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Self-Motivation in Policing

Published onJun 01, 2017
Self-Motivation in Policing


Research shows that the work shift of a patrol officer includes     a large amount of “down time.” Occupational scholarship has validated that workers can reduce boredom by engaging in activities that are ancillary to normal duties. The autonomous work environment of police officers provides them a unique opportunity to minimize boredom by working in a way that makes their expected behavior interesting. To date the police motivation scholarship tends to examine “job satisfaction,” but the notion of boredom is missing from the research. This study used an observational research design to provide a qualitative examination of the techniques used by police officers to “self-motivate” during their down time. It documents how police officers, guided by self-actualization, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation, find constructive policing tasks to fill their time when they are not engaged in official activity, such has handing a call or dealing with a specifically assigned task.


Contrary to popular media presentations of law enforcement careers, policing scholars contend that the duties of a street-level police officer are on average mundane and involve activities that may be considered boring to some, such as driving and completing paperwork (Bayley, 1994; Bouza, 1990; Reiner, 2000). Boredom exists when a person feels there is an absence of purpose or significance in their actions (Barbalet, 1999; Conrad, 1997). Job activity is meaningless or immaterial, or efforts do not match work features that are assumed to motivate (Loukidou, Loan‐Clarke, & Daniels, 2009). The goal of street-level officers is to maintain order and keep the peace (Wilson, 1968), but policing values crime fighting (Herbert, 1998, 2001; Muir, 1979). Yet the opportunity for a police officer to participate in exciting or aggressive activity is quite rare (Cumming, Cumming, & Edell, 1985; Famega, 2005; Frank, Brandl, & Watkins, 1997).

Boredom can have serious implications in policing. First, when officers’ reported reduced job satisfaction and motivation, their maintenance of legal standards was negatively affected (Welsh, 1981). Second, boredom may increase turnover in police organizations. Orrick (2008) suggested that police officers who are categorized as Generation X (born roughly between 1965 and 1980) and Generation Y employees (born roughly between 1980 and 1994)  are uncomfortable with delayed gratification, and they possess   a shortage of employee loyalty (Corzine, Jaeckle, & Roberts, 2010). Finally, police officers are trained to be vigilant and alert for danger (Barker, 1998), and boredom may adversely impact an officer’s safety. Despite the awareness of down time in policing and the possible implications, the only study  of how police perform during their down time examined their discretionary decision making (Phillips, 2015).

This research fills a gap in the scholarship by examining the “self-motivation” of police officers during their down time. Self-motivation is comprised of three related concepts: self-actualization, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation. It is argued that street-level police officers have the ability to self-motivate and occupy their time in constructive activity that minimizes occupational boredom. If modes of self-motivation can be identified, then police supervisors and administrators might access those techniques during slow work periods, contributing to improved policing or problem-solving.

Literature review

Motivation and boredom

Questions of employee motivation often come from organizational supervisors or managers who wish to get their workers to do what they are expected to do. Herzberg (1968) explained that employees can be “kicked” to get them to move, but if a supervisor wants to get the worker moving again, they must be kicked again. Maslow’s (1943) theory of motivation addressed a hierarchy of basic needs. At the most fundamental level of basic needs is the physiological needs of life, such as water and air. Once these needs are satisfied, a person can satisfy their safety needs (an absence of threat or danger), followed by the need for love and belonging. The fourth need in the hierarchy is self-esteem and the esteem of others. The pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization, which he described as a person having the ability to work in a way that they realize their own potential (Maslow, 1943).

An important component of self-actualization and employee motivation is autonomy in the workplace (Lawler & Hall, 1970; Maslow, 1962). Autonomy is the ability of a worker to perform his or her job with some level of choice or volition (Gagné & Deci, 2005). This adds a feeling of responsibility and personal accountability to the job (Zhao, Thurman, & He, 1999). Autonomy can add a sense of ownership to job duties, and workers are motivated to perform those duties well. Responsibility is not, however, simply doing more of the same by enlarging the number of similar tasks assigned to a worker. Responsibility involves trust in the worker to do what is expected without strict oversight or monitoring (Herzberg, 1968; Maslow, 1962). Still, workers require some level of meaningful feedback to understand their role in   an organization and remain motivated (Deci, 1971). Thus, a worker’s selfactualization and motivation needs are satisfied when they have autonomy and a level of responsibility for their own work. Feedback serves as a guide for autonomy (Zhao et al., 1999).

Cognitive Evaluation Theory proposes that “intrinsic motivation” is the next logical step for keeping a worker motivated. When some level of control is in the hands of the employee through self-actualization and autonomy, there is intrinsic motivation. This allows a worker to perform their tasks because “they find it interesting and derive spontaneous satisfaction from the activity itself” (Gagné & Deci, 2005, p. 331). Challenging the employee’s skills and abilities offers subjective rewards that motivate a worker to perform well (Lawler & Hall, 1970).

