'The pendulum goes back and forth': Chiefs address resignations and retirements

PERF survey finds a third of respondents had a higher number of resignations and retirements this year than the same time frame in the past five years


This article originally appeared in the September 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Chiefs talk resignations | Retention contracts | Drones & protest planning, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

This article is reprinted with permission from PERF's Daily Critical Issues Report 

By Police Executive Research Forum

In mid-September, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) sent a questionnaire about officer resignations and retirements to all general members and subscribing members who lead their agencies.

The questionnaire asked about resignations and retirements by sworn members of their agency since June 1:

  • 36% of respondents said they’ve had a higher number of resignations and retirements this year, as compared to the same time frame in the past five years (13% said substantially higher and 23% said slightly higher).
  • 45% of respondents said their resignations and retirements have been about the same this year.
  • 19% said their retirements and resignations have been fewer (6% said substantially fewer and 13% said slightly fewer).

A total of 204 people responded to the inquiry; 28% of responses came from large agencies (250 or more sworn officers), 44% of responses came from medium-sized agencies (50-249 sworn officers), and 28% of responses came from small agencies (fewer than 50 sworn officers).

Larger and medium-sized agencies were more likely to say that they’ve seen a higher number of resignations and retirements, while smaller agencies were more likely to say that they’ve seen a lower number.

PERF spoke with some of the police chiefs who reported an increase in resignations and retirements.

"While the departures are high for us, I’m frankly happy they haven’t been higher." – Acting Chief Victor Wahl
"While the departures are high for us, I’m frankly happy they haven’t been higher." – Acting Chief Victor Wahl

Acting Chief Victor Wahl, Madison, Wisconsin

Like a lot of places, the bulk of our departures usually come as people retire at the end of the year. But since June 1, we’ve had 10 or 11 departures – some retirements, some resignations – which is quite a bit more than we’ve historically seen during this period.

We’re dealing with the pandemic, 118 straight days of protest activity, the negative media narrative about policing and a vocal activist community that is anti-police. Hearing that constant drumbeat that calls into question people’s chosen profession is difficult.

We are in the midst of our budget process for next year, and there’s the potential for budget cuts. We have a new civilian oversight structure that has just been created. And we’re going to have a new chief in the next few months. So there’s a lot going on, and a lot on people’s minds.

We offer exit interviews to everyone who leaves, but most people who departed this year have opted not to take an exit interview. The people who have taken exit interviews offered a mix of reasons for leaving. Some are going to other opportunities outside law enforcement, recognizing that this is not the field they want to be in at this time. And I think some of the folks who have retired are weary of what they’ve had to endure here at the end of their careers.

While the departures are high for us, I’m frankly happy they haven’t been higher. We’ve asked a lot of our people this year, and I think it speaks to their dedication that they stick with it.

"The retirements and resignations are severely impacting us." – Chief Tom Weitzel
"The retirements and resignations are severely impacting us." – Chief Tom Weitzel

Chief Tom Weitzel, Riverside, Illinois

We’re a small agency. Riverside is a community of 9,000, and we only have 19 officers all the way up to the chief of police. We’re two miles from the border of Chicago, which is having a huge effect on us.

The retirements and resignations are severely impacting us in a small community like mine. For example, I just had a seven-year officer come in, hand in his two weeks’ notice, and in his exit interview, he said he is testing with an agency that is not experiencing rioting and looting. It’s more of a rural community that is away from the metropolitan Chicago area. That’s the reason he resigned.

The unrest that’s going on in the city of Chicago is absolutely affecting the suburban communities in the area. It’s driving officers to leave. I had a sergeant with 30 years on say he was leaving because he’s had it with this national narrative going around.

In a small agency like mine, we’ve canceled vacations, holidays and days off since this unrest began. We’ve had to move to 12-hour shifts, and officers are probably working more than 12 hours with the protesting, rioting and looting. Officers are extremely stressed and getting burned out. They need time off.

And while my own community is very supportive of public safety, the national narrative going around is really driving our retirements and resignations.

We just gave our police recruit exam last week, and we had the lowest turnout in 42 years. We usually get over 200, and we only had 62 apply.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Law enforcement goes through cycles, and we will come out of this. But I would say that right now it’s worse than it has ever been.

I have to get out there, motivate the officers, give them a positive message and refocus them on what the job really is about. Because they’re getting to believe that the national narrative is that every police officer wakes up in the morning and reports to work to violate somebody’s civil rights.

"We’ve seen this before, although not quite this bad." – David Zack
"We’ve seen this before, although not quite this bad." – David Zack

Chief David Zack, Asheville, North Carolina

Here in Ashville, it’s common to see roughly 20 resignations and retirements per year. We’ve had 34 resignations just since June 1.

Many are going to other agencies. Asheville leans left, and our county is surrounded by counties that lean much further right. So when you step over the county line, there is a significant change in the reception of law enforcement in those communities compared to our county.

When the protests are going on, I’m standing there with my officers trying to encourage them. I try to attend roll call briefings as much as possible to provide words of encouragement.

We’ve seen this before, although not quite this bad. We remember Rodney King was really bad. The racial profiling scandals in the mid-1980s were really bad. This is certainly worse.

We have to lend that experience to our officers and say, “We’ve seen this pendulum swing very far through the course of our careers. After 9/11 we were heroes, and the pendulum swung very far in our direction. Later it was Occupy Wall Street and people were spitting in our faces. The pendulum goes back and forth, and it will level itself out. The anxiety and stress will end, and there will be a return to some sense of normalcy. It’s just going to take a while, but it will happen.”

We try to send that message as much as possible and be there to offer peer support. We make sure that we’re constantly communicating and keeping them in the loop. And we share messages of support that we receive from the community.

NEXT: Why now is the time for a recruitment revolution

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