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March 2018

Improving Culture in Law Enforcement Agencies

At any type of workplace, a strong, positive culture tends to lead to employee satisfaction and productivity. But for law enforcement agencies, workplace culture is especially critical.

“Workplace culture affects morale, and the last thing you want at a law enforcement agency is low morale,” says Brian Ursino, director of Law Enforcement Programs at AAMVA. “Low morale can adversely affect decision-making—decisions that can affect someone’s civil liberties. In the field that could mean decisions on whether to make a custodial arrest or split-second life-and-death decisions on whether to use deadly force.”

Colonel Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol adds: “Law enforcement personnel deal with tragedy and difficult situations on a regular basis. It’s so important to enforce a positive culture in the organization to keep our personnel in the right frame of mind serving and protecting as we are paid to do. You need to convince people to be proactive instead of reactive so we can prevent tragedy instead of respond and investigate.”

In addition to helping officers make better decisions out in the field, positive workforce culture can positively impact retention efforts. Law enforcement agencies often emphasize employee retention because training and equipment for officers is expensive. If agencies are not retaining the vast majority of their employees until they are retirement eligible, it will have a real adverse effect in terms of budget.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies can allow for better succession planning. They can set themselves up for future success by having a strong leadership pipeline.

For law enforcement agencies, a positive workplace culture starts with ensuring that policies and agency systems, such as performance appraisals, are in alignment with the strategic plan. And leadership must collaborate with employees to ensure their input, and therefore ownership, into how the organization’s systems are built and maintained.

“Let’s say job performance evaluations put a premium on employee outputs—for example, how many tickets a state trooper has written,” Ursino says. “If that’s what you’re measuring, that’s what troopers will do.” If that behavior isn’t consistent with strategic objectives and the intended workplace culture, the agency won’t achieve its desired results.

Over the past seven years, the Tennessee Highway Patrol has worked to improve its workplace culture. The initiative started with re-emphasizing the agency’s mission to protect drivers and reduce fatalities and injuries. “We had to make individual troopers feel like they can have an impact on that mission with their daily work,” Trott says. “We met with troopers face-to-face all over the state talking about our goals and the impact they could have on the statewide effort working together. Most important, we devised several programs that recognized top performers, and that performance received consideration when we made promotions, selection for specialized training and work transfers to specialized units.”

Results have been impressive, including increased seat belt enforcement by more than 250 percent and increased distracted driving enforcement by 160 percent. “The most important statistic is that we have reduced the average number of traffic fatalities in Tennessee during my seven years as Colonel compared to the previous seven years by 175 deaths per year,” Trott says. “That’s more than 1,200 lives we have saved by proactive work.”