Boredom enters the equation as “a fundamentally negative subjective state where the individual experiences little interest in what is currently happening” (Conrad, 1997 p. 467). Occupational boredom is the “polar opposite” (Loukidou et al., 2009) of motivation; where motivation increases job satisfaction, boredom reduces it (Kass, Vodanovich, & Callender, 2001; MacDonald & MacIntyre, 1997). The negative side-effects of dissatisfaction included absenteeism, turnover (Kass et al., 2001), changes in cognitive processes (Suedfeld, 1975), and unsafe work behavior (Game, 2007).

Boredom is more than dullness or monotony. When a worker’s actions lack significance they are disengaged (Barbalet, 1999; Conrad, 1997), and this is associated with “meaning” (Barbalet 1999; Baumeister 1991). If a worker anticipates “the possibility of something else” (Conrad, 1997, p. 468) that never occurs, their job has no meaning and they are bored. A possible positive consequence of boredom is called “boredom drive.” A worker who retains a sense of “curiosity and exploratory behavior” (Barbalet, 1999, p. 636) would engage in behavior that reduces boredom. Behavior that results from boredom drive can answer the need for Conrad’s (1997) “possibility of something else.”

An inherent component of boredom is the work environment (Barbalet, 1999; Conrad, 1997; Loukidou et al., 2009). Organizational and business settings include formal rules and regulations that structure or limit a workers behavior. This can restrict innovative thinking and activity. Thus, new or inventive methods for dealing with a work task may be avoided if the behavior would violate formal organizational regulations. This can contribute to boredom. In addition, a worker may have an important role in the organization, but organizational environment may minimize the “quality” of their role. Thus, their position in the organization may not satisfy their objective occupational standards (Darden & Marks, 1999).

Policing and motivation

Criminal justice research utilizing needs theory has examined how tasks are organized and how “job redesign strategies” can motivate workers (Elliot & Williams, 1995, p. 76). With respect to motivation in policing, the research is fairly limited. Policing scholarship tends to examine “job satisfaction” rather than motivation (Greene, 1989; Johnson, 2006; Lurigio & Skogan, 1994) or combined these concepts (Zhao et al., 1999).

It should come as no surprise that policing scholars have utilized the research of Hackman and Oldham (1975, 1980) to develop quantitative measures of job satisfaction. Survey items based on Hackman and Oldham’s work correspond well when examining the police. An officer’s job is complex, requiring autonomy, the use of a variety of skills, and engaging in different tasks that often involve serious issues. There are, however, other qualitative studies of the police (discussed below) that echo the scholarship examining self-actualization (Maslow, 1943), autonomy (Lawler & Hall, 1970; Maslow, 1962), and intrinsic motivation (Gagné & Deci, 2005; Porter & Lawler, 1968).

Maslow (1962, p. 62) described self-actualization as “an expression of the inner core or self.” With regard to police detectives, their work is characterized as a job requiring specialized talents and investigatory skills (Bayley, 1994; Gottschalk, 2006). In reality their work is mundane and unglamorous (Bayley, 1994; Heinsler, Kleinman, & Stenross, 1990). Despite the reality of detective work, they have been successful at shifting the core of their actual work into “valued roles and activities” (Heinsler et al., 1990, p. 236) that provided the detectives with pride in their jobs. Police detectives had the ability to reframe report writing and paperwork tasks “as an opportunity to assemble clues and develop insights” (p. 241). Similarly, Holdaway (1983) reported that police officers would not miss the opportunity to drive fast when they received a call, because the notion of a “fast” response time is important to policing. Further, locations known for their “trouble” have value in the police occupation because they have allowed officers to make arrests for minor offenses (Holdaway, 1983).

With respect to the concept of autonomy, since the early work of Goldstein (1960) and Wilson (1968), there is no shortage of scholarship examining officer’s discretion and autonomous decision-making. Police officers commonly work alone (Skolnick, 1975), have limited access to the resources needed to perform their work (Goldstein, 1977), and are supposed to enforce criminal laws that are often vague (LaFave, 1965). Yet, autonomy contributes to “intrinsic motivation.” Heinsler et al. (1990) reported that detectives did not consider patrol to be “dead time,” as street officers described the duty. Rather, detectives felt the opportunity to patrol allowed them the chance to develop informants or simply look for criminal activity.

Current study

Police officers are considered “in service” when they are engaged in random patrol in order to deter crime. Being “in service” is considered “down time,” a patrol status when officers have no formal tasks (Bayley, 1994). If the down time is boring, it is incumbent on the officer to self-motivate in order to alleviate this affective state. What is completely absent from the policing scholarship is any understanding of how street-level patrol officers self-motivate during their work shift. Self-motivation is the driving force that results in a police officer engaging in legitimate, if somewhat banal, activities when they are not dealing with a formal law enforcement task. This research seeks to expand our understanding of the behavior of street-level police officers by exploring self-motivation in a fairly boring work environment. Self-actualization, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation guide this research.


