Is ‘de-policing’ alive and not so well?
Proactive policing should be a big part of what officers do. It shouldn’t simply be responding to radio calls. Conducting high visibility patrols, checking out suspicious people in suspicious circumstances, interacting with vulnerable people and preventing crime and victimization — these are all critical roles for police officers.
However, conversations I’ve had with officers from a variety of police services suggest that members are only doing what they have to more and more due to a variety of factors. These include increasing oversight, public criticism and officer morale.
Public criticism of police has always existed. Although I still believe the vast majority of the public respect and trust police, the agendas of some groups and a number of individuals — fueled by the proliferation of video recordings and social media platforms — has inflamed the level of criticism unfairly. Some real — and many perceived to be real — racial profiling or conduct violations have become viral postings on social media sites. And some of these have resulted in disciplinary proceedings, leading to a number of officers choosing to avoid the potential for conflict altogether.
Police are the most highly regulated, governed and legislated profession in Canada. There are many internal and external entities to ensure officers are playing by the rules and within the boundaries of all legislation.
Effective and transparent oversight is a must for a publicly funded profession that has the immense powers of being able to restrict liberty and use deadly force against citizens, but many officers feel the balance has tipped to the point where all they do is subject themselves to overwhelming scrutiny. That has led to policy decisions that officers feel negatively impacts their effectiveness.
The Ontario’s regulation regarding “carding” is a significant example. Commonly known as “street checks,” this activity has dropped significantly among a number of Ontario police services. Historically a core function of policing in terms of delving into the suspicious actions of some, the inappropriate actions of a minority of officers resulted in a knee-jerk reaction by government, leaving all officers with rules that have all but ended it.
Declining officer morale is a huge problem in a number of police services. When morale goes bad, productivity and professionalism can plummet, which is never good for public trust. Police morale is negatively impacted by all of the above issues; as well as police resource challenges, change and leadership failings.
The cycle of change and modernization within policing will not go away soon, if ever, and we all know there are two things cops hate: the way things are and change. Increasing costs for salaries and technology are a significant driver for modernization. This cries out for the most effective leadership possible to involve members throughout the change process and lead them through the day-to-day stressors of an already difficult job. Honest and open communication as well as trust and resiliency are key to keeping employees engaged and morale high.
Many officers distrust the leadership model that focuses less on people and more on strategic plans and measurables. Getting the best bang for the limited buck and achieving community safety results are undoubtedly very important. But if personnel don’t trust and respect their leaders (and feel the same sentiments coming towards them in reverse), morale will not improve and those critical business goals will never be met. “People” have to come first for everything else to come together.
Without strong and effective leadership, as well as pubic and government support, many police officers will only do what they have to do and no more. None of us want that — we want them to professionally keep us safe and secure. I truly believe that’s what the overwhelming majority of our police officers want as well.
Chris D. Lewis is the president of Lighthouse Leadership Services Inc. and a former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police. He is also the author of Never Stop on a Hill. More information at www.lighthouseleadershipservices.com.
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