A survey conducted by the labor union representing Laguna Beach police employees reported poor morale among a cohort of the rank and file, alarming some local officials and policing experts.
The Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association issued the survey to its members after the City Council contracted a research firm, Polco, to survey city employees-in-general and police employees specifically last July. The Polco survey results were presented in a format that mostly highlights positive or affirmative responses.
While Laguna Beach police employees work at a small agency with a relatively low crime rate—policing a world-renowned coastline—they’re not immune to the nationwide outrage surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic-burnout endured by public safety employees, law enforcement experts said.
Forty employees responded from among 78 police union members who were sent the organization’s survey in October. By compassion, the Polco survey invited 86 police employees and 61 responded.
Only 56% of Laguna Beach police employees said they were very or somewhat likely to recommend working for the Laguna Beach Police Department, according to the Polco study. By comparison, only 35% of union survey respondents said they were very likely to refer a friend or family member to work at the Department.
These figures are better than a nationwide study by the RAND Center for Quality Policing, which reported only a quarter of respondents would encourage young people to choose policing as a career.
The Polco study reported 85% of Laguna Beach police employees said staff morale in their work unit was excellent, good, or fair. By comparison, 47.5% of police union survey respondents said morale of the department was poor or in crisis.
Police union leaders also spotlighted that 72.5% of survey respondents said they definitely would or probably would leave the City for another opportunity.
“Our inability to attract and retain the best people is directly related to the quality of service that we strive to provide to our community. That’s concerning to us, and it should concern our community,” the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association Board of Directors said in a statement.
The union’s current agreement with Laguna Beach expires at the end of this year but negotiations haven’t started yet.
Jarrod Sadulski, a police stress researcher. and former police officer for Sunrise, Fla., said city leaders and residents should take notice of the union survey results signaling some employees are experiencing poor morale and low levels of trust in command staff.
“It impacts the quality of police services in a significant way that can have an adverse impact on the community,” Sadulski said. “Low morale causes officers to become solely reactive, instead of proactively going out actively trying to stop crime trends… because they don’t feel they have the backing of the administration and that’s bad. It’s bad for communities and correlates to increases in crime.”
There are some steps police commanders can take to mitigate low morale, including community engagement events like National Night Out, publicizing heroic or good deeds by employees, and the police chief personally contacting traumatized officers. Laguna Beach police have dabbled in all of these.
It’s also possible Laguna Beach is representative of thousands of strained police departments across the nation, Sadulski said.
“I don’t know any law enforcement agency that can boast high morale and low attrition rate,” he said.
It’s important that police commanders take this opportunity to listen to their employees, Joe Vargas, a retired Anaheim police captain and columnist for Behindthebadge.com. Whether or not the survey results are based in facts, these experiences are real for the respondents.
“There might be other dynamics outside their control that are affecting morale as well,” Vargas said. “[For example], as a police chief, I don’t control their salary that’s between labor negotiators and the City.”
In an interview with the Independent over Zoom, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis downplayed that nearly three-quarters of union survey respondents said they definitely would or probably would leave the City for another opportunity.
“I’m not really that concerned about it,” Dupuis said. “When you are part of a small police department there are not a lot of opportunities if you want to specialize. A lot of younger police officers when they go to work for a small organization they want to work for a larger organization like the Sheriff’s Department.”
“I would love for all of them to stay here and become a seasoned police officer,” Dupuis said.
Police union leaders have scrutinized Dupuis’ claims.
“We’re troubled by that statement and her lack of concern. It’s true; we do have fewer specialty positions than larger agencies, but that’s not why most people leave. Frankly, we should all be concerned when quality employees leave, regardless of the reason,” the Association’s Board of Directors said.
Dupuis also pointed out that employees’ rating of trust in the command staff could be skewed if they were previously disciplined.
Unnecessarily low morale, even if it’s only felt by a section of the Department, can have an impact on individual employees. Researchers have found officers who experience police stress endure cardiovascular conditions, marital discord, and can be at greater risk of suicide, Sadulski said.
Dupuis said the City is committed to fostering a culture of wellness and health for the police department. Among the initiatives to accomplish this goal is earmarked funding for a new police employee leadership program. City officials are still exploring what this program would look like but plan to have it in place later this year.
Councilmember George Weiss brought the public’s attention to the union survey during the Jan. 11 council meeting.
“It’s very disturbing that such a high percentage of people in our police department would leave for another job. It needs to be addressed,” Weiss said in a phone interview. “There’s also a disconnect between command staff and the rank and file where there’s half who trust and another half that’s not the case. It’s a reason for concern.”View Our User Comment Policy