Data for this study were gathered using a Systematic Social Observation (SSO) design. SSO methods allow a researcher to observe subjects in their natural setting as opposed to relying on a respondent to answer questions about past or hypothetical behavior. Thus, there is an uninterrupted link between a subject’s activity and its documentation. Observers make brief notes during their observations; as soon as an observation period is completed those notes are used to construct extensive written narratives with in-depth descriptions of what occurred during the observation period (Mastrofski et al., 1998). This research design requires the cooperation of both the agency and the police officers who are involved in the study (Mastrofski et al, 1998). SSO designs have been used by policing scholars for several decades (Brown, 1981; Muir, 1979; Reiss, 1967; Skolnick 1975; Wilson, 1968). For this study, the SSO designed was used to collect qualitative data in a small police agency in upstate New York.

The observational research design required that I conduct ride-alongs with street-level police officers. I have a professional relationship with the police chief of a local agency (he is an adjunct instructor at my college) and he accepted my suggestion to conduct this study in his agency. His command staff was involved during a planning meeting to discuss a ride-along schedule. When the ride-alongs first began, a command officer introduced me to the street supervisors and officers at roll-call, and he explained the goals of the study.1 In addition, I have prior law enforcement experience (in another state), and this experience provided a link to the officers’ world. Initially, a few officers were somewhat suspect of my company in their vehicles, but most officers were welcoming and seemed to accept my presence. During the ride-alongs, the officers and I had informal discussions, which is an acceptable element of SSO.

I did not take any pencil and paper notes of my observations. Rather, a few “key words” were documented on a cell phone. When a work shift was completed I left the police station and immediately reconstructed the events on a computer word-processing program using the key words that were recorded during the work shift. Direct quotes were difficult to document; however, some officer statements were memorable with respect to a specific event. These statements are paraphrased in the findings section, but they will be placed within quotation marks to provide additional context or understanding to what occurred during an incident.

Ride-alongs occurred in July, 2014. Police officers worked 12-hour shifts, and the agency requested that I engage in four-hour ride-alongs with officers. I participated in two ride-alongs over an eight-hour period, starting at either 7 a.m. or 7 p.m., changing officers at the four-hour mark. I did not participate in ride-alongs between 3 and 7 during each shift. It is believed that a fair assessment of officers’ activity would be gathered during the eight-hour time frames for each shift; I was able to observe officer’s time in roll-call, answering calls for service involving multiple officers, and relaxing in the dispatch room. This allowed sufficient opportunity to watch and engage with the officers. While the 3-7 a.m. time period is often the slowest period for most police officers (Walker & Katz, 2008), and it can be argued that this time frame would be the perfect opportunity to examine officer down time,  I decided that I had been provided sufficient opportunity during the other shifts to study the police when their activity level was low. Further, I suspected that I might “wear out my welcome” by spending time with officers between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. I rode with 17 different officers, eight during the day shift and nine during the night shift, and the total observation time was 68 hours.

The study took place in the city of Great Lakes2 in upstate New York, which is a small urban area that is located in a relatively rural region; the nearest large city can be reached in an hour’s drive. Great Lakes has a population that is more than 80 percent White. The median value of owner-occupied homes is less than $100,000 and the median household income is less than $50,000. The Great Lakes Police Department employs between 40 and 50 sworn police officers, including the chief, upper and mid-level supervisors, and detectives. Approximately 60 percent of the officers work in the patrol section of the agency. There are five female and no minority officers.3 Each 12-hour shift is staffed by eight officers, which includes a few higher-ranking street supervisors who participate in patrol activity. Most work shifts had 4 to 5 officers on patrol. Recent crime data from the state showed there were less than 100 violent crimes for the year, including approximately 20 robberies and 40 aggravated assaults. There were almost 650 property crimes, but approximately 80 percent were larceny. Thus, it can be argued that the level of crime and disorder in Great Lakes is fairly low, and the opportunity to do “real police work” (Herbert, 2001, p. 59) is limited.


General descriptive work of Great Lakes Officers

Policing in Great Lakes mirrors prior scholarship: it is fairly dull and the officers usually handle minor events. During my observations, only two incidents occurred that might be classified as “serious.” First, a “burglary in progress” of a house was reported to the police, and officers discovered a broken window. The home, however, had been abandoned, unoccupied, and completely empty, so the officers could not determine if anything had actually been taken. Nevertheless, three officers, a lieutenant, and a detective responded to the call. The second incident involved a distraught worker at a restaurant. The worker was upset about a recent relationship breakup and used a knife to threaten the responding officer (I was with another officer who provided back up). The primary police officer used a Taser to immobilize the restaurant worker. Outside my ride-along exposure, there had been a random street shooting but no one was injured. Nevertheless, when I was at the agency the next day, this incident involved substantial follow-up discussion during roll call and additional investigation by street-level officers. Most of the calls for service during my ride-alongs, however, were for theft, noise, and minor disturbance calls.

