Police brass must respond

Published May 26, 2007

The St. Petersburg Police Department has a morale problem. A big one. Nearly half of department responses (45 percent) to a recent survey were negative overall on questions of management, direction and service levels, while only 30 percent were positive.

The responses were even more discouraging from uniformed officers. Asked if "the department provides high levels of law enforcement to the communities it serves, " only 3 in 10 uniformed officers agreed. That differed dramatically from the answers staff assigned to Police Chief Chuck Harmon's office gave, where 9 out of 10 were positive.

The survey was part of a management study ordered by the City Council, some of whose members have differed with Mayor Rick Baker on his oversight of the police department. Now council members have to examine the findings carefully to determine why there is such a gap in trust and communication between supervisors and uniformed officers patrolling the streets.

The management study, conducted by Matrix Consulting Group, was little help in pinpointing the cause of such negative feelings. For example, 85 percent of all police employees disagreed with the statement that "staffing levels are adequate to meet the demand for police services." Yet the consultant came to a different conclusion about current and future staffing. Matrix found that "the department currently has the needed number of officers to meet (the) 2016 workload assuming no annexation."

Survey results showed broad dissatisfaction with pay and benefits as well as workload. The consultant's findings were more positive on those two subjects. Pay at the St. Petersburg Police Department is competitive with that at comparable police agencies, the study found. And while 37 percent of uniformed officers said they are kept too busy to ever catch up, the study found that under the new community policing model, "there is sufficient time available to provide high levels of service."

Also, the department has an abnormally high attrition rate. The consultant could not pin down the cause to any one factor, however, concluding that "exit interview data did not suggest widespread dissatisfaction with the (police department) or employment with the city as a whole."

So what is at the heart of the morale problem? The consultant didn't answer that specifically, but there are certainly clues in the survey. Only half of uniformed officers believe they are "recognized for (their) work and contributions." Even fewer than half think that "managers and supervisors do a good job communicating throughout the organization." And more than 6 out of 10 respondents were dissatisfied with "the command staff's ability to provide vision and leadership."

Some of that disconnect is related to the perceived unfairness in discipline. Seven of 10 respondents disagreed with the statement that "the (police department) is fair and consistent when applying formal discipline." Specifically, the consultant noted that unnecessary, negative information is included in disciplinary files causing employees to perceive that the "administration is using a 'spider-web' effect to negatively influence the disposition" of the officer's case. "This practice is causing widespread resentment, mistrust and an appearance of unfairness, " the consultant concluded.

Any business that had such a wide gap between the views of managers and employees about fairness and communication would have to get to the bottom of the matter and make some changes. That goes doubly for a police department, where morale and clear direction are such an important part of the job. This study should be just the beginning of the search for what is wrong inside the St. Petersburg Police Department.