*|MC_PREVIEW_TEXT|*Chiefs talk resignations | Retention contracts | Drones & protest planning
September 30, 2020 | View as webpage

The mainstream media has been full of shock-horror headlines over the past few months depicting law enforcement as a profession rocked by record resignations and retirements. But what’s the true story behind the numbers quoted by news pundits?

A recent Police Executive Research Forum survey asked PERF members about resignations and retirements by sworn members of their agencies since June 1. Read on to find out what three police chiefs are reporting regarding their numbers. Also, in today’s Leadership Brief, Chief Joel Shults discusses whether retention contracts could be one answer to stemming police resignations.

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Stay safe,

Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1 

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

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.

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.

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.

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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Consider retention contracts to stop a flood of resignations
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

The latest PERF survey on police officer retirement and resignation isn’t as gloomy as one might expect. Even though over a third of responding agencies report higher attrition this year than the same time frame in the previous five years, only 13% of respondents said it was significantly higher. About 13% had lower vacancies, with 45% staying about the same.

As with any study, the results must be considered in the context of the limitations and possible anomalies.

The timing of the study, and the reason for comparing it to this same time period, is that retirements are typically higher as the end of the year approaches and accumulated leave time is in play. Consider, too, that thousands of officers were hired during the COPS Office police recruitment grants spurt of the Clinton crime bill years that are now coming up on their 20- and 25-year service anniversaries and happen to be eligible to retire about now.

It could be that the perception of a hiring and retention crisis is framed more from our personal questioning of why anyone would want to do police work these days, rather than more substantial factors and actual numbers.

The "middlers" are struggling

A recent survey reported by Police1 documented reported high levels of anxiety, depression and risk factors for PTSD among officers.

An interesting result of the study was that officers at the highest risk were those in their 5th through 10th years of police service. One presumption is that more veteran officers have seen cycles of support for police wax and wane over their years and expect things to eventually get back to normal. The younger officers either enjoy the challenge while they are still 10 feet tall and bulletproof or anticipate, along with their veteran colleagues, that things will change along their career path. The “middlers” – those with five to 10 years on the job – may find themselves over-invested in a police career with no alternative, or afraid to forfeit promotional opportunities by withdrawing or changing agencies or careers.

Anecdotally, law enforcement leaders report challenges in recruitment, but not all those challenges are due to current anti-police sentiment or doomsday prognostications about the future of the country and its justice system. Many agencies are taking the opportunity to tout police reform and the chance to have an influence on the future as marketing opportunities to attract new and diverse police candidates.

What does hope look like?

Regardless of the numbers and projections, no one doubts that this is an especially unpleasant time to be a police officer, to say the least. Do leaders simply hunker down and ride out the storm along with their officers? They can do better than that. They can offer hope. Consider these what-ifs:

  • What if supervisors and chiefs had individual and very honest conversations with the front-line cops?
  • What if those bearing the brunt of the day's bad news were given the opportunity to suggest one or two things that could make their lives a little easier?
  • What if they were asked very frankly how long they can work under these conditions?
  • What if they had the opportunity to explore other career options in order to make a rational decision about staying in uniformed law enforcement?
  • What if they were offered a plan with a deadline that if by a certain date if certain things hadn’t improved, they would re-evaluate?

Bold leaders may take this approach and put it in writing: here are the things that need to change before December 2021. Examples might be less mandatory overtime, more mental health days off, measurably more public support, or a declaration of support from political leaders. It could be as simple as seeing command staff work a patrol shift or allowing officers more latitude in speaking out.

What would give hope to officers may vary from agency to agency, but if leaders can point to a brighter future and delay retirement or resignation by sincere, intentional listening and goal setting, the profession might keep a few more good people around a while longer.

NEXT: 5 steps to combatting resignations and improving retention

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