Overall, the duties and calls for service in Great Lakes are fairly minor and a bulk of the officer’s shift can be considered down time. Nevertheless, all the officers used “boredom drivers” (Barbalet, 1999, p. 636) to reduce monotony by providing the officers with a sense of engagement and meaning to their work. These drivers involved aspects of self-actualization, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation.


Self-actualization occurs when a worker has the ability to act in a way that expresses his/her core values so they can realize their own potential (Maslow, 1943, 1962). One of the core values of policing is random patrol in order to deter crime, make people feel safe, and be available for calls (Walker & Katz, 2008). All the officers exhibited an interest in their patrol duties, demonstrating thoughtfulness that belies the notion of “random” patrol. The first officer I rode with (mid-career)4 mentioned that the city was divided into four sectors or “beats.” Officers, however, were not restricted to their particular beat. After riding with several officers, I noted variation in patrol tactics and the justifications or rationales for their activities. Several officers stated that when they leave the station they would first patrol their sector, often for a while. They did this because they wanted to check the area first in case things got busy later. One officer mentioned that this allowed him to argue that if other things “got in the way” that he had patrolled the beat at least once.

Several officers, particularly the night shift officers, focus their patrols on the “high crime areas.” While these areas experienced little crime while I was with the officers, these areas were lower socio-economic neighborhoods and had a reputation for disorder and drug activity. When officers patrolled other parts of town it was commonly on the secondary streets; only occasionally did they patrol neighborhood streets.5 They used tertiary streets to link to other secondary roadways. I estimate that roughly 25% of the city, mostly middle and upper class areas, was never patrolled while I was with the officers.

A mid-career street supervisor patrolled these lower socio-economic neighborhoods and did not stray far from them. He stated that while recently promoted, he still liked to patrol and back up the street officers. After about an hour patrolling the same area with no stops or calls for service, the supervisor drove to an area that included some older industrial businesses that were occasionally used by drug users. He stayed in the area only briefly and then patrolled some tertiary streets. During a different ride-along, another mid-career street supervisor stated that he likes to patrol like a regular officer. He can keep track of things in a way that cannot be done from the station.

An experienced officer working during the day shift received no calls  while I was with him; however,  he patrolled a lot and never sat still. Most   of the patrolling occurred on primary or secondary roads, but it is notable that he did not restrict his patrols to the lower SES or crime areas. In fact,  he covered the entire city, north to south and east to west. While most of the first three hours of patrol occurred on primary and secondary roads, the fourth hour saw the officer patrol many of the neighborhood streets. Also, he drove through some areas I had never been before, including the upper middle class areas with nice homes.

While most officers I rode with patrol all around the city because it is not a particularly large in area, one officer stated that he stays in his beat unless he gets a call to another sector, and he never “poaches.” This novice officer explained that he likes to keep his area safe, and if he sees something then he should be the one to handle it. He mentioned that there are informal expectations for the officers (e.g., tickets, stops) and that if another officer is in his sector and issues a ticket, then that is something that he will not get credit for. He also stated that if he happens to be in another sector and sees a problem, he will call the officer assigned to that sector to inform him/her of the issue. The other officer can then deal with the problem and get the credit.

Another novice officer had a different tactic for patrol: the officer drove around his assigned sector for about 45 minutes and then parked in public locations in clear view of the primary roads. I assumed that the officer changed his behavior in response to my presence, but total inaction seemed an odd type of reactivity. In addition, the officer seemed interested in the research I was conducting and asked several questions. Further, the officer was twice dispatched to minor incidents and allowed me to be present during his investigation or interaction with the caller. Therefore, the only officer I rode with who seemed to demonstrate behavior that might be considered “reactive” was nonetheless very open in conversation and official behavior.6

A second core value of policing that was seen in the officer’s patrol behavior was suspicion. Police officers are trained to look for suspicious behavior (Alpert, MacDonald, & Dunham, 2005). A novice officer was patrolling after midnight and noticed a vehicle in the parking lot of a local venue for public events (i.e., a building for shows or other civic gatherings, soccer fields), a location considered “closed” after dark. The officer entered the parking lot and pulled in behind the vehicle; he informed the dispatcher of the vehicle’s plate number and location. There was a man in the vehicle and upon investigating it was determined that the man had had an argument with his wife, left the house, and parked in the lot. The man had been drinking but he was cooperative. Another officer arrived shortly thereafter. Both officers discussed the situation and allowed the man to call his wife, who arrived about 10 minutes later. The officers spoke with her for several minutes and eventually they allowed the man to go home with his wife.

A little later in the shift, just after midnight, the novice officer and I were driving to a local all-night restaurant to get coffee when the officer noticed   a vehicle parked directly in front of a store in a strip plaza. The car was near another business that had been burgled the night before. The officer pulled up behind the car and entered the license plate in the computer. At that time a man opened the door of a store (the man had parked directly in front of his store) and told the officer that he was doing paperwork as part of his job at  a small health-care facility. The man showed the officer identification and explained that he had parked directly in front of the store so he could keep an eye on the vehicle. The officer was satisfied and we drove to the restaurant.

Traffic enforcement is a third issue that is core to the values of the police because “the enforcement of traffic laws offers unique  opportunities and challenges ... they provide an opportunity to look for evidence of other offenses and make inquiries about anything that seems awry” (Schafer & Mastrofski, 2005, p. 225). Most officers of the Great Lakes Police Department took note of traffic violations. While patrolling with a mid-career officer who worked the day shift, the officer noticed a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. He needed to do a U-turn to catch up with the vehicle. Once stopped, the driver stated she had received two other tickets for the same offense. The officer told me that, while some people deserve a break, the fact that she had already received two tickets, and did not remedy the problem, was unacceptable; therefore, she deserved another ticket.

It should be noted that this was one of the few times an officer issued a traffic ticket for the original offense. Several officers stopped vehicles for a variety of reasons, but either did not write a ticket or provided the driver with a “fix-it-ticket” (a phrase provided by one of the officers). For example, a novice officer working the night shift passed a vehicle driving without using headlights (it was about 10:30 p.m.). He stopped the vehicle and spoke with the driver. When he returned to the patrol car, the officer stated that the driver had used the vehicle many times in the past, so “she should have known.” He added, however, that the driver lived about a block away, and she was just coming from a local theater production of Peter Pan. “You don’t write a ticket to someone like that,” so he released the driver. At approximately 10 p.m., another novice officer noticed a vehicle make a rolling stop at a traffic light, so the officer pulled over the driver. The officer checked the driver’s license and told the driver why he was stopped, but the officer did not write a ticket. In another traffic stop, an experienced officer working on the day shift saw a person driving while using a cell phone (this is a violation in New York State). The officer stopped the person, had a brief conversation regarding the issue, and released the driver with “a warning.” While riding with an experienced officer at about 9:00 a.m., the officer noticed a pickup truck that appeared to be following another vehicle too closely. The officer did a U-turn and stopped the vehicle, which was being driven by a city worker, so the officer let him go.

When the officers issued the “fix-it-ticket,” they explained that this is a citation typically issued for an equipment violation that allows the driver   or owner an opportunity to repair the problem. This occurred twice while I rode with officers. A mid-career patrol supervisor had parked in a location that allowed him to hide his unmarked police vehicle near an intersection. It was 1:30 a.m. and a vehicle made an illegal turn. The supervisor stopped the vehicle and determined that the vehicle had an expired inspection sticker. The lieutenant issued a ticket for the sticker but not the illegal turn. He explained that the moving violation would have added points to the driver’s license. At 12:30 a.m., I was riding with a novice officer who noticed a car make an illegal right turn at a red light. The officer stopped the vehicle and spoke with the driver; he returned to the patrol car and used the computer to search the driver’s name. He learned the driver was not wanted and had a “clean” license. The officer stated, “I hate writing tickets to people who have clean licenses. Plus she lives in the city.” He explained that he would write a ticket for a broken license plate light “and she won’t get points on her license.”

A few officers used radar guns during their work shift, and focused on primary roadways in the city. A mid-career officer who worked during the day shift used his radar gun for about 30 minutes at a location that had a  fair amount of morning traffic, but none of the drivers reached his “cut-off” for speeding, which was ten miles over the posted speed limit. A mid-career officer used his radar gun for about an hour; his cut-off was 15 mph over the posted  limit, but  only  two drivers  violated  this standard. While the officer stopped both vehicles, he did not issue a ticket to either driver. One driver was a state trooper who was following a suspect as part of an undercover operation (the trooper lost the suspect as a result of the traffic stop), and the other driver was the brother of a county sheriff’s deputy. Finally, a mid-career street supervisor drove to a busy primary road and parked in a used car lot; it was about 9:30 p.m. and his police vehicle blended in very well. I asked about his “cut-off” and he stated that it was about 13 mph. The supervisor stopped two vehicles but only gave one ticket. He explained that he did not give a ticket to the second driver he stopped because “I can’t give a ticket to an out-of-state driver” who had just left a wedding.

An important core value in policing is the notion of “backup,” or supporting other officers (Crank, 1998). Also called “checking by,” this behavior was often practiced by the officers in Great Lakes. The most common opportunity for an officer to backup another was during a traffic stop; a second car would simply drive by so the officer who made the stop would know another vehicle was in the area. This occurred very often. Other times a third officer would check by. For example, around 2:45 a.m., a novice officer checked by with a patrol supervisor who had stopped a vehicle on a neighborhood street. While the supervisor talked with the driver outside the car, the novice officer, and then a third officer who checked by, stayed close to the stopped car and monitored the three passengers in the vehicle.

