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4 ways millennials can improve police culture

Millennials demand to feel what they do for a living adds value to the world – harnessing that passion can only benefit police departments


New police officers attend their graduation ceremony at the Beacon Theatre in New York, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Soon after we began writing for law enforcement, we developed a training program called “Police Morale for Supervisors: It IS Your Problem!” The intended audience was line supervisors and administrators ill-equipped to address widespread challenges caused by low morale. For the most part, audiences were receptive and open to new ideas until we came to the section on working with millennials, when the mood could turn a little hostile.

The antagonism these law enforcement leaders had for millennials is paradoxical. The Baby Boomers created and raised the earliest versions of millennials – with Gen X pitching in on later models – yet these were the officers and supervisors most annoyed by the millennials! Having been part of the older generation that advocated for millennials throughout their lives, once in command of and working alongside them, they wanted these young adults to be different from how they were raised.

We began training as the first wave of millennials came into the workplace, causing significant angst among their older colleagues and bosses. Many of that first batch are now well into their 30s, with a decade or more of experience, and have yet to cause modern policing to spin out and crash. Despite that, as the youngest of their cohorts come of age and pin on badges, they are still causing a stir.

We are sure you’re aware of all the complaints and concerns about them. Overreliance on parents beyond adolescence has created issues for colleges, employers and even the military, who are dealing with a generational cohort who haven’t all yet come to grips with their own adulthood. For young adults accustomed to close parental involvement and intervention in issues previous generations were expected to handle on their own, routine challenges become crises, initiative and self-reliance lag, and expectations of independence create anxiety. Faculty, administrators and bosses find themselves burdened with the responsibility of “finishing” the human product they expected would come already assembled. However, here are four ways millennials improve law enforcement.

1. They challenge long-accepted core beliefs

Changing mores around social responsibility are reshaping the way young adults navigate their world. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for an institution as rooted in hierarchy as law enforcement with clearly defined professional boundaries and tradition, these differing mores can feel disrespectful or threatening. A 24-year-old who grew up with a sense of intergenerational egalitarianism, or taught her beliefs and voice carry the same weight and consideration as those of someone decades older and more experienced, may chafe under the paramilitary structure and authority of policing. She and her peers, who were raised to be aware of social injustice – and to confront it where found – are likely to provoke discomfort among certain of their less “woke” (as the kids like to say!) colleagues.

This generation’s well-documented closeness with family and friends has actually become a target for criticism by some of its detractors, and not without some validity.

For law enforcement, where officers traditionally form near-familial bonds to colleagues and the profession, sometimes to the extent where blood family and old friends come to feel as outsiders to their officer’s life, a demand for better work-life balance among millennial officers is becoming the new norm. No longer married to the job, it is possible these younger officers will largely avoid some of the negative emotional and physical effects suffered by generations before them and find a healthy middle ground. Like the overreliance on parents some millennials have demonstrated, falling into an overreliance on the police culture can be isolating and harmful.

Likewise, having grown up in an era where discussions of mental health or acknowledging the need for emotional support or counseling carries much less stigma than times past, they are more open to seeking help for themselves or supporting coworkers they recognize need assistance. For a profession both highly susceptible to psychological dangers and historically reticent to admit it, this is a breath of fresh air for those of us fighting for a stigma-free approach to mental illness.

2. They are more open to out-of-the-box thinking

New recruits are coming into law enforcement with more education and broader experiences, in a time of unprecedented access to media and information. They are entering adulthood having had greater access to diverse people and thought. This expands their outlook and the options available to them on the job and, as long as they are permitted, allows for greater out-of-the-box thinking.

This is also a generation of officers likely to have served in the wartime military, bringing the experience, maturity and ability to both lead and be led to their civilian law enforcement jobs. For others, policing is a career shift, having first spent time in the private or non-profit sector and versed in a more corporate culture.

And even police departments requiring a four-year degree are still a minority, it’s increasingly likely that successful applicants will have hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Running through all of this is an ethos of openness to and acceptance of differences. When police candidates come into the profession with such well-rounded and diverse backgrounds wise, leadership should welcome the creativity it brings to the profession.

3. They are more accepting of diversity

As a group, millennials have grown up habituated to accept diversity. Generationally they are more accepting not only of racial and gender diversity around them, including in the workplace and traditionally masculine professions such as law enforcement, but of also of the LGBTQ community, religious differences and a range of political opinion in general.

4. Their motives and actions tend to be value-driven

Theirs is a generation that demands purpose, to feel an investment in something greater than themselves, and to feel what they do for a living adds value to the world. There is no reason to think millennials entering law enforcement will be any different. If their leadership can set them loose, allowing creativity with guidance, this is a generation that may transform policing.

Already, investment in some traditional policing models and practices seems to be waning among them, as reported by older officers and line supervisors with experience and a front row seat to millennial cops, but there is a corresponding drive to rise fast and leave an indelible mark on their profession and communities. Channeling this drive, rather than trying to slow or quash it, may help promote continued drive throughout a career.

Managing them will require creative and open-minded supervision, trust with sound guidance, and a commitment to allowing them to surpass us without letting our pride and ego get in their way.


Millennials will continue to transform society and the many subcultures comprising it as their influence, wealth and political capital grows, including within law enforcement. And while many old school types stubbornly hang onto the ways and attitudes of the past, continuing to view younger officers with suspicion or contempt, millennials are already changing the police profession. What have your experiences been with millennial cops? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Officer Mike Wasilewski, LCSW, have been married since 1994. Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego, Illinois. Mike works full-time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency and part-time as a social worker with Fox Bend Counseling. They write on a range of topics including officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski