Does geography make a difference in police life?

A WalletHub report ranks the best & worst states to be a cop, but do the rating metrics match what officers want from a police career?


During a short and unremarkable departure from my police life, I ventured into the real estate appraisal business. I learned the truth of the old real estate mantra: location, location, location! Place does make a difference. Geography, economics and cultures create the pallet we call quality of life.

A report posted on the WalletHub website on “2022's Best & Worst States to Be a Police Officer” attracted the attention of my editor who asked if I might have some commentary. Boy, do I. I rarely go into my biography, but it happens to be relevant to my analysis here.

Over my career, I have been privileged to be an officer, a chief, an academy director, college teacher, trainer, observer, researcher and chaplain. My street time has been with smaller departments and due to holding multiple commissions, I’ve been a sworn officer in over a dozen agencies both city and rural. I’ve done observational ride-alongs with over 50 agencies from the biggest to the smallest. I’ve trained, consulted, or observed in half the states in the country. I’ve also conducted academic research and have been a writer on law enforcement issues for several police publications, including, of course, about 15 years with Police1. My observation: place makes a difference

WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key dimensions and 30 metrics.
WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key dimensions and 30 metrics.

Ranking the best and worst states to be a cop

WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key dimensions:

  1. Opportunity & competition
  2. Law enforcement training requirements
  3. Job hazards & protections.

These are interesting dimensions to explore, but a shrewd reader of any research recognizes that any such enterprise is subject to bias and misinterpretation. Choosing the questions that get asked is one of those areas subject to critique. I must admit that when I saw that California was ranked 2nd and Washington ranked in the top 10, I was immediately curious about what current officers working in that political stew would have to say about that. (Although the officers I met in those states were positive and professional.)

One might assume that a bright young person who wants a career in law enforcement creates a decision matrix and a final, old-fashioned pros and cons Ben Franklin list to determine where to seek employment. For that person, the conclusions of the article could be a significant help. I just don’t think most cops started out that way. From anecdotal observations, it appears to me that people become police officers in a particular department:

  • Because of a loyalty attachment to a certain agency or area
  • Because they applied to a number of agencies and took the first offer.

One of the things I learned in riding along with officers from Reno, New York, LA, Phoenix, Chicago and small agencies like Sebastian County, Arkansas, Chilhowee, Missouri, or Trinidad, Colorado is that police work is police work. Even in San Francisco and Las Vegas or Albuquerque, I didn’t see anything that I hadn’t already seen working in small agencies. What was dramatically different was the extent of resources available and the culture of the department within the culture of the community.

When I visited a command center during a holiday in Los Angeles, I asked what the budget was for the deployment of officers that day. I was chief of a 13-member agency in Colorado at the time whose annual budget was less than LAPD’s Cinco De Mayo coverage. (By the way, I was treated like royalty. Apparently, everyone above the rank of sergeant wants to retire as a small-town police chief in Colorado.) In Phoenix, my host officer assisted on a stolen car pursuit that ended with a bailout. Within minutes there were two K-9 units, one helicopter, and an inner and outer perimeter using more manpower than existed in some of the rural places I’ve worked if you counted every deputy, game warden, and state trooper in the county!

I’m not even sure that salary is in the top three considerations of first-time officer applicants. For laterals, I suspect it is. The survey does make a calculation of the cost of living relative to salary, as well as trends in pay increases and opportunities for advancement. Few young officers think about retirement plans, but 50-year-old officers sure do – and wish they had done so 25 years earlier. Assessing potential lifetime income is a good exercise, but not likely a make or break for the wannabe.

A dollar is not a dollar everywhere. A San Francisco dollar and a Memphis, Tennessee dollar are not the same. One will rent a 600 square foot efficiency apartment, the other will buy a two-story brick home with white columns and a wrap-around veranda.

Ranking by opportunity & competition

The Opportunity & Competition category includes weighted consideration of promotional opportunities. There are agencies where making corporal at 20 years is a notable achievement. Some agencies are clear in their promotional policies where a candidate who can stay out of trouble, get good evaluations and score high on the exam will get the stripes, bars, or stars. There is nowhere that I know of where the process is purely objective, and no subjective factors enter in. Just because you’re the best, doesn’t mean you get the promotion or choice assignment.