On other occasions an officer will hear a call on the radio and check by in case the first officer needs assistance. On one occasion a theft call resulted in three additional officers checking by to back up the first officer. When the suspect was arrested he became unruly, so two officers assisted in the booking process at the police station. A novice officer I was riding with checked by the location of an accident, but the two officers handling the incident were finishing their reports and did not need assistance. When a call involved a domestic violence incident, a second officer always checked by with the primary officer, and the second officer always informed the dispatcher about his status. One domestic violence incident, at 10:50 p.m., involved a novice officer who responded and spoke with a female and male. The patrol supervisor stopped by about two minutes later and he was followed by another officer. Both back up officers stayed close to the situation but allowed the primary officer to handle the incident.

Criminal investigation in policing is another core value (Walker & Katz, 2008); however, sophisticated or in-depth investigations were infrequent. For example, prior to starting his patrol, a mid-career supervisor printed a copy of a warrant (picture and incident details) of a man that he knew, “just in case I see him.” An experienced officer who worked the day shift drove   to a section of town to look for a burglary suspect (a teenage boy) who  was arrested a few days earlier but had not shown up to court. The officer spent the better part of an hour checking parked vehicles the offender may have slept in during the night, and talking to neighbors on the street who likely knew the offender and may have seen him. Finally, while riding with  a novice officer who worked the night shift, the officer mentioned the need to look for a person who was suspected of firing a weapon at a home the day before. The officer mentioned that he had grown up in the city so he still knew a lot of people, even the people who engaged in illegal activity. The officer stated he had many phone numbers and a confidential informant who could provide some general “street information” when necessary. While a few phone calls were made regarding this event, nothing of substance resulted from these efforts.

Overall, many of the activities of the officers in the Great Lakes Police Department fit Maslow’s (1943) definition of self-actualization. Their behaviors often represent the core values of policing (e.g., patrolling, stopping traffic, being suspicious, backing up other officers, and investigations) and are actively pursued by the officers. While almost none of these actions resulted  in arrests or other “real police work,” this did not prevent the officers from engaging in activity that allowed them to behave in a manner that would be expected of any police officer. These arguably minor activities allowed the officers to realize their potential as police officers.


While it is strongly suggested that worker autonomy is related to self-actualization (Lawler & Hall, 1970; Maslow, 1962), police officers often make self-directed decisions that are not necessarily related to their core values. Autonomy means working in a manner that allows a level of choice (Gagné  & Deci, 2005) and is connected to job responsibilities and challenges (Porter & Lawler, 1968). Autonomy does not mean that police officers can “do anything they want,” but independence allows them to behave in ways that can reduce boredom, even if that behavior is fairly banal from a law enforcement perspective. A common example is that police officers would simply patrol. While officers tended to patrol for reasons associated with the core values (as discussed above), it was noticeable that they sometimes patrolled to pass the time. At least two novice officers mentioned that they “just can’t sit still.” While I was riding with these officers, they parked in locations  that offered the opportunity to witness traffic violations. After roughly 5 minutes, and no egregious offenders, one officer suddenly said “that’s it” and quickly placed the vehicle in gear to drive away from the intersection.  It was as if sitting and waiting was worse than driving and waiting; at least “driving” was something.

It is also noteworthy that autonomy seemed to allow some officers to backup other officers just to pass the time. One experienced officer checked by during a minor traffic accident and stayed for roughly twenty minutes. The back-up officer did not contribute to the investigation in any way, but simply chatted with me and the primary officer. A mid-career supervisor checked by with another officer who had been dispatched to an ambulance call (a female had fallen and broken her leg). The same supervisor checked on another officer who was at the hospital with a suspect who had been arrested for drunk driving. When a novice officer was dispatched to a call regarding criminal mischief, two other officers checked by and waited for about ten minutes for the primary officer to complete the preliminary investigation. I was able to stand and talk with the two other officers who waited by the street. The conversation can best be described as idle chit-chat.

The autonomy to pass the time talking was also seen when the officers would stop at the station. While riding with a day shift officer who was using a computer at the station to complete some paperwork, another officer happened by and they, literally, talked about the weather for a few minutes. Other station-house conversations occurred on the night shift when officers ate their meals or stopped in to use the rest room.

One issue that was mentioned by several officers regarding their autonomy was that they were not to patrol outside the city limits. They could, if necessary, “cut through” non-city boundaries if it expedited their response to a call. There were, also, a few restaurants outside the city limits that were accessible to frequent if the officers needed a take-out meal or cup of coffee. This patrol restriction was not monitored by the supervisors, but the officers were diligent about adhering to the limit. Thus, regardless of the notion of autonomy in police decision making, some simple restrictions were put in place and the officers conformed to those limitations.

