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The heart over wallet approach to a law enforcement career

The focus on finance in a recent survey on the best and worst places to be a cop doesn’t reflect the more complicated matrix officