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Organizational challenges facing law enforcement in 2021: Employee morale

Morale issues are costly in terms of both the workforce and the bottom line

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more difficult after the trials and tribulations of 2020, enter 2021!

The COVID-19 pandemic still created challenges for public safety leadership; however, this year featured some added twists that taxed public servants across the country.

One major challenge relates to employee morale.

Contemporary research confirms higher than average levels of anxiety, skepticism, lacking confidence and overall dissatisfaction among many of today’s employees. Combined, these components have led employees to leave their jobs in record numbers.

Dubbed “the Great Resignation” by some industry analysts, 4.3 million employees left their jobs during the month of October alone. [1] That number has remained consistent for several months and represents roughly 3% of the U.S. workforce. The government sector followed this trend with 220,000 resignations during the same period (representing 1% of the total workforce). [1]

It’s no mystery that law enforcement agencies struggle with recruiting and retention. In June 2021, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), released its Survey on Police Workforce Trends, which noted a 45% increase in the retirement rate and an 18% increase in the rate of resignations among law enforcement agencies from last year. [2]

Some areas are worse than others. The Nevada State Police reported a 135% turnover rate during FY2020 and costs to “… recruit, evaluate, and onboard a police officer [in that state] is approximately $100,000.” [3] Although there are myriad reasons employees choose to leave, morale and levels of personal satisfaction are predominant factors.

Agency leadership doesn’t have the luxury of simply ignoring morale issues. They are costly in terms of both the workforce and the bottom line. Although there is a litany of factors out of a leader’s control, there are at least four both the agency and its leadership must take into consideration:

  1. Communication: Employee morale can be adversely impacted by the limitless imagination of the workforce. Keep employees informed and allow them a forum for airing grievances or even good ideas that enhance productivity and working conditions. Most problems found within any organization can be tied to some level of communication (either not enough or the wrong type).
  2. Flexible scheduling: The pandemic forced us to consider creative scheduling alternatives, and to some degree, there is a newfound expectation that we continue to deviate from the norm so employees have greater flexibility juggling work and family commitments. Continue exploring new ways of scheduling that benefit both the organization and your employees.
  3. Finding purpose: Today’s employees aren’t simply satisfied by the work they do. They need to feel connected to the job and its outcomes. It’s important for leaders to share the agency vision in such a way that employees connect to the tasks specific to their positions. Show them why their positions matter and how they are helping the agency attain its goals and objectives.
  4. Leadership: This goes without saying, but poor leaders don’t have to work very hard to kill morale. Public safety consists of difficult work and good leaders instill confidence in their employees. Hilal and Litsey’s research into police turnover cited poor supervision as a “prominent [turnover] factor” since leaders have “… direct influence on the overall health and well-being of an employee.” [4]

In any profession, and especially within public safety, we can’t afford to be complacent or simply ignore employee satisfaction. The U.S. is experiencing a significant shift in employee expectations and this trend is showing no sign of changing as we enter 2022. What we choose to do now as leaders will have a long-lasting impact on the law enforcement profession.


1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). Table 10. Quits levels and rates by industry, and region, not seasonally adjusted.

2. Police Executive Research Forum (2021). Survey on Police Workforce Trends.

3. Klein, P. (2021). Police turnover is costing Nevada big. The Nevada Independent, August 17, 2021.

4. Hilal S, Litsey B. (2020). Reducing police turnover: Recommendations for the law enforcement agency. International Journal of Police Science and Management (22,1).

NEXT: Why increasing officer morale should be a priority for every police leader

Captain Rex M. Scism (Ret) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.