The Cautionary Instruction: Pittsburgh Police Department's morale problem

Friday, 25 July 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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"What's going on in Pittsburgh is a crisis in confidence," said Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess during acting Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar's confirmation hearing this week.

"I absolutely agree with you that there's a confidence problem in some parts of the city," responded Bucar. "In attending these police chief meetings, I can see some of the anger and frustration in some areas of the city."

Bucar acknowledged low morale at the police bureau, but he was quick to mention that the department is a “very professional organization.”

Bucar should be applauded for acknowledging the problem, but the mere fact that he brought it up points to the work needed to rectify the problem. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was General Eisenhower was constantly concerned with troop morale. He once said, "The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear a lot of talk about it, it's usually lousy."

What Eisenhower meant was you cannot just talk about improving morale you’ve got to do something about it.

Bucar went on to say, the department has a “small number of bad seeds” and they get all the publicity. “It taints and paints with a broad brush,” he said, adding that public perception of officers affects their work.

Although research on police morale has evolved significantly over the years, almost all of the early research in this field focused on operational stress that officers face. The source of low morale was based on the premise that law enforcement professionals are placed in continuously difficult situations and are required to deal with these situations in the course of their duties.

What has evolved recently is the theory of organizational stress. A study of more than 2,500 officers indicated that “the findings reveal the majority of the 10 greatest sources of anger and frustration among officers have a crucial common denominator, their administrators.”

Low morale, whether operation or organizational, has consequences. A morale problem can increase turnover, absenteeism and low productivity — all of which make neighborhoods more vulnerable. Low morale can also spur civil liability which depletes resources and drives up taxpayer costs. Finally, and most tragic, low morale drives up officer suicide.

Bucar says the way forward is to build leadership that instills respect in the rank and file, and hire a new chief who not only can inspire officers but successfully reach out to communities that have seen a deteriorating relationship with the department.

“It can’t be somebody who hasn’t earned that respect by being in law enforcement for a number of years,” he said. “I have to build that trust and I have to be confident that my police chief shares that interest in drilling down in those communities that don’t trust the police.”

(Image: Stephen A. Bucar, the city of Pittsburgh's new acting public safety director, at a news briefing with Mayor Bill Peduto. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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