What officers said were the biggest challenges of 2021 (and why leaders should pay attention)

The attention of LE executives is always drawn to the day's headlines, but visionary leaders construct long-term strategies for long-term challenges

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see The biggest challenges of 2021, according to your officers, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

Police leaders should pay attention to what officers are saying. It may not be what policymakers expect.

In a recent Police1 poll, which garnered well over 1,000 responses, officers from across the country were asked what was the biggest challenge for law enforcement in 2021.

Here, in order, is the list and responses:

  • Recruitment & retention: 37%
  • Media coverage of police issues: 25%
  • Officer wellness and morale: 21%
  • Vaccine mandates: 5%
  • Police defunding: 5 %
  • Use of force legislation and training updates: 4%
  • Crime spikes: 3%

If you’re like me, you might be surprised that recruitment and retention posted the top spot on a list of concerns, and crime spikes showed up last on the list. I see a close relationship between the top three issues of police officer recruitment and retention, media coverage of police news and officer wellness. But why would retention be one of the greatest concerns of officers working the streets of America?

Results reflect the flexibility of today's cops

First, let’s address the relatively low worries associated with defunding, legislation, vaccines and crime spikes. These indicators reflect the flexibility of today’s police officers. More crime? Deal with it. New training? Let’s go. Budget cuts? What’s new? Vaccine mandate? Add it to hepatitis, tetanus and flu shots.

A parody motivational poster of a famous quote says “We, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful and have done so much for so long with so little we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.” Perhaps our longsuffering officers are going with the flow and feel that they’ll deal with whatever comes along in the short term.

Another possibility is that most police agencies may be avoiding the headline-making news in their jurisdiction. Defunding hasn’t really been widely imposed and, by the time of this poll, many political leaders were backpedaling and asking for additional law enforcement funding. The vaccine mandates are not universal and most first responders are voluntarily getting the jab.

Concerns about the larger future of policing

Looking long term, as the poll’s respondents seem to be doing, officers may be concerned less about changes in their daily grind and more about the larger future of policing. While stability and longevity of personnel have their advantages, a healthy cycle of infusion of new officers and retirements of seasoned officers is also beneficial.

On the other hand, early retirements, and difficulties in replacing vacancies can stress agencies and their officers. Promotional and assignment transfer opportunities can stagnate. Recruitment can fluctuate with economic conditions and budget cycles, but a widespread hostility and disdain for law enforcement could dry up candidate pools for years. Perhaps the fears of today are nothing compared to the fears for the future. It would be no surprise that these concerns appear clustered with wellness and mental health. What is the value of my career? Are the suffering and trauma appreciated by anyone? Can I do anything that won’t result in my being vilified in the media?

The impact of reassuring strategic action

If police leaders are listening, they’ll understand the impact of strategic action to reassure their officers that the concerns for their future are being addressed.

Being proactive with consistent community engagement to produce positive media exposure, using long-term strategies to develop future police candidates and providing intentional mental health support can encourage officers over the long term. The attention of leaders is always drawn to the headlines of the day. A visionary leader will construct long-term strategies for long-term challenges.

Because the concerns span time, the initiatives must also span time in a sustainable way. Too often a program blooms at its inception, then fades into memory. New ideas are met with cynicism as officers choose not to invest in something that will disappear when the banners, lapel pins and pamphlets end up in storage. Constructing programs that become embedded in the ethos, mission and policy of the organization is essential to building confidence and morale among the troops.

NEXT: 2021 Year in Review

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