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Cyclical Burnout

This article was featured in the February 2021 Issue of American Police Beat Magazine.


“We have to do more with less.”


I still remember the first time I heard an elected official say something to that effect in a council meeting. It struck me as both insulting and odd. Insulting, because I’d spent my entire adult life learning how to be a police chief. I’d spent the time I’d already worked at this particular city making the police department a more efficient place, squeezing every possible ounce of result from the limited resources that the department was given to work with. The officers I worked with were already doing an amazing job with incredibly limited resources. The councilmember who’d just spoken had no clue how hard the officers were already working. It struck me as odd because I obviously would have already made improvements with the resources I already had, if it were possible. I wanted to reply “geez, why didn’t I think of that?” When the honorable councilman put forth his maxim, it implied he thought we weren’t already doing our best. The police department was obviously just tripping around, letting resources we already had go to waste because were too stupid to utilize them appropriately.

I merely shake my head when I remember that first encounter, but I shudder when I remember all the similar encounters since then. I’ve come to learn that this is a common refrain, an easy go-to move for elected officials during budget time. When their law enforcement officials confront them with the truth about what they need, they are faced with hard decisions that will have profound effects on their community. Instead of making hard decisions, it’s often easier to mutter a clever sounding proverb, go home, and leave the police department to live with the unrealistic situation they’ve been placed in.


“You solve no crime before overtime.”

That’s a very different statement I heard long before my first council meeting, in a very different setting. It was spoken by an instructor at a homicide investigation school. It rings true for the profession in general. His point was that law enforcement is a very staffing intensive venture. Good police work requires police officers; men and women with a badge doing all the very human work that keeps communities safe. You can only “do more with less” for so long. Eventually, you are just doing less with less.


Virtually every department I’ve led has struggled with a lack of staffing, and virtually every local government I’ve worked for has cringed at the idea of adding permanent positions. Adding officers means finding more money in a budget. To do this, a city usually has to raise taxes or take money from a different department. Those are admittedly difficult decisions that require a great deal of courage from elected officials. The easiest way for a city to get money for more staff is when its revenues grow naturally as tax valuations or population increase. When a city does get “easy” money because its tax base grows, the money doesn’t always get spent on boring things like staff. Officials are usually anxious to spend it on something sexier and more immediately recognizable to the average citizen, like a new park or a cool new program that a specific group of citizens will like and then laud on social media.


The irony is that there is little more important than police, in these times, that a city could fund. Politicians, career government officials and citizens alike all seem to agree that police departments need to be doing amazing, cutting-edge, reform-minded things. Whether special programs, community outreach or just better training, you’d be hard pressed to find a citizen or official who wasn’t in favor of “building a better police department.” It’s unfortunate that this view and the tendency of local governments to neglect proper police staffing are completely at odds with one another. Most people understand, from a commons sense perspective, why it’s important for their local police department to have enough officers to get the job done. But it goes a lot further than just needing enough officers to answer the calls that come in to dispatch. A concept I call “cyclical burnout” makes it impossible to build an effective police department without proper staffing.


What is Cyclical-Burnout?


There are many reasons why proper staffing is essential, but I’ve come to realize that a phenomenon I call “cyclical burnout” makes it impossible to build a stable, effective department without adequate staffing. There are reliable, scientific ways to determine just how many officers a department needs. The best of these methods take into account a jurisdiction’s workload, as well as the on-duty time that officers will need for training. When a department isn’t given the funding for enough personnel to do these things, the officers suffer in two ways: they’re overworked while on the job and they’re required to give up their off-days to cover work shortages. Put another way, you can’t run your car where the RPM gauge is in the red all the time. It will eventually overheat. A department is no different. If overworked perpetually, officers will burn out and leave for greener pastures. When individual officers leave, those that remain are forced to work even harder to make up the deficit. They eventually burn out and leave, and so on. A department dealing with this phenomenon will eventually find themselves unable to hire and train new officers fast enough to replace those that leave. It’s a vicious cycle.


The Dangers of Cyclical-Burnout


The damage caused by this very preventable phenomenon is easily recognizable: we’ve all seen the local news articles about cities that are struggling to keep their streets safe because their police departments are short-handed. But there is a less visible cost as well. An agency that is in a constant state of turnover can never build an adequate internal culture that ensures appropriate behavior and mindset from its officers. It can’t build a relationship with its community, because the faces are always changing. In short, all of the higher-level progressive things that are so the-rage for politicians and reformers to talk about are impossible in an improperly staffed agency. A police department is its officers, and you can’t build a quality department if there is no consistency regarding who those officers are. Trying to build a quality department with a constantly changing workforce is like trying to carve a statue out of water. It can’t be done. An agency needs something solid, consistent from which to mold a masterpiece.


Improper staffing (and the cyclical-burnout that follows) also create another no-win situation for departments. Studies show that there is indeed a cost for overworking officers (and it’s not just overtime pay). Officers who are tired and overworked are more likely to resort to uses of force, receive complaints or to react poorly in high-stress, high-stakes situations. Any agency looking to provide quality policing has to avoid overworking their officers. It’s equally important for that agency to ensure their officers are receiving frequent, quality training. In an organization that’s not properly staffed, training means that officers are forced to come in on their days off. Taking away scheduled days-off exacerbates the burnout process in a profession that already makes it incredibly difficult for officers to maintain a work-life balance. Inadequate staffing essentially pits two equally important concepts (adequately rested officers and the need to train) against each other. Effective reform simply isn’t possible under these circumstances.


A department that is inadequately staffed causes its officers to work too hard while they’re on duty. It also causes them to be on duty more than they should be. The cumulative effects of this type of lifestyle shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s understandable that officers living under these conditions will eventually accept an easier job elsewhere. Finding quality police recruits is a universal issue within the profession these days, so there is rarely a shortage of places to go when officers decide they’ve had enough. The shortage caused by these officers leaving exacerbates the problem for the remaining officers, until they leave too. The cycle goes on, and the citizens suffer.


The Solution


A police department is not a building, a reliable set of cars or a solid asset sheet. These things are important, but only to the extent that they’re equipping a group of dedicated men and women. It’s these officers, properly trained and given a realistic workload, that constitute a police department. These guardians are any city’s most valuable resource. Yet too many localities approach police department staffing with an attitude more akin to simply finding warm bodies to fill a patrol car seat, more meat for the proverbial grinder, to be used until they burn out.


Local governments have to decide, up front, that having quality law enforcement officers is their top priority. Elected officials need only turn on the news to see the high stakes involved. Police leaders need to utilize recognized staffing models that take into the unique call-volume of their jurisdiction. It’s imperative that any study they do take into account an adequate amount of time for training and time off for officers. That training needs to be built-in to an officer’s work schedule, so that their days-off can truly be a day off. There is a lot of math involved in the process, but it’s important that all parties involved understand up front that it’s really about people. Cops are not numbers, tools, or convenient props to be used as politicians try to gauge the winds of political sentiment. They’re people. They have families, aspirations and limitations. They are usually rational beings who will go find a different place to work if their employer treats them like they’re expendable.


It’s imperative that this very simple, very human factor be taken into consideration when a governing body sits down to decide how to staff a police department. A failure to get it right will inevitably lead to cyclical burnout; and none of the higher-level things expected of agencies these days have the remotest chance of success when that’s in play.



Bibliography

Maciag, M. (2017, October). Governing.com. Retrieved from Governing.com: https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-police-officers-overworked-cops.html


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