Autonomous behavior is not a necessary component of self-actualization, but the concepts are clearly related. Without belaboring the earlier information, officers could patrol or remain stationary, focus on one neighborhood or transit the city, determine if a ticket should be issued, check-by on another call or just drive past. The street officers in Great Lakes were not strictly monitored by the patrol supervisors but still have a sense of appropriate behavior that was structured by their own volition. More important, their ability to make autonomous decisions in their job responsibilities helped to alleviate the boredom of their down time.

Intrinsic motivation

As argued above, self-actualization and autonomy contribute to intrinsic motivation, or the ability of a worker to behave in a way that is of interest to the employee and contributes to spontaneous satisfaction from the behavior itself (Gagné & Deci, 2005). Intrinsic motivation was seen fairly often during officers’ down-time. Street officers used their patrol time as an opportunity to engage in activities that might afford unplanned satisfaction. For example, several officers, novice and mid-career alike, hid in dark areas that afforded a clear view of intersections. This allowed them an opportunity to monitor the location for drivers who might run a traffic light or stop sign. I characterize this behavior—hiding in order to stop drivers for traffic offenses—as intrinsic motivation because of the tone of voice and comments made by the officers when they explained their behavior. That is, hiding was of interest to the officers and they suggested the potential for spontaneous satisfaction. One mid-career supervisor who parked in a used car lot said “no one  can see me when they pass.” A novice officer had parked so he could observe an intersection, and upon seeing the headlights of an approaching vehicle whispered to himself “come on, come on,” as if to will the vehicle’s driver to roll through the stop sign. When the driver came to a complete stop the officers stated “damn!”

As mentioned above, of all the tickets written by the officers, only one was for the original traffic violation; all other officers either released the driver with an unwritten warning or they issued a ticket for a minor equipment violation. Thus, the possible traffic stop or citation was not the primary source of satisfaction. The goal of the potential traffic stop seemed to be the possibility of cultivating an interaction with a more serious offender. The traffic stop offered the possibility that “something else” would result to reduce the boredom (Conrad, 1997).

Another example of intrinsic motivation occurred when a novice officer had stopped at a convenience store for a snack. When he started to pull out of the parking lot he casually used the in-car computer to check the license plate number of a vehicle that was in the lot. A moment later the computer returned a name that was familiar to the officer and he stated to himself “I thought so.” The officer circled back to the parking lot, pulled in behind the car and got out to speak with the driver. I learned later that the computer did not indicate that the vehicle’s owner was wanted; rather the officer simply wanted to check the vehicle based on the officer’s prior knowledge of  the owner. The driver was not the owner of the vehicle (it was a sister), so the officer released the driver without further inquiry. Still, the simple effort needed to enter a license plate into the computer was based on interest and the possibility of spontaneous satisfaction.

Another novice officer stated that he had been “sitting on a house” during his down time. The officer explained that he had been trying to catch a particular suspect while driving home “because he’ll likely run.” He also stated that he had been watching the house for several weeks, “but I never can seem to catch him.” The officer continued that he often spent time watching the house but would eventually have to leave. The officer was explaining this to me as we drove to the suspect’s home; when the officer drove past the target house he said, “Hey, he’s not home yet” in a tone of anticipation, and he proceeded to park in a location that gave him a view of the house. While we sat I asked what the suspect was wanted for. The officer stated that the suspect had been driving across his neighbor’s lawn and the neighbor had gotten tired of it. Also, the suspect may be driving with a suspended license and he also had a history of drug use. While all these offenses would be considered minor, the officer demonstrated a great interest in the possibility of catching the offender or being involved in a chase. Nevertheless, as with the other officers who could not sit for a long period of time, this officer informed me that he had limited patience for just sitting around waiting for something to happen. After about 10 minutes the officer stated, “That’s about it” and he pulled away.

The idea that a suspect might resist an officer’s authority seemed to stimulate an anticipation of satisfaction in another officer. I was riding with a novice officer who was interviewing the victim of a criminal mischief incident; I was standing by the patrol car talking with a different officer who had checked by the call. A mid-career supervisor had also checked by and was standing with the novice officer and the victim. The supervisor then came back to where I was standing with the second officer and told us that the victim believed the offender was likely to fight if the officers found him. This fact seemed to interest the other officer, and the three spent over an hour searching the area for the suspect. After a fruitless search, however, there was rising ambivalence on the part of the officers to continue the search. Thus, while the initial opportunity to arrest a potentially violent offender was satisfying to the officers, this enthusiastic feeling eventually dissipated.

Overall, intrinsic motivation, or the ability of a person to work in an interesting way that contributes to spontaneous satisfaction from the behavior itself, was an important aspect of policing. The possibility of “something else” occurring was a noteworthy part of stopping traffic or even looking for a low-level offender. While none of these activities resulted in unusual or exciting activity, the officers seemed to thrive on the possibility.

