How Can We Win the War on Crime with Low Police Morale?

I just came from a police officers training course at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Region XI. I am usually asked to talk about gender issues and the enforcement of laws on women and children. And I felt like a hypocrite talking about how it is duty of the police to  enforce these laws or face administrative sanctions as provided in the law when the leadership of the PNP, both local and national, is  being perceived to be violating such laws.

I could not help myself. I needed to ask the participants of the training: “How is your morale these days?”  I could practically hear their collective sigh. “Low morale talaga kami ngayon, ma’am” (our morale now is so low, ma’am) was the consensus of the class of around 50 police officers from all over Davao region.

Morale is described as “a measure of how people feel about themselves, their team, and their leaders.”  Morale either makes us persevere or causes us to quit.  When you have high morale, you are willing to suffer any hardship and overcome any obstacle to complete your task. When you have low morale, you are reluctant to do your task or achieve any of your goals.

The leadership is responsible for morale of any organization or team. Morale is a leadership function. It is a direct reflection of leadership. An organization with high morale is being led by a great leader. An organization characterized by low morale has a lousy leader.

During one of our breaks, I overheard some participants talking about the benefits of training and its relevance to their career as police officers. One person said: “I have already taken all the necessary courses to be a good and competent police officer, but they seem to be useless because those who get promoted and rewarded in the organization are those with the right powerful backer.” To which another responded: “They should have a training course on political patronage instead because that is what is useful!” And another participant turned to me and said: “Ma’am, why don’t you teach us that, instead?” I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But it turned out they were serious.

And they were also right, unfortunately. What gets you ahead in the organization is whom you know, not what you know. If you know the appointing authority, especially if he owes you a debt of gratitude, you don’t even need to be qualified for the post to get it. No competence required, just a close personal relationship. Exhibit A, the current leadership.

When the discussion came to the lack of funds for equipment, infrastructure, and programs that impact the effectivity of law enforcement by the police, I heard someone said: “They only have funds for SUVs and mansions!” And I was shocked when I found out that the training participants from outside of Davao City were expected to take care of their own accommodation and transportation. Not from their office budget (which is practically non-existent), but from their personal funds. Yes, they require you to take a training on your own personal expense which does not even guarantee your career advancement anyway.

“Why don’t you complain or speak up?” I asked, already predicting the response.  They don’t out of fear of reprisal. They don’t want to risk “rocking the boat” and be perceived as too difficult and “walang pakisama” (not a team player).

They are not just concerned of being socially and politically marginalized, some actually fear for their physical safety. Yes, because there are some leaders in the organization who use fear, intimidation, and physical violence as a leadership strategy. They probably did not get the memo that Machiavelli is dead and his advice that “it is better to feared than loved, if you cannot be both” is passe in this century.

Unfortunately, people with sociopathic tendencies who actively use fear and manipulation in everything they do are drawn to professions like the police and the military since they are the only institutions legally authorized to use violence to impose order and control. Those sociopaths who do not get in the police or armed forces become part of criminal syndicates instead. Sometimes they are members of both. Full-time criminal, sideline police. Sad, but true.

But countless of studies and experiences have shown that if your team members fear you they will never respect you. As Yoda, the Jedi Master, will tell you: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” More often than not, those who are violent and abusive are those who are the most afraid and most weak inside. They use force to mask their fears and feelings of inadequacy. Abusive people are weak people. Needless to say, they make lousy leaders and bring down morale.

In a situation where the leadership is perceived to be incompetent, unprofessional, corrupt and abusive, how can we expect our police in the front lines of fighting crime and protecting citizens to be motivated to do the right thing or even go that extra mile? Why should we expect them “to serve and protect” our people if they see their leaders — both within the PNP and outside of it — serve and protect only their personal interests?

“Walang kwenta ‘yang gobyerno sa amin,” (The government is useless to us) says Pedro, the leader of a small gang of children that live by petty thievery in the streets of Taguig. He tells his story to Rappler in a short documentary about the life of the “batang hamog,” children of the dew, boys and girls who sleep on the streets under the open sky. I shared the film with the training participants as we talked about children in conflict with the law. Pedro adds in Tagalog, “Not one person came to check on us to convince us to return to our homes or change our lives. Nobody, not one. They are all corrupt!”

After watching the documentary, I heard a collective sigh once again from the police officers inside the training room. Someone said, “Ma’am, how can we punish these kids when they steal to survive because society failed to take care of them?”  How, indeed? When your leaders steal the resources meant to take care of you, what right have you to call these young petty thieves criminals?

Ironically, Pedro dreams of joining the police force since he was a little boy and he still hopes to become one if he’s given a chance to go back to school someday. Perhaps, he would do a better job improving the morale of the police than the current leadership.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, November 20, 2014