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PERF explores the police recruitment and retention crisis

The applicant shortage is not a short-term issue that can be resolved by agencies relying solely on traditional recruitment methods

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The competing traits of technological savvy and expertise in human interactions are both essential elements for today’s police officers.


This article originally appeared in the October 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Recruitment report | Explorer programs | Volunteers in LE, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

The opening statement of a new report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) titled The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It succinctly states what is a common refrain among police leaders: “Most law enforcement agencies are sensing a crisis in their ability to recruit new officers, and to hold on to the ones they have.”

PERF’s 72-page report is based largely on its own research and surveys of police agencies and current police officers to determine goals and expectations of currently employed police practitioners in departments of various sizes representing 45 states, Washington D.C., and Canada.

The bottom line is that the applicant shortage is not a short-term issue that can be resolved by agencies relying solely on traditional recruitment methods to fill the ranks.

Here are the key findings from the PERF report:

Policing has changed

Police officers are expected to operate in a digital age where digital crime and digital solutions are the norm. At the same time that it seems more people are forgoing personal engagement while turning to their screens for information and social interaction, populations expect more community engagement from its police officers. The competing traits of technological savvy and expertise in human interactions are both essential elements for today’s police officers.

Law enforcement continues to be the gateway for social services, but more frequently as a provider, not just a referral service. Police officers are expected to deal expertly with persons in mental health crisis with a superhuman capacity for avoiding physical coercion. Constant surveillance, instant false narratives in social media, and anti-police sentiments by politicians and civic leaders complicate the balance.

Information provided by police agencies to potential recruits is a marketing challenge. The door-kicking, chopper-rappelling action hero brochures still have an appeal to the adventure seeker, but do they appeal to the desire of candidates to provide community service as a helping profession? Do the appeals to the service-minded ignore the fact that dealing with violence is still a reality in policing?


As economic conditions and populations fluctuate, cycles of available applicants can predictably ebb and flow.

In past eras, police agencies would see dozens or even hundreds of applicants for an available opening. With a current low unemployment rate, potential police employees have more income and employment opportunities to consider.

The stability of a potential 20-year career and retirement from one law enforcement agency has far less appeal to today’s applicants. For those who are looking at long careers, the appeal of taking a lateral position with a more stable and better-paying agency with a solid retirement plan creates competition between agencies in addition to other sectors of the economy.

Just as the cycle of retirements from the 1960s and 1970s hiring created openings, the federal hiring grants and crime-stoked hiring of the 1990s that added officers to the rolls have generated a current spate of retirements. Agencies are also noting an increase in officers who leave the profession entirely before retirement.

Lifestyle challenges

With potentially fewer military veterans seeking law enforcement employment, as well as fewer legacy officers – sons and daughters of police officers – the structured lifestyle of policing appeals to fewer employable men and women. Many agencies have altered policies on visible tattoos, reduced the number of drug-free years required before an appointment and reduced required educational levels. Faster application processes can keep candidates from being discouraged about the pace of the hiring sequence. Many agencies are attempting to grow applicants from within Explorer and internship programs.

Expectations of police leaders, community members and potential applicants create a recruitment challenge that will exist for the foreseeable future.

Workforce Crisis by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.