Be the reason they don't quit: How to develop a retention mindset
If your agency has become stagnant and complacent, viewing officers as liabilities rather than assets, you are more than likely hemorrhaging good officers
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Do you have a retention mindset?; 'Renewed Call to Action' report a must-read and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Did you know that police departments are hiring? Did you know they are accepting laterals from other agencies? Of course, you do. Every agency is hiring and looking to replace officers who are retiring or quitting. In fact, your agency more than likely has posted openings on numerous job boards, as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn, and anywhere they think there could be viable candidates. Some agencies have even gone as far as to make entertaining videos for recruitment purposes. I especially liked the used car salesman one last year out of Fort Worth, Texas.
Why they’re leaving
However, while we all know recruitment numbers are not where we would like them to be, recruitment is not the only thing your department should be working on. How many of you are working to retain the officers you already have?
While I would like to think every department would say they are doing so with a resounding yes, I know that may not be the case. The officers you have are a vital part of your organization and, as I have said before, need to be treated as assets. Let’s face it, there are many reasons officers may consider leaving the job, but many continue to stay. Police agencies cannot afford to get too comfortable or complacent with their existing officers.
So, I ask you: What are you or your agency doing to actively be the reason they don’t quit? Have you created an environment that fosters communication, fairness, respect and true camaraderie among everyone?
Employers across the country – and not just other law enforcement agencies – are competing for your officers. Many civilian companies out there view your officers as a valuable commodity and are offering attractive compensation packages and benefits. Officers see the civilian world as an excellent exit plan. Think about it: No one shooting at you, no more dealing with the public, no more dealing with agency politics. So why not jump ship? Remember, if you don’t value them, someone else will.
Case in point: A metropolitan police agency in the Midwest is losing officers at such an alarming rate, they’ve reportedly built up a pile of discarded uniforms 10 feet high. Officers walking by that pile in the locker room get a daily reminder of the status of their department, reinforcement of low morale – an incentive of sorts for them to add their uniform to the pile and move on.
If this is not concerning to you, it should be. So, what can you do?
A retention mindset
If your agency has become stagnant and complacent, viewing officers as liabilities rather than assets, you are more than likely hemorrhaging good officers.
It’s time to take retention seriously folks. We can no longer afford to micromanage minor infractions. Now is not the time to be focused on beard length, tattoos, not polishing one’s shoes, or breaks that go over by mere minutes. That type of micromanagement will only encourage further departures and continued low morale of already overworked officers.
Rather than “cracking down” on minor infractions, how about cracking down on the importance of officer health and wellness? It is not difficult to have a wellness day showcasing healthy food options as well as various resources from EAP, peer support and outside groups focused on officer health and wellness to try to promote work-life balance. Departments can also provide incentives such as time off or gift cards to get officers exercising by having them come to work an hour before their shift, because we all know no one has the energy after a shift to hit the gym nor can we know how unpredictable any given shift may be. If your department wants to be the reason they don’t quit, consider providing officers classes or roll call trainings on work-life balance, eating healthy, stress reduction, promoting continuing education, emphasizing advancement opportunities, and setting examples throughout the department for fairness and equity.
Perception and reality
In previous articles, I have written extensively about healthy diet and stress reduction, but an area that I want to focus on is fairness and equity. All too often, officers have come to me before or after a training session to share the concerns they have about advancement, favoritism and inequitable disciplinary practices. If you are at the command level and you recognize what I’m talking about, now is the time to right the ship. Your people are not going to stay if they are not getting a fair shot at advancement, promotion, continuing education opportunities, or even you backing them up when they need you. If your department is more of an example of what not to do, don’t complain about losing personnel to other departments or the private sector.
And keep in mind, the reputation of the department is also a big factor in recruitment. People talk all the time, and the police world is a close-knit community. Not to corporatize policing, because that is the last thing we should be doing, but your department must have good credibility and branding. Officers should want to lateral to your department, recruits should want to be a part of your agency, and the public should be happy to have your officers maintaining law and order.
Destigmatizing seeking help
It’s time to take officer health and wellness seriously, and that means it is high time to stop eating our own. Stop throwing good officers away when they need the backing of the department the most. Being a police officer is not just a career and a calling – it is an identity. If your department is consistently pushing officers out who need treatment for depression, PTSD, anxiety or substance use, what message does that send to other officers who are struggling? They will suffer in silence, quit your agency, or worse yet, take their own life. That is unacceptable!
When a cop hurts their back or blows out their knee, they are allowed to come back and resume work once the injury is healed. Why is it not the same for PTSD or depression? What is so different about these individuals? The answer is nothing. They are not a liability, they are an asset – even more so because by allowing them to get well and come back to the job, you have set an example for the whole department. You show that yes, the job is stressful, and yes, the job contributed to you needing time off for treatment, but we want you back. We want you to show others that it is OK to get treatment, that it is not the end of an officer’s career or identity, and you are part of the blue family.
I can attest to seeing officers come back to the job stronger than before after various events such as PTSD, depression, and even coming close to suicide. By coming back, they set an example for others in the department. By welcoming them back, the department demonstrates its support for their officers.
Maximizing your investment
Consider this. How much time and money does it take to hire and train a new officer? What is the return on investment if that officer leaves shortly after they get through their probationary period?
Recruiting new officers is a daunting task today, so if you are not working on your retention efforts, your open positions will continue to grow, your overtime costs will grow, your ability to fully staff shifts will drop, and your morale will continue to plummet. If you truly want to be the reason they don’t quit, work to create an environment that promotes officers supporting one another and reaching out to each other. Remember, nobody gets through a law enforcement career without collecting trauma, but it is the support they have that can make a difference.
There are dedicated officers who are willing to do the job day in and day out, but they need to know they have your support and you have their back. The question is, do you?