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The State of American Law Enforcement - The Thinning Blue Line

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

January 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

No Return on Investment

Holding on to good, dedicated officers is actually a bigger problem for most agencies than a lack of recruits or coping with cops who really don't want to be cops.

A North Carolina study conducted earlier this decade revealed that the average length of time that a new officer stays on the job is 34 months. Anecdotal evidence indicates that this figure is pretty accurate for the rest of the country as well. Which means that about one-third of all young cops hitting the streets this month will move on to other agencies or leave law enforcement entirely before New Year's Day 2011.

This is devastating, especially for small town agencies. Chief Orrick fought for and won a substantial raise for his officers by explaining to the Cordele, Ga., city council the real cost to the taxpayers when cops leave.

The author of a new book titled "Retention, Recruitment, and Turnover of Law Enforcement Personnel," Orrick says that three years of service is when an officer becomes effective and it costs $80,000 to train a new officer from point of hire to the three-year mark. "If you lose five officers to lateral transfers, that's $400,000 of your money that you just gave to neighboring communities," Orrick says.

Retention issues have become such a bane for some agencies that they have explored ways to legally bind officers to service. "Some agencies have started toying with the idea of having a contract that says new officers will stay with the agency for a certain length of time," says Douglas Yearwood, director of the North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center.

It's About More Than Money

Yearwood and Orrick both agree that retaining good cops is not just a matter of money. Agencies can't pay dirt and expect people to stay, but if the pay is reasonable for the living standard of the community, then cops will often stay if the agency offers opportunity for advancement and advanced training.

Orrick has transformed his 32-sworn agency into one of the most technically proficient small town forces in the country. Each patrol car has a computer and other high-tech gear, and officers are presented with many opportunities for advanced training. The result is that the exodus of personnel has slowed, and some who leave actually come back.

Advancement, training, and opportunities for specialization are also some of the ways that big city agencies lure new applicants and lateral transfers.

The NYPD does not accept lateral transfers. But one of its big selling points to new recruits is the availability of assignments in one of 200 special units.

A similar marketing strategy is also in use 3,000 miles away at the Los Angeles Police Department. "Our biggest draw is the availability of promotion opportunities as well as the different jobs that we offer such as motor duty, dog duty, helicopter duty," says Lt. John Hone, an LAPD recruiter.

Unfortunately for Hone, sometimes recruits and laterals are seeking a specific LAPD job that isn't available. For example, Marine snipers that he tries to recruit at Camp Pendleton want to join the LAPD as SWAT snipers right out of the academy, and he has to explain to them that it doesn't work that way.

Burning Out

The shortage of police officers is not just an administrative headache for chiefs and recruiters. Fewer cops on the force means more sacrifice for an agency's officers.

During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, some veteran officers in certain big cities received an unwelcome holiday bonus. They were called in to work overtime and parade duty at the last minute. The result was dashed holiday plans, angry spouses, and plainclothes officers frantically trying to find a uniform.

Some officers dearly love overtime pay. But being forced to work overtime to make up for personnel shortages can have an adverse effect on the body and the mind that money can't cure.

Police psychologists say that overwork can lead to depression, an increase of on-the-job accidents, a hair trigger temper, and just plain old burnout. Even the best cops are not immune to these effects, so overworking its officers can cause a lot of problems for an agency.

It can also devastate the emotional lives of the officers. "In my experience what starts to happen is that they are spending so much time at work that when they come home they are exhausted," says Jana Price-Sharps, chief psychologist for the Fresno Police Department. "When they come home, the family wants their needs met, but the officer just wants to rest. So they start developing marital problems and problems with their kids."

Overwork due to personnel shortages also has a major impact on morale. And the same is true when officers depart for greener pastures after just a few years on the force. When an agency has a revolving door of new recruits and very few veterans, it can be hard for cops to build the confidence they need to have in their backup and their partners.

Getting Leaner

Unless America experiences a major economic downturn, sacrificial public service jobs like law enforcement will be a hard sell to young citizens. And many cops are unhappy, so turnover will continue to plague their employers. Which means there will be fewer cops available per agency into the foreseeable future.

With cops in high demand, each agency is going to have to find a way to make its cops feel appreciated and satisfied on the job, or they will find work elsewhere. It's also likely that most agencies will also have to find ways to accomplish their mission with fewer officers.

Technologies such as speed cameras and red light cameras may free some officers from traffic patrol. Other solutions may include bringing retirees back to do such tasks as recruiting and background investigations.

In addition, certain jobs may need to be farmed out to civilians. Some agencies use sworn personnel as crime scene investigators; experts say this mission could be accomplished by non-sworn personnel.

Retired Reno, Nev., officer and recruitment consultant Jeff Church says that agencies may have to rethink the qualifications for some jobs. "Do you need a sworn detective investigating fraud?" asks Church, a veteran police recruiter who teaches recruiting strategies as president of DRS Law Enforcement Consulting. "I don't think so. Maybe you would be better off hiring some kid with a master's degree in computer science to do that job."

The good news is that even though some agencies will have to serve their communities with fewer cops, there will always be people who want to serve as police officers.

That's a fact that remains foremost in the mind of George Cassella, vice president of the Bernard Hodes Group, an advertising agency hired by the NYPD to produce recruitment ads.

"When we were approached by the NYPD to do their recruitment ads, one of the ads that we used to pitch the account was, 'How Many Kids Want to Be Advertising Executives for Halloween?'" says Cassella.

There are numerous chiefs and sheriffs nationwide hoping that those kids playing cops on Halloween grow up real soon and still want to pin on badges.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

pcockle @ 1/26/2008 1:04 PM

I read with interest the article "The Thinning Blue Line", I am 39 and actively considering joining my local mucipality as a Polie Officer, been "older" I believe that I have all the attributes that would make me a good officer, I have made mistakes and learnt by them, I have grown up and become a responsible citizen and being "older" I am rationally and can relate to the community, because I have been a big part of the community.

Here's where my problem is, I am not a US Citizen, I am a Permanent Resident Holder and have been for 9 years, I have spoken at length with several police officers in Maricopa, AZ who all think I have what it takes to join them.

Originally from England, I am married to a US Citizen and have 2 children (1 more on the way) and whilst I can become a Corrections officer (no citizenship required), I cannot become a Police Officer!

My local recuriter will not even return my emails or telephone calls, if citizenship was not so expensive, then here is one more officer who wishes to join "The Thinning Blue Line"!

Peter Cockle
Maricopa, Arizona

Steve Rothstein @ 2/3/2008 11:39 PM

Peter, you have a valid point, but there are also some valid reasons for the citizenship requirement.

In Texas, you now have to prove you are a citizen to take any police training that shows tactics, driving, self-defense, firearms, and a few other areas. Many of these requirements were put in after the Sep. 11 attacks. Our concept of "Homeland Security" changed in the aftermath of those attacks. I am not sure this is for the better but I can see some of the reasons why.

For example, as a legal resident, with a long established tie to the US, I might be able to complete a background check on you. But as a non-citizen from a foreign country, in most cases I cannot complete a thorough background check, especially of your formative years.

Also, since laws and the philosophy of them differ between countries, there is a possibility of a conflict between how you were raised and how our laws are applied. This is much more likely if you recently moved to the US, but can happen even if you have been here for years.

I think we may need to start re-eaxmining the citizenship requirement, but it needs to be done on a case by case basis. I am not sure how you could word that in the laws that govern the hiring practice though.

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