Leaders of police departments of all size across the United States are slogging it out, fighting an uphill battle in a two-front war to retain seasoned officers already in the ranks, and attract the next generation of candidates.
In far too many jurisdictions command staff, are losing the battle as senior officers reach retirement age, transfer to other agencies, or leave the profession entirely to embark on a different career.
The HR department and the recruiting team are losing the battle to fill those vacancies with hungry young cops, eager to tackle the challenges the profession presents.
Consider the fact that more than 200 officers have left the Minneapolis Police Department—either by early retirement or lateral transfer to other agencies—since the in-custody death of George Floyd. The police union says an overwhelming number cited a lack of support, and felt "left to fend for themselves" during the subsequent riots.
The Seattle (WA) Police Department saw 66 departures in the first few months of 2021 alone (current numbers have not yet been made available) while 43 officers with the Louisville (KY) Police Department have left the agency thus far in 2021.
Other jurisdictions have seen a similar exodus, including Atlanta, Houston, New York Philadelphia, and Portland. Small departments are also not immune to this mass departure. Not to put too fine a point on it: The attrition rate is alarming.
Meanwhile, young people are staying away from the law enforcement profession in droves.
How can these problems be resolved? Here are some strategies to consider for retention and recruiting.
Addressing Officer Retention
According to research published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in March 2021, officers polled for the study said that poor leadership and management was the most regular theme in answers as to why officers left policing voluntarily.
Officers polled said that "management at all levels, whether immediate line management, middle management, or senior management within the organization" were contributing factors for leaving the profession.
Consequently, first and foremost in rethinking retention is to make sure that the men and women in your organization trust that leadership will empower them to do the job and enable them with the appropriate tools and resources to get the job done.
Officers must feel confident that leadership supports them even in the aftermath of a controversial incident, assuming officers to have performed professionally until anything to the contrary can be definitively proven.
Secondly, evaluate your mission, vision, and value statements and determine whether or not those statements still resonate in today's world (they were probably written in a different century), and whether or not what the organization does as a whole reflects those statements so that the "troops" can "buy in" on those concepts.
Most agencies have a document—prominently displayed in the lobby, the squad room, and other places in the headquarters building—stating the department's mission, vision, and values.
It might say something like, "The mission of the [Fill In the Blank] Police Department is to ensure the safety and security of the public through strong community partnerships and excellence in policing. We will accomplish our mission by remaining proactive in growing our community partnerships, enforcing the law, and providing the finest and fairest law enforcement services possible."
Has leadership at the agency lost its way? Do the people on patrol really believe what's written on those placards or do they consider it "lip service" meant for public consumption?
Cops possess a highly attuned "BS" detector—no manner of laudable platitudes will cover up the stench of living in a lie.
Finally, while exit interviews are not necessarily required when officers leave the ranks, a police leader who is faced with the imminent departure of a valued member of the department should always ask, "Why?"
You might not get a straight answer, but it doesn't hurt to ask. You might learn something important.
Rethinking Officer Recruiting
"Why are my people leaving?" is an important question to reflect upon, but equally important is the question, "Why am I not attracting top-quality young recruits to join this agency?"
For starters, it may not be your agency in particular—it may be the profession in general. No matter where they are in the country, young people look at the fact that a police officer can be jailed or sued in civil court for simply performing their job within the law and agency policy and are staying away in large numbers.
They look at the poor pay—a fraction of the entry-level salaries of software engineers at even the most frugal start-up companies—and the fact that police work is inherently more dangerous than sitting at a computer, tapping out the code to the latest mobile app, and come to a very logical decision on their desired career path.
For those who do gravitate toward public service as part of their personal DNA, there's always the fire service (gasp!) as a viable alternative where they're not as likely to have objects and epithets hurled at them.
So, how do you overcome this hurdle?
One way is to give some thought as to who is doing your recruiting, and whether their tactics for getting the right people matches the time and world in which we live.
Job fairs, Explorer programs, and summer internships are all well and good, but young people nowadays live almost entirely online. Make sure that your recruiting team understands this and adjusts accordingly.
Further, young people today "identify" more as individuals now than previous generations, who tended to identify as one part of a larger group—the former ethos is the software engineer, the later ethos fits nicely into the ranks of a police organization.
The CIA and the United States Army have recently revealed online videos intended to appeal to the mindset of the young people now entering the workforce.
An argument could be made that those videos are pandering to the intended audience and tone-deaf to the core values of those organizations which places the greater good ahead of individual interests.
I'd be the first person in line to make that argument. But at least the effort is being made.
The point is to present to these possible young candidates the benefits of serving the community within the language they tend to understand, which is: "What's in it for me?"
Recruiters may consider producing video interviews with officers who have saved a person from a burning building, delivered a baby at the side of the freeway, raised money for kids battling disease, removing an offender from an abusive home, or any other police activity that provides the instant gratification of "I did something worth doing."
Cops across America do "something worth doing" thousands of times a day, every day of the year.
Meeting the challenge of keeping your workforce intact and adding to it the best and the brightest new personnel is no small feat. It is complicated by nearly constant anti-police rhetoric and widespread anti-police sentiment. It is made more complex every time a high-profile use-of-force hits the headlines.
It is incumbent on command staff to proactively and persistently press on in this uphill slog and prevail in perfecting the police profession with the best possible people.