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Issues assessment: Find out what police are not saying when they leave

Lack of consensus and clear understanding of the problem can lead to misplaced priorities and ineffective recruitment and retention solutions going forward

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When the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released the findings of its 2021 survey of members, which included many chiefs of police departments, the report highlighted two cities that have suffered some of the most significant exoduses of veteran officers in recent times.

The report stated that in Seattle, a record 180 officers left the police department in 2020, and 66 more officers have left so far this year. “I have about 1,080 deployable officers. This is the lowest I’ve seen in our department,” said Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

In Minneapolis, former Chief Medaria Arradondo told a City Council panel that reduced staffing is making his department “one-dimensional,” with officers mostly responding to 911 calls and not having time to do proactive policing.”

Chiefs of police in the Philadelphia region recently met to discuss their own staffing crisis, saying that the number of people applying for police officer jobs is “shrinking” and it’s more difficult to patrol the areas that need attention.

Police staffing shortages

A quick Internet search using the term “police staffing shortage” will quickly turn up similar reports from throughout the country.

Police departments throughout America in 2020 had to respond to widespread riots. Going into 2021, those same departments were under siege from activist organizations, politicians, the news media and even Hollywood celebrities. In some cases, they were restricted on how they could enforce existing laws in the face of sometimes widespread violence. To characterize this as an untenable working environment could be an understatement.

Meanwhile, police departments faced challenges tied to a pandemic, calls for defunding, actual budget cuts and ultimately reduced resources.

Even though all of this is well known, without good data, it’s easy for the root causes of the staffing crisis to get lost. Conjecture among politicians and local government leaders creates competing narratives. Lack of consensus and clear understanding of the problem can lead to misplaced priorities and ineffective recruitment and retention solutions going forward.

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Don’t blame the circumstances on the circumstances

It’s not uncommon for leaders of any organization when faced with adversity to look for an easy explanation that will ruffle the fewest feathers. In other words, they can make excuses that obfuscate real underlying problems.

Meanwhile, in many cities, understaffed and under-resourced police departments are blamed for rising crime rates.

In my work in crisis and issues management, we describe this as blaming a problem on the circumstances to avoid having to deal with the real issues. It would be like a doctor saying the reason you have a heart problem is that your heart’s not working properly, while never exploring possible underlying conditions.

If you’re tasked with recruiting and retaining valuable members of your police department, one of the most important places to start is getting to the root of the attitudes driving perceptions, and how all of this manifests itself in police staffing shortages.

It’s equally important to have the data needed to convince local government leaders, city councils and others to allocate the funding and proper resources and obtain good faith backing.

Conduct an Issues Assessment Audit

An Issues Assessment Audit can be used to gauge the perceptions of key stakeholders. It would take shape in the form of anonymous surveys, interviews with officers who’ve recently resigned or retired, and possibly secondary research.

An Issues Assessment Audit would best be conducted by an outside firm to provide objectivity and process. (Full disclosure: This is something our firm can do.) Not uncommonly, when an organization tries to conduct its own research using internal resources, it encounters barriers tied to skepticism or distrust.

Specifically, the audit can be customized to the department or situation, but it would likely include some combination of:

  • Anonymous survey of current and former officers;
  • Interviews with a cross-section of current and former officers;
  • Possibly a review of existing reports, materials and other secondary research.

The raw data is collected, analyzed and used to create a report that lays out why the officers who’ve retired or resigned did so, the concerns of current officers, and perhaps, what the department could do or could have done to prevent many officers from leaving.
The steps for conducting the Issues Assessment Audit start with knowing what you want to achieve. What are your objectives? Then, what are the most pressing problems? Retirements? Resignations? Both? The more clarity you can achieve in outlining the problem and setting clear goals, the more focused your questions will be for the audit’s survey and interviews.

An obvious survey question for a retiree may be, “Was your retirement long-planned according to a schedule or a more recent decision?” This is a “yes-or-no” question that works well within a survey.

The deeper interview question for the retiree may be, “What were the major factors that helped you decide to retire when you did?” This is more open-ended and can be included in a survey or better yet as part of an interview.

Follow-on questions may include, (yes or no) “Is there anything the department could have done to retain you?”, and (open-ended) “What could the department have done to retain you?”

Based on my experience, while incorporating open-ended questions can be very useful and efficient for large-scale written surveys, they don’t elicit the same in-depth response you get when you conduct actual interviews.

To be sure, active-duty officers may be more suspicious or skeptical of the motives of the process and less willing to cooperate. Special attention would need to be made to demonstrate how their anonymity will be protected, and the significant role they will play in helping to convince leaders to make necessary changes.

Once the input and insights have been gathered, a thorough analysis would be conducted to look for patterns, trends and exceptions. It would seek to rank those issues that seemed most important to those who’ve retired or resigned. This all would then form the basis for a final report.

In my experience as a consultant, we can’t tell clients what to do with the data we give them, but in past communications audits, the effectiveness of the process almost always rests with the organization’s commitment to take seriously what the people are telling them and to act on that input in a constructive way.

The purpose of an Issues Assessment Audit is not to justify what you already plan to do, but rather, to make sure what you do resonates and connects with those you are trying to reach.

This may often touch on organizational cultural issues and fundamental changes that may be required before communication can start.

While all good marketing and communications efforts are based on solid intelligence, the true strength of a recruitment and retention program rests on the credibility the organization achieves by doing the right things, making the right changes and demonstrating its commitment to its people. In this case, those people are your law enforcement officers.

Declining staffing levels in some of the nation’s police departments is a serious problem. Identifying and shedding light on the issues at the center of that decline is the first step in a comprehensive effort to restore the nation’s police departments.

NEXT: 9 culture changes to fix your staffing shortage

Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator and communications professional. He founded O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, in 2001 and has served major corporations, nonprofits, government entities and others. He comes from a family of police officers. He can be reached at 412/854-8845 or