they have the talent to do that good, and mentoring them to get there,” Peete commented.
Caldwell highlights the significant difference in survey results for including employees in innovation and problem-solving. “I think police leadership recognizes the need to engage employees in the solutions. Success can’t just be top-down. Everybody in the department or agency needs to contribute,” she said.
Engaging Employees for Organizational Success and Better Community Safety
Caldwell also points out that employee climate surveys are pivotal for the high performance of any organization. She said, “You can’t do everything all at once. But the survey can show you where you should focus your energy if you want to make changes and improvements.”
A survey can uncover the priorities and pain points of employees. It can also show you where things are going well. “Seeing these positive trends can open up conversations to help you understand your organizational strengths. You can then apply those lessons to help make improvements in other areas,” Caldwell explained.
Nearly 30 years of community survey data from National Research Center tells a very important story. Residents most often say public safety is the top priority their city should focus on (even in communities that are generally considered very safe).
Many things can contribute to feelings of safety - well-lit streets at night for example. But most people look to and think about police when they think about safety. “Law enforcement is so critical to any community. We really need to take care of our officers and civilian staff, so they can be supported to do the best job possible,” Caldwell said.
Chief Peete would agree, “The issue is to empower the community and to empower our officers and other staff members. [We need to] give them the push behind their ideas to make those ideas come true.”