Discussion and conclusion

This research examined the self-motivation of police officers, an occupation that is fairly boring. Scholars have examined concepts that are associated with police work and job satisfaction or motivation. None of the studies of police motivation, however, have examined how police officers respond in a boring work environment or to mundane “official” duties. Before the findings of this study are closely examined, a discussion of the study limitations is needed.

The first obvious limitation is the location of the study. While the Great Lakes Police Department is representative of most police departments, in that 86% of all U.S. police agencies employ less than 50 sworn police officers (Reaves, 2011), it was the only agency involved in this study. Greater understanding of self-motivation will be gained when officers in other agencies, of various sizes, are studied. Second, the number of ride-along hours amounted to 68. This is similar to the work of Skolnick (1975), one of the seminal scholars in policing research. A single scholar, however, without resources to hire multiple observers simply cannot afford the time for extensive ride-alongs (e.g., Mastrofski et al., 1998). Finally, there is a risk of bias based on my prior law enforcement experience. I was cognizant of this and deliberately documented as much information as possible to avoid presenting a favorable or “slanted” image of the activity that was observed. Nevertheless,  a single observer taking part in all facets of policing activity, including roll-call, patrol, and time in the dispatch room, reduces inter-rater reliability problems and documentation errors. Further, I was able to document the subtle aspects of policing behavior, including their sense of humor, tone of voice, or facial expressions.

The observations of police activity in the Great Lakes Police Department strongly suggests that police officers find ways to self-motivate. The officers used several aspects associated with their core values to drive some behavior. Further, the autonomy associated with policing in general allows the officers freedom to patrol (or not), use technology, set a “cut off” for speeding, or get a cup of coffee. Some officers are moved by the satisfaction they can potentially experience from the work.

It may be argued by some that the concepts identified and defined here are not mutually exclusive. That is, the officer’s behavior could be qualified into two different concepts. For example, “patrol” was classified as self-actualization, but other times it was considered autonomy. I commonly relied on the context of an officer’s behavior in order to classify their actions. For example, if an officer patrolled with the apparent goal of deterrence, that activity was considered self-actualization because that goal falls into their core values. Other times I would attempt to determine an officer’s mindset as it related to their behavior. For example, I classified the officer who “sat on a house” as intrinsic motivation. He was engaging in that activity because he seemed more “interested” in the opportunity to catch the suspect. Future scholars may find improved or an alternative methods for measuring these concepts.

Overall, this research suggests that police officers find ways to self-motivate in a boring work environment. It is noteworthy that some research argued that workers reduced their boredom by engaging in “non-work” activities (Roy, 1959). Police officers, however, can take the opportunity to engage in behaviors and activities that reduce the boredom associated with their down-time by working in a way that makes their official actions interesting. That is, when there is nothing official to do, officers manufacture official activity. This point should be emphasized. The officers are not “goofing off” or engaging in “occupational deviance,” which can include potentially illegal or unethical behavior, such as drinking (Barker, 1983; Friedrichs, 2002). They were acting as they assumed they should act.

This can be interpreted as good news for police agencies, but it does not relieve police supervisors the responsibility of finding ways to assist patrol officers in work motivation. There may be policy implications for police leadership to insure that an employee’s motivation “generator” (Herzberg, 1968) runs smoothly. It should be policy of police agencies that supervisors cultivate self-actualization, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation. As part of the cultivation process, supervisors should actively tap into of street-officer’s knowledge for problem solving activity. This relates to the notion of “responsibility” and trust discussed by Herzberg (1968) and Maslow (1962), and is  a component of transformational leadership (Bass, 1991) that seems uncommon in policing (Marks & Sun, 2007).

Also, the findings here indicate that officers take seriously several core values. Supervisors can amplify the importance of these values at different times, demonstrating their significance to the role of police officers and reinvigorating the officers to engage in these actions. For example, evidence from the observed behavior of Great Lakes officers indicates they often use down time to patrol areas known for crime and disorder. Weisburd, Davis, and Gill (2015) might argue that police supervisors could guide or direct patrol officers to utilize their knowledge of these areas to identify and engage informal social control assets, such as schools or churches, to reduce crime and disorder. If the task is framed as a “hot spot” assignment, patrol officers may eagerly take on the duty because it fits their expectations. Policing supervisors who engage an officer’s curiosity and anticipation of “something else” by pointing out tasks that fit within existing occupational roles can help reduce boredom and possibly improve policing overall.


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Scott W. Phillips is an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at SUNY Buffalo State. He earned a PhD from SUNY Albany and his research focuses on empirical examinations of police decision making, police attitudes, and police culture. His works have appeared in Journal of Criminal Justice, Police Research and Practice, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, and the International Journal of Police Science and Management, Policing & Society. Dr. Phillips has worked as the Futurist Scholar in Residence with the Behavioral Science Unit at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy in Quantico, VA.

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