What young cops want (and what police leaders can do about it)

Young officers are great employees; however, they require some specific things from their leadership in order to have a successful police career


Every generation brings forth change to the workplace. This has never been truer than with the young men and women entering law enforcement today. As law enforcement continues to experience a recruitment and retention crisis, it is critical that police leadership develop a workplace culture that embraces our younger officers.

Eight facts about our youngest cops

Young officers are great employees; however, they require some specific things from their leadership in order to succeed.

New York City Police Academy graduates salute during the national anthem at their graduation ceremony on Thursday April 18, 2019, in New York.
New York City Police Academy graduates salute during the national anthem at their graduation ceremony on Thursday April 18, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Using data collected from a 2016 Gallup poll titled How Millennials Want to Work and Live, we can surmise that young cops look for the following from their employers, which is much different than previous generations. 

It would behoove agencies to take these factors into consideration when developing police recruitment campaigns and field training programs.

Download a copy of this list for easy reference.

  1. Young cops want to work for an organization that has a defined mission and purpose. Compensation is obviously important for our young officers, but it is not a driver like it was (or is) for GenXers or Baby Boomers. 
  2. Young cops are in pursuit of personal development. Our young officers want to better themselves so that in turn, they will better the people and world around them. 
  3. Young cops want coaches, not bosses. This one is important. Our young officers are not fond of the command-and-control style of leadership common in law enforcement. Our officers need leaders who are going to coach them, value them as employees and help develop them.
  4. Young cops want ongoing conversations. This goes back to development. Again, our officers want to be coached and mentored continuously. I am not suggesting we eliminate annual reviews, but rather we should develop a culture through which more regular and open communication occurs in addition to an annual evaluation.
  5. Young cops want to develop their strengths and not necessarily fix their weaknesses. I can feel the frustration from leaders as they read that sentence. Obviously, I am not suggesting leaders should ignore an officer’s weakness if it is impeding on the overall mission and desired culture of the organization. Instead, I am suggesting leaders focus on maximizing the strengths of our young officers. This can most easily be accomplished by ensuring an officer is assigned to a position or task where they possess the right characteristics and skillset to thrive.
  6. Young cops want to work with new technology. Our youngest generation of officers are the most connected in law enforcement. With the introduction and evolution of technology, these officers quickly adapt and can use new technology to find innovative ways to conduct investigations and connect with the community, victims and suspects.
  7. Young cops are unconstrained. As law enforcement leaders, we need to recognize and understand that our youngest officers often possess skills that will benefit our agencies in the twenty-first century, where we are more connected, faster-paced and things are less predictable than in previous eras. It is very common for young officers to search for and find new ways to complete a task or investigation. They do not settle for the “that’s the way it has always been done” mentality.
  8. Young cops are idealistic. Young officers are largely optimistic, believing work should be worthwhile and have meaning. This is great for the profession of law enforcement. To remain optimistic, young officers need to continuously learn and grow to be better employees and team members. 

Young cops, with the skills described above coupled with characteristics needed to succeed in law enforcement (drive, perseverance, resiliency, adaptability and humility), will have a positive impact on the law enforcement profession. This generation will get the job done in new and innovative ways if they have the right leadership support.

Leaders must learn to explain the why!

A few weeks back I had an epiphany regarding communication with a young officer. I realized I could not always communicate with these officers with a simple written order or verbal directive. Our young officers need to know the “why” behind a directive, order, or newly instituted policy.

Let me explain. When I was hired by my agency, a para-military organization, the command structure was understood and respected by the rank and file. It does not work the same way today with our youngest officers. With Google at their fingertips, young officers have the ability to research and better understand any topic at any time. They have been able to do so their entire life. So, take the time and explain why they need to complete a task, understand a new procedure or tactic, or why a new policy is being implemented.

Young officers can and will flourish

Whether we want to accept it or not, our young officers are the driving force of our world today. They have changed and will continue to change, the way the workplace looks and how we complete tasks. However, young officers bring a different sort of change. These officers want a sense of purpose and place for personal and professional development. 

Where can this sense of purpose and personal development take place? In our profession of law enforcement. Our profession has steep learning curves, which pushes them to develop their strengths and identify their weaknesses. 

We as leaders need to pay attention to the needs of these employees. We need to mentor them, build their trust, build relationships with them, push them and provide them with the “why.” We need to understand when it is appropriate to micromanage and when it is appropriate to step back and take a hands-off leadership approach.

This all sounds simple, right? It takes a leader with discipline, an open mind and patience.

What can police leaders do?

I am of the belief that all mistakes, issues and problems that occur are not the faults of the officers, but that of the supervisor. Have you ever heard of the concept of no bad team, only bad leaders? A leader should constantly reflect on their expectations, the direction being provided and the conversations they have with their officers. This is especially important when supervising our youngest generations of officers. 

As a supervisor, I thrive and reflect on the 12 fundamental rules that I follow. I will be honest; I did not create these rules. The rules are taught by retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink in his book “Leadership Strategy and Tactics.” I review these rules each morning, before a heavy conversation and before I make an important decision. 

I have found that by following and religiously practicing these rules, my young officers know I am providing them with mentorship, room to develop, trust, open communication and a sense of ownership of their position and agency. With this guidance, these officers will thrive. 

Jocko Willink suggests the following:

  1. Be a humble leader.
  2. Remember you don’t know everything. Lean on your officers, the subject matter experts, and ask them smart questions.
  3. Listen when your officers are talking to you. Put down your cell phone and the emails can wait. 
  4. Treat them and all people with respect. Take care of your people and they will in fact take care of you.
  5. Take ownership of failures and mistakes made by the team. You are ultimately responsible for everything your subordinate officers do. 
  6. Pass the credit the team receives down the chain of command. 
  7. As a leader work hard. You should be working harder than anyone on your team. You can even take out the trash, it is not beneath you. 
  8. As a leader have integrity. Your officers will know when you are lying to them. 
  9. Extreme actions and opinions are usually not good, be a balanced leader. 
  10. As a leader, be decisive. If you are required to make a decision, make one. 
  11. Build relationships. If you are not constantly building relationships and trust with your officers, your officers will be disconnected and unsuccessful. 
  12. Lead your team to accomplish your designated mission. Just get the job done. 

In addition, law enforcement leaders need to ensure they clearly communicate the rules, policies and their expectations to their officers. Discipline needs to be instilled in these officers and they should be held accountable. 

What can our young officers do to help themselves succeed?

Young officers, this portion of the article is for you! The requirement of change does not fall completely on your supervisors. As an officer, you will need to understand and adhere to the para-military structure of law enforcement. Your specific agency will have its own culture, and you need to recognize and acknowledge that environment.

Here are my simple suggestions to help you succeed in law enforcement: There are no participation awards. You need to put in the work and prove yourself. There are no shortcuts or hacks. Remain humble. Be honest with yourself and hold yourself accountable. Always strive to improve yourself and your team. Follow Jocko Willink’s 12 rules.

Conclusion

Law enforcement organizations and supervisors should embrace their youngest officers. If they have the right characteristics and you are a leader who is disciplined, supportive, communicates and holds your officers accountable, young cops can and will thrive.

Complete the box below to download a copy of the list of eight things young cops want for easy reference. 

WHAT YOUNG COPS WANT FROM THEIR POLICE CAREERS

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