Late last month, we conducted an informal—and totally unscientific—poll of a few dozen law enforcement educators and trainers from around the country inquiring what they felt were the greatest challenges in police training in 2022.
The result of that survey was compelling but not particularly surprising. The people polled said that high on their list of concerns were items such as shrinking budgets and increasing anti-police sentiment. Another point of interest is the escalating pressure to place greater emphasis on de-escalation training.
Another predictable conclusion was the nearly universal agreement that the staffing crisis—both recruiting new officers and retaining those already in the ranks—was the most difficult challenge police leaders and trainers faced in 2022.
How did we get to where we are, and more importantly, where do we go from here? Three prominent leaders of organizations that have substantial influence in the realm of the law enforcement profession in general—and police training in particular—offer their insights.
Outcomes and Consequences
"The story in policing this past year—and probably the last couple of years—has been staffing," says Chuck Wexler, who serves as the Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).
"We've done surveys that have demonstrated a substantial drop in the number of applicants across the country, whether you're talking about large, medium, and small areas," says Wexler. "At the same time, we've [found that officers are] retiring at a faster rate and also resigning significantly. So if you combine [those] you see that we're faced with a staffing crisis."
Indeed, many young people today look at the law enforcement profession—in which a person can be fired or even jailed simply for doing their job—and elect to follow a different career path. Many officers in the prime of their lives—at a seemingly perfect nexus point of youth and experience to advance high in the ranks—are leaving the profession altogether.
Patrick Yoes—who serves as President of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)—says this can be traced directly to the de-funding and de-policing movements that have emerged in the past half-decade.
"We can't understate the damage that's been done to law enforcement by the police reform and de-defunding movement that that swept the country," Yoes says. "Add to that district attorneys that are creating policies in major cities that are causing crime be out of control."
Yoes points out that most people—particularly adults—need to believe that what they do is important, that it's respected, and that it's appreciated. In essence, Yoes contends that the anti-police movement has shredded at least the middle two-fifths of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
"We're in an environment now where I don't think most law enforcement officers are excited about the profession they're in because of the damage that has been done," Yoes says.
Another important cause for the precipitous decline in morale—at some agencies, at least—is a perceived lack of support for street officers coming from those in leadership positions. On more than one occasion in recent memory, a chief or an administrator has either privately or publicly "thrown someone under the bus" after a controversial incident. Less dramatic but equally damaging is simple neglect.
Brian Willis—who serves as the Deputy Executive Director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA)—says, "I think if we take a step back and look at what is causing the recruiting and retention issues, I think where we need to focus on leadership and culture. I think if we have great leadership—if we have a culture of leading, learning, and excellence within the organization—and if we focus on great culture in the organization, then in a lot of cases that looks after the recruiting and retention issues."
Willis adds, "People do not generally leave organizations—they leave bad bosses."
Initiatives and Undertakings
Every agency is some way affected by the need to recruit new people to the ranks. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that everyone is competing against one another for the same shrinking number of qualified applicants. Some agencies have shelved the pop-up tents at high school and college job fairs, and begun to financially incentivize "lateral" transfers of younger officers.
Wexler says, "You have departments competing with each other, incentivizing officers to go from one department to another. In some ways it's compounding the problem because one department is solving its issues hiring issues, but it's coming at the expense of an agency that might not be able to afford that."
Wexler says that while this dynamic will always exist—in deed, it has already always existed—agencies should also attract people with compelling training opportunities.
"I don't think you can ever get enough of that training," Wexler says.
Another worthwhile undertaking is addressing the issue of "company culture"—which varies wildly from one department and requires equally varied degrees of repair—and creating places where the officers now on duty are not only happy enough to stay, but also once again become the department's best recruiters.
Yoes recalls that it wasn't particularly long ago that a high percentage people who go into law enforcement did so because someone within already in uniform saw in someone an interest in the work.
"Our best recruiters were our own officers," Yoes says. "They were out there finding people they thought were a good fit. They were encouraging people to take the job. That's really where the majority of our people came from."
This brings to mind, of course, the potential return on investments made in youth development efforts such as Explorer and Cadet programs, which help to identify interested individuals and even actually provide them with some initial training in policing, public safety, and community service.
Yoes says that those initiatives are worthy endeavors, but there are hurdles to overcome.
"You talk to [people] who run their programs and they'll tell you they also have the same problem that we have in law enforcement," Yoes says. "There's been so much damage and so dehumanization of the profession that it's just not cool to be part of it anymore."
Yoes says, however, that given time this problem could be resolved.
"It's a crisis that's probably going to take a generation to fix," Yoes says. "It didn't, it didn't happen overnight, and it's not going to be fixed overnight."
Individuals and Increments
When viewed from a macro perspective—the proverbial "30,000-foot level"—the recruiting and retention problems facing policing appear to be insurmountable impediments for any single person or small group of people to master. In fact, in some ways that's precisely what they are.
Which is one reason Willis suggests a simple strategy—one which works at the macro level.
"Focus on what you control and control and controllable," Willis says. "The only person in the organization you control is yourself."
Willis adds, "If we can accept that not everybody in the organization is in a formal leadership position—[but] that everybody in the organization is in a position to lead—and if everybody in the organization focuses on their small piece of the organization that makes it the best possible place to work, then I think a lot of the other issues would look after themselves."
Willis points out that if every person in a police organization committed just one percent of their day—that's 14 minutes and 24 seconds—to incremental personal growth and personal development, the entire profession would quickly benefit. This could then lead to resolution of the larger recruiting and retention dilemma.
"If we start small and look at the little things, those little things have massive cumulative effect over time," Willis says. "We need to create a culture of learning where every day is a training day. Ten minutes a day, four days a week, forty-eight weeks a year is an additional thirty-two hours of training a year. Do it five days a week and it is forty hours a year. In that ten minutes we can address decision making, critical thinking, leadership, use of force, policy and procedures, mental preparation, and many other topics."
Reinvigorating and Rebuilding
In so doing, the mental, emotional, educational, and professional health of the individual is meaningfully enhanced. When this happens on a mass scale—with every individual doing this—the health of the organization at large is dramatically increased.
Police leaders should encourage academy instructors, field training officers, and shift commanders—all of whom have an almost kinetic impact on the officers in their charge—to pass along the instruction to stop talking about 'my agency' and 'the profession' and instead focus on the individuals' smallest possible area in the organization where they can have the biggest influence.
No one individual can singlehandedly change the direction of an entire agency much less resolve a crisis that touches nearly 18,000 agencies in the country. But every individual can do one small thing. Taken in sum, however, those small things become a collective effort that has the potential to reinvigorate and rebuild an entire profession.