How optimistic are officers about the future of law enforcement? The answer, not that much

To improve retention efforts, police leaders must address the top reasons why officers are experiencing a lack of optimism about the profession


This feature is part of a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. The survey asked officers if they were optimistic about the future of policing: 20% answered yes, 36% were unsure and 44% said no. Those respondents who reported feeling not optimistic about the future of the profession were asked to explain why, which elicited over 1,000 comments that produced several themes. Here Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., summarizes what police leaders should consider in light of the responses. Download the complete report here. 

To improve retention efforts, we should begin by addressing the top reasons why officers are experiencing a lack of optimism about the profession. The emergent themes on this issue across the data are as follows:

Clarify expectations

Members of the public and politicians must clarify expectations of what they want police to do. This seems to be ever-changing and highly reactive and dependent on societal whims and what is in the news. The result is mass confusion.

Create policy and legislation based on evidence and experience

Clarifying expectations is important but given the reality that many officers feel they are being asked to perform too many functions that are beyond the scope of the profession, it becomes even more imperative that policymakers and legislators make decisions based on empirical evidence and/or experience.

Stop the diminishing of offender accountability

There is a perception that offender accountability in society, and more aptly in the court system, continues to decrease, which again sends a mixed message about the expectations of police officers.

Combat the defunding movement and avoid knee-jerk reform measures

Here again, empirical evidence must be at the foundation of all decisions. Defunding efforts will further compromise slim training budgets at a time when more training is being called for by society and police officers alike.

Educate the public, politicians and media

Several respondents suggested that better education of policymakers and influencers is needed to anchor unrealistic expectations that exist about police work. This came across the data as especially true in instances involving split-second decisions and performances concerning the realities of human physiological limitations in such instances.

What officers said

  • “There is an increasing disconnect between the public, politicians, media, and law enforcement regarding the expectations of law enforcement. If the lawmakers can't define what they want and need from law enforcement, how can they expect law enforcers to be successful?”
  • “There is a major disconnect between the realities of human performance in highly dangerous and dynamic environments vs. expectations for outcomes.”
  • “No, I am not optimistic about the future of policing. The public outcry is for defunding of police. Along with this cry is ‘They need more training!’ What they fail to realize is the training they speak of comes with a financial cost. Our department is a small one, which operates with an even smaller budget. We barely have the funds to keep our people trained to the bare minimum the state requires of us, much less any specialized training.”
  • “No other profession in society is criticized more frequently and more harshly than law enforcement is for mistakes and misconduct. People expect us to be perfect officers, making the correct decisions 100% of the time in often chaotic and dangerous incidents where our reactions must be within tenths of a second and we have to make the best call we can. If we are wrong, we lose our lives or our careers.”
  • “People have no understanding of what the police do or why, and are only interested in the outcome of critical incidents rather than the facts. The criminal justice system as a whole is broken, but people are perfectly happy to lay the blame for all of that on the police.”
  • “Without the understanding and support of elected officials, policing will continue to become mired in political turf battles and abandonment of officers by administration failures to support line officers in the name of 'political expediency.'”
  • “Retention and failure to adapt to constantly changing cultures prevent law enforcement agencies from being flexible enough to change. Police leadership training has increased, but true leaders are few and far between to effectively train new leaders.”

This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2021, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. Download the complete report here.

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