This category also includes police to population ratios. I have found it interesting that the difference between having backup or not having backup is not a salient factor in officer murders. If you want to work for a department where you must have an extra squad just to guard the other officers’ cars while being pelted by bottles, maybe a high officer to resident number is a great thing. If you work in a community with a history of good citizens that wave with all five fingers and would have your back, maybe you don’t always need a dozen badges on the scene.

Ranking by law enforcement training requirements

Rating the attractiveness of an agency by law enforcement training requirements assumes job seekers consider this factor. For mid-career lateral entry applicants, these issues could be important in rating their job experience, but the aspiring recruit likely expects to be trained adequately wherever they start their careers. 

As a former curriculum subject matter expert to Colorado’s POST board, the holder of a doctorate in education, a 20-year college teacher, and as a trainer myself, I heartily endorse training. And I agree with critics that we need more. But I am not confident that our entry-level training and even continuing education training are headed in the best direction.

Neophytes are going to assume they’ll get the training they’ll need. Even though the Best Places article gives great importance to police de-escalation and mental health crisis response training, we know that cops are already doing an amazing job at handling those things. We also know that agencies can do the check-the-box training to satisfy critics, and we know that a lot of training has no undergirding in data as to its effectiveness and persistence, and we know that our training methodology is frequently poorly designed and poorly applied, nor is it measured as to actual outcomes. If that sounded like a long sigh of a sentence, that was an intentional expression of exasperation.

For the lateral hopeful moving from one department to greener pastures, maybe this is relevant to a job seeker. Otherwise, I think that category is really moot.

Ranking by Job Hazards & Protections

The final category of job hazards and protections is an interesting one with many components. Depending on one’s point of view, is strict decertification, the presence of red flag laws, bodycam requirements, police liability and other considerations an incentive to work in a state that has been active in reform legislation, or a disincentive as career insecurity?

Agencies will differ in the amount and quality of protective gear, quality of health insurance and general support of officers. We have yet to understand the extent of officers’ line of duty injuries. The 50,000 injuries a year statistic that is tossed around may be off-target many times over and, despite the great work of researchers and trainers, officer murders are so anomalous and relatively rare that there is no predictive model that shows any agency is “safer” than another.

While the report is very interesting, I see the major practical flaw in coming to a conclusion about where an aspiring police officer should live. The external is less important than the internal. If one can find a place where you can be a person of personal and professional pride that can be shared by your tribe, that’s your place. Maybe even in California.

State rankings and report methodology

WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key dimensions using the metrics listed below the map:

Source: WalletHub

 

Opportunity & Competition

  • Law enforcement officers per capita
  • Average starting salary of police officers
  • Median income for law enforcement officers
  • Median income growth for law enforcement officers
  • Salary growth potential of law enforcement officers
  • Projected law enforcement officers per capita by 2028

Law Enforcement Training Requirements

  • Police officer hours training required
  • States allowing police work before basic training
  • Police officer continued professional education hours required
  • Police officer education requirements
  • States with laws requiring officers to be trained to respond to mental health, substance use and behavioral disorder issues
  • Requirement of de-escalation training

Job Hazards & Protections

  • Police misconduct confidentiality law
  • Police body-worn camera legislation
  • Investigation/prosecution on use of force by police officers
  • Police officer decertification requirements
  • Share of law enforcement departments carrying naloxone
  • Degree of lethal force allowed for police use
  • Presence of “Red Flag” laws
  • Presence of “Blue Alerts”
  • Police deaths per 1,000 officers
  • Persons killed by police per capita
  • Share of law enforcement officers assaulted
  • Pursuit-related fatalities per 100,000 residents
  • Violent crime rate
  • Property crime rate
  • Road safety
  • Share of homicide cases solved
  • 9-1-1 calls delivered to local and regional answering points per capita
  • State and local police protection expenses per capita

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