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Reactivating retirees for police service in times of crisis

Law enforcement leaders should consider ways to clear a path to bring retirees back to work to support public safety


As an increasing number of police officers and deputies have been exposed or tested positive for the coronavirus, workforce reductions will challenge COVID-19 response.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

By Bob Harrison

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of police officers and deputies have been exposed or tested positive for the coronavirus. Instead of relying on existing resources, gaps in personnel coverage could be filled by easing restrictions on the hiring of retired police officers. Using processes similar to those being implemented for doctors and nurses, the police could return thousands of retired cops to service quickly to fill critical needs.

Most, if not all, agencies have already redeployed investigators into field duties and worked on shift schedules that can survive short-term staffing needs. Some have even begun to incorporate a home-isolation schedule for sworn staff to limit exposure from one officer to another, and to ensure the department can continue to operate if they lose, 15%, 20%, or even 30% of their cops.

Should the pandemic endure, and if it spikes again in the future, how far can people be stretched before they aren’t capable of providing basic police services? One solution could be to follow the lead of states that have streamlined processes to allow retired health care workers to return to work.

In Pennsylvania, the governor recently announced the state was enacting a series of temporary licensing waivers for healthcare professionals to provide support to frontline medical personnel, and to expand the use of telemedicine to provide care. California is also looking to relax the rules governing the scope of practice to free up more doctors and nurses. The state’s Medical Association is surveying retired members who may be able to help treat the wave of patients. The Veteran’s Administration is also expediting hiring processes and modifying compensation rules so retirees don’t have to give up benefits to start assisting at VA facilities. Taking heed of these lessons, law enforcement leaders could consider ways to clear a path to bring retirees back to work to support public safety.

There are hundreds to thousands of police officer retirees in every state. Most retirees, right now, would probably love to contribute in meaningful ways to public safety. Many police departments are struggling to fill positions, and have pulled back from non-critical duties and investigative follow-up to reported crimes. What if there was a way for the retiree to really help at the local level? What if they could sign up, suit up, and go to work in their local police department to relieve their agency’s staffing woes?

If there were ways to make this happen, the number of cops could grow quickly in ways that could ease the burden on those who work to protect the public. Making that happen could require modifying hiring practices, recertifying officers and placing them in duties that full-time cops don’t see as hindering their work.

There are limits on the types of employment and number of hours public safety retirees can work. There are also regulations requiring a retiree or out-of-state officer to qualify or requalify for employment as a peace officer in that state. The requalification process often takes weeks, as does the hiring process.

To speed the rehiring of retired cops, agencies could:

  • Lobby for regulatory change to allow them to hire retired police officers in an expedited process during times of declared emergencies.
  • Work with their state’s licensing body for peace officers to create an expedited requalification process. The requalification could be an online course, or delivered locally that requires only a day or two to complete before the retiree is returned to active service.
  • Work with their local elected bodies to pass ordinances to allow hiring in this manner, and also with their HR departments to determine compensation and employment status.
  • Finally, they could work with their unions and police associations to develop agreements noting the opportunities and limitations of this expedited employment, including an expiration date for such employment and subsequent reactivation policies for future emergencies.

With these steps, it seems possible that staffing in police departments could increase by as much as 10% in a month, and be sustained for as long as the state of emergency exists. Once a “new normal” is achieved, police agencies could also consider ways to retain this emergency corps via a National Guard-like process. Departments could develop periodic weekend training to retain retiree skills, and have them ready for the next emergency declaration.

In the short term, such a plan could help address the problem at hand. In the long term, it could transform the ways departments and officers think about “retirement” so that retirees could be ready to return to active duty when emergencies arise.

About the author

Bob Harrison is an adjunct researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. A retired police chief, he consults with police agencies on futures issues, innovation and strategy. He has a postgraduate degree from the University of Oxford in Business Strategy & Innovation and holds MS degrees from two U.S. universities, one in management, the other in HR management and organization development. He was a Fulbright Fellow to the UK, and visiting scholar to the FBI. Contact him at

The Society of Police Futurists International (PFI) is an organization of law enforcement practitioners, educators, researchers, private security specialists, technology experts and other professionals dedicated to improving criminal and social justice through the professionalization of policing.

Futures research (long-range planning and forecasting) is the pivotal discipline that constitutes the philosophical underpinnings of PFI. The tools and techniques of this field are applied in order to more accurately anticipate and prepare for the evolution of law enforcement 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future. Futures research offers both philosophical and methodological tools to analyze, forecast and plan in ways rarely seen in policing in the past. The strength of PFI lies in the participation of it’s members as we engage in dialogue and collaborate on research on the future of the policing profession.

PFI was founded in August 1991 and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in April 1992.