It starts like this. Officer X leaves the academy a finely-tuned tactical machine, with polished skills and enthusiasm measuring 50 on a scale of one to ten. The new officer ends up getting hired at a rural agency, excels at field training, then gets turned loose to clean up their beat before the next scheduled days off (which, by the way, will probably be spent working out, followed by watching dash cam video of their vehicle stops). This “dinner and a movie” may even involve a significant other. If the significant other is unimpressed and decides to call it a night early, the remaining time will be spent internet surfing for the perfect off duty holster or sunglasses that match the uniform.
Within a short time, officer X is responsible for a skyrocketing amount of DUI arrests, a couple good loads of illegal narcotics, a burglary or two in progress and a few other solid cases. The officer goes on with this pattern for quite a while, great job satisfaction and a sharp tactical edge.
Suddenly, the same officer can’t remember when they last worked out, their duty gear is outdated and probably worn out, there is a dramatic decrease in officer-initiated activities. The original significant other has likely been replaced (maybe a few times) and sports and 24-hour news have now replaced the dash cam videos and scary police chases they once watched. While age has some effect, I have seen far more of this “whatever” burned out attitude in veteran small town cops than I ever saw in the city, simply because in many rural jurisdictions... you might be able to get away with it without it biting you, and it is also contagious.
Things Are Different Out Here
I think there are issues specific to the rural cop that have an effect on the finished product you end up with on those people you hire. Once cops leave the perfect world in the academy, get out in the real world and work these smaller towns they encounter things that the academy never talked about. Things like understaffing, deficiencies in equipment and training, bosses, district attorneys and judges using small town politics to administer justice, departments chronically facing issues with budgets that result in a lack of support for training/overtime/equipment/patrol miles.
Also there is the attitude among many bosses in rural police work that “nothing happens here” or wait until something becomes a problem at least twice before making a decision to address it. These same issues seem to plague even larger bureaucratic agencies as well. Now you have an officer that came to an agency full of fire and doing exactly what they got hired for, and they are getting sent a message by the boss, courts, and coworkers that they need to back it down to be a “good employee.”
Compounding the problem is the huge amount of solo windshield time rural officers get between calls to dwell on these issues, become frustrated, and eventually take the attitude that doing the minimum is acceptable. There are agencies full of officers that work at a steady level of average (or slightly below) simply because that is the message being sent by department heads. This gets us officers who don’t want to request training or equipment because they get treated like they are doing something wrong. How many officers out there have gotten the message from above, “quit working so hard.”
We are in this profession because we like to chase bad guys and take them off the street. We are willing to stay up all night, work holidays and weekends, get beat up, crash cars, get guns pointed at us and go through all that for the reward we get when we call dispatch to say “suspect in custody.”
Good or bad, we tend to work for ourselves, our communities, and our agencies... in that order. Sadly for many agencies, this dynamic is the only thing keeping them effective, if officers did only the things that some of their agencies wanted, productivity would suffer severely.
Find (Or Remember!) Your Motivation
I do not consider myself to be supervisor material, however I do know enough about law enforcement types to know that cops are most happy when they are catching bad guys. Take the grumpy, burned-out cop and have them chasing a bad guy or insert them someplace in a polyester pile surrounded by flashing lights, pepper spray and high voltage, and when everything settles down they will giggle like a kid in a candy store. Unfortunately, with all that is going on in government jobs these days there are lots of officers that are not giggling anymore.
So, it is possible that an above average cop that is performing at an average level could be motivated by simply putting themselves in a position to get out of the ruts and go catch somebody? Could a boss change the mood and productivity of an entire agency simply by releasing the reigns a bit and let them catch the bad guy? I truly think so. Supervision is not rocket science (if it is you are doing it wrong). Keep people motivated and results will come because most law enforcement types are self-motivated. Put them in a position to use their skills and they will succeed, or at least give it a good effort. However, if you are waiting for your boss to tell you to ‘get out there and get ‘em’ you might be waiting a while. You have to make the decision as to what quality of service you are going to give to your community.
Use the skills you have — conducting investigative stops, doing community work, working your informants, and keeping your eyes peeled — and take some ownership of your jurisdiction. The public expects that we are the ones keeping them and their property safe. I’m talking about taking the problems in your jurisdiction and solving them. If you have a problem with burglary, go catch the bad guy. What about drug interdiction? Or better yet, try to intercept some large amount of hidden cash being hauled across the country. Make the most of what you can do during your shift, set some goals. Make an effort to work with other officers or agencies if possible, minimize the solo time that makes us dwell on some of these frustrating issues.
Many of us know that as you get older, priorities change and the time spent thinking “cop stuff” is replaced by hauling kids to soccer practice or taking spouses to dinner, Perfect! Even a better reason to take a “work hard/play hard” approach to our lifestyle. When you put on the badge, get your head back in the game, give 110 percent, maintain proficiency with your equipment, and proactively catch the bad guys. When you get home, spend your time doing normal people stuff — enjoy your hobbies, spend time with your spouse/significant other, your kids — and have an identity besides just being a cop. It’s healthy to get away from the job. I know you’ll still be at the ball game wondering why that guy has a jacket on in the summer, or watching that car in the rear view mirror that you just passed, that’s okay, we are still sheepdogs at heart.
I have never met anyone in law enforcement that didn’t have the ability to complain. However, bosses don’t understand that much of the complaining is simply because we care about our jobs, we care about the communities, and we care about seeing somebody do bad things and get away with it.
Remember What’s Truly Important
Ten years ago we saw many of our nation’s heroes running into danger while everyone else was running out, when those courageous souls realized that they were looking at the last actions of their lives it would be a safe bet that they were not worried about that argument with the boss, that suspect who got his case dismissed, the training request that got denied, that holster that needs replacing etc., they thought about the friends and families they were about to leave behind and all the things they talked about doing and never did. We can get a lot of crap thrown at us in the job. It’s okay for us to step back and be a person instead of a cop and sometimes it is necessary to keep us focused on the important stuff.
The message here is that we are fortunate to be in a career where we can make a difference and have a ball doing it. We have obstacles once in a while, but we still need to be sharp and do our jobs. It is as important for us to give 110 percent on the job as it is to give 110 percent at home. One complements the other — let one slip and the other will suffer. We have the skills to deal with some very interesting people and move on to the next call... unfortunately these same skills may be needed from time to time to deal with those we work with and keep us focused on what is truly important.