Vargas: The cost of an increasingly disengaged police force on society could be criminally high


Lately I’ve been reading a lot of debate about a coming crime wave. During the past month the topic has been a lead story in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN.

Speculation about a coming crime wave is being blamed on the declining morale of police officers. Statistics are showing rising crime rates, especially homicides, in cities such as Baltimore, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

Crime in Baltimore especially is disturbing. In that city in May alone, there were 43 homicides.

Is there a correlation between the rise in murders and police morale? One can only guess. But the easy answer is police officers in Baltimore just aren’t excited about doing policing anymore.

De-policing is a phenomenon that has been around for some time. Specifically, after major use-of-force incidents such as the LAPD Rodney King incident, de-policing was studied and examined.

The theory states that negative media coverage and public reaction have a direct impact on officer morale.

Police departments impacted by major negative events appeared to have a measurable drop in proactive policing. Traffic citations, citizen contacts and arrests related to proactive policing all declined.

The simple explanation is that officers are so concerned about getting involved in use-of-force incidents that it’s easier to just drive around and respond when called rather than do anything proactive. Knowing at any moment a split-second decision could become part of a national news story is intimidating.

My own opinion is the general malaise in the policing profession goes much deeper than simple concern over repercussions.

In my polling of police executive classes, morale is one of the top-three issues departments are dealing with. This holds true for all departments, even those that have not been in the media spotlight.

Police officers who once looked upon their chosen profession as not just a job but as a calling are frustrated and demoralized every time they pick up a newspaper, watch the evening news or surf the Internet.

A recent survey by Calibre Press showed that more than 80 percent of police officers that responded would not recommend law enforcement as a career for their children.

As a second-generation police officer, I find that disturbing.

Workplace studies always have shown a significant correlation between low morale and productivity.

The 2014 Gallup survey shows that close to 70 percent of the American workforce is disengaged while on the job — a disengagement that costs billions of dollars in lost revenue for the private sector.

The big question is what the public cost of a disengaged police force is — a police force where officers are more concerned with staying out of the limelight than engaging the most dysfunctional and dangerous members of society.

Already the speculation based upon anecdotal evidence is a rising tide of crime will impact cities across the country.

On the other hand, many scholars are saying it’s way too early to tell.

There definitely are indications crime already was going up in slow increments after a decades-long decline. In some cities, the climb definitely is a lot steeper.

I, for one, don’t see the sustained drop in proactive policing continuing for any length of time.

Police officers can’t help themselves. It is in their DNA to seek justice. They just can’t let the bad guys win.

Criminals, especially the really bad ones, still will be arrested. Drunk drivers and gang members involved in drive-by shootings still will go to jail.

For the police officers who continue to do the best job they can, despite the constant negative portrayal in the media, we all can be thankful. For them policing is not just a job, but a calling.

Communities should be grateful for the cops who still are out there doing their job professionally every day not because of public recognition or support, but because they believe that’s what they’re supposed to do.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at