Blue Line


March 29, 2016  By Valerie Findlay

957 words – MR


Stretching the thin blue line even further

by Valarie Findlay


Much of the stress associated with policing, specifically for officers on patrol or in specialized units, comes from what is known as the ‘new’ policing model, which focuses on reducing risks and responding to threats in a complex and evolving society.

The steady decline in crime has been overshadowed by the most socially disparate crimes and terrorism filtering down to the community level. Although the public can take comfort in the lower crime rate, it does not mean things are ‘better’ for policing; it just means things are different.

When these new expectations to respond to crime and threats to public safety are considered, policing at all levels hears this conflicting message: Meet the mandate but within prohibitive and constantly changing constraints. The current policing model has become increasingly reactionary and response-oriented due to tight resources and budgets. It is still hinged by old standards, with new ones added as demand increases.

The standard policing model is basically made up a few major components:

  • The strategic layer drives the overall purpose of policing
  • The intelligence and operational layer (specialized skills) enable the strategy
  • The program layer addresses changing needs
  • The administrative (primarily people and processes) and technological (primarily tools) layers provide support in the above tactical layers.

While there are many issues, most can be traced back to two specific break-downs in the model.

1/ The lack of strategically designed programs which can meet the changing threat and technology landscapes and are maintainable (have money, skills and realistic timelines). Operationally, this translates to the job getting done with whatever is at hand and human resources bearing the brunt, stretching capabilities even thinner. Having said that, the old-style of policing and “getting a little chalk on your cleats” is no longer permitted.

2/ Administration: Intelligence and operational layers are hobbled without targeted support and aligned functions and often have to backfill with their own resources. This can extend to operationalized work, where officers are expected to act as warriors, psychologists, counsellors and public servants, further squeezing budgets and raising policy, liability and litigation concerns.

These two layers and their imbalance are the direct cause of workplace stress and employee dissatisfaction that pull an organization apart from the inside to its outer walls. Take into account the external pressures of media scrutiny and political pressure and it’s no wonder day-to-day stress touches nearly every officer; half report high levels of stress.

We only need to look at the frequency of morale, stress management and training issues in the media and what appears to be a rise in suicide, stress-related injury and grievances (note that Canada does not have a central database to track incidents). It doesn’t take long before internal issues begin to affect operational effectiveness and extend to personal relationships and home life.

Police officers are a psychologically ‘screened’ segment of the population. They come into the profession mentally fit but do not leave that way so it’s disturbing that there hasn’t been a more aggressive and proactive response. From a public service perspective, the vital importance of policing should make the integrity, cohesion and health of the organization paramount.

The study, <1>, prepared in 2014 for the Council of Canadian Academies, found:

• Two-thirds of officers said they were satisfied with their jobs.

• Half of the officers surveyed reported high and 46 per cent reported moderate stress levels.

• Forty per cent of respondents said the work overload has been aggravated by understaffing in their areas.

• Officers typically work 53.5 hours each week, deal with multiple competing priorities and work rotating shifts that may lead to exhaustion and problems at home.

From a public-facing aspect this affects the organization as a whole by making it appear overly authoritative and lacking transparency, making it more difficult to navigate. It also isolates it physically and psychologically from the communities it protects, referred to as the ‘policing industrial complex’.

Regardless of the term we use – reformation, transformation, retrofit – it is clear that change is due. Policing must be realigned as an essential service to meet public needs and to make it a rewarding career for officers. Many studies over the past decade have called for this and similar improvements, such as:

• Professionalization of policing to improve work-life balance, career direction and development;

• Impartial board oversight for police, unions and the public to address concerns, represented by impartial members and professional partners rather than biased parties (police executive, politicians, etc.);

• Internal committees to examine policing practices (evidence-based policing: proactive, sentinel, hot-spot models, et al.) for effectiveness and to meet new needs on an ongoing basis;

• Leveraging of threat deterrence and response resources in departments where they are not fully utilized;

• Improving existing communication channels and developing new ones to enhance community relationships, intelligence gathering and sharing.

The next crucial step is addressing root causes and determining how much of the problem is germane to the profession and to what extent it has resulted from poor change and organizational management. With these issues increasingly making their way into the media, it is time to address the biggest threat to police officers – unilateral decision-making that is disassembling agencies from the inside out.


<1> Council of Canadian Academies, 2014, Policing in the 21st Century. Visit to download the full report.


A research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) Valarie Findlay has more than two decades of senior expertise in developing strategies, frameworks and risk assessment approaches for cyber-security, policing, military and government departments. She holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies degree and is preparing her doctoral thesis on terrorism as a social phenomenon. Contact:

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