I was troubled recently by a senior police officer's report that his agency's service is cheaper but just as effective as any surrounding police force. He noted that it deploys 30 per cent fewer officers per 100,000 population and, turning a vice into a virtue, added that pay increases were eight per cent less than surrounding agencies and gross pay was six per cent less.
Other comments included issues which really indicate his officers are required to work harder, cheaper and in less safe circumstances than their neighbouring counterparts yet somehow this showed they should be the agency of choice. Sadly his superiors thought this was fine and boasted about it nationwide.
Another series of news stories told about how this agency is having trouble hiring and retaining officers. One can almost hear the sucking sound as they rush out the door to services that offer better pay, more backup and safer working conditions. One has to wonder if anyone at the top is using even a modicum of common sense by connecting the dots.
To most people a police officer is a police officer. When they need a cop, they need one right now – and as long as the person who responds has the word "police" on their shoulder, they are reassured.
Police work in the past 20 years or so has suffered from an identity crisis of sorts. There is a tendency in some quarters toward promoting the brand over the occupation, which begs the question whether those sold on the brand pity neighbouring communities for having a "lower quality of policing."
This would be analogous to toothpaste. Experts say no brand is more effective than another and preference is based solely on packaging and promotion. In other words, "You get what you pay for" is not always true.
One of the few places where police branding seems to be an issue is with upper management of police agencies and local politicians. Their vested interests are in budgets and branding is secondary to the needs of their short term vision which usually, for the latter, extends only to the next election.
There's little to be gained by emphasizing brands in police work. Toothpaste branding determines which company gets the money. The content of the tube is much the same and ultimately makes little difference to the consumer. In much the same way policing has turned into toothpaste. Long ago the content of the uniform became consistent and, for the most part, even management follows the same path with little deviation.
The tendency toward branding becomes noticeable in media stories. "Local OPP make an arrest..." or "Winnipeg police issued a warrant for..." Would both of these stories serve the community, and police work in general, if worded differently? For instance "Local police arrested..." or "police in Winnipeg issued a warrant for...". Removing the brand and emphasizing the profession takes nothing away from the story.
A good number of readers will no doubt disagree but may have difficulty explaining why. As an interesting aside I have noticed one police agency tends to avoid using its name when a story is negative. When one of its officers does something wrong, for example, it tends to state "A local police officer has been charged with...". It has no problem sharing the wealth with the profession when the news is bad rather than good.
One-upmanship is certainly not a new thing and every police officer likes to feel they are just a little better than the officer next door. Upper management quietly encourages this feeling of superiority because this is how they promote their agency.
"Hey, we're adequate" is unlikely to replace statements such as "We will continue to maintain our leadership role at the local and national levels" and "As leaders in policing, we...". This is generally followed with statistics showing that horse thefts have dropped dramatically in the age 12-24 demographic (when compared with 1912).
It is not really a matter of faulting any one individual or group but simply identifying the symptoms and overcoming the weakness.
Promoting the profession over the brand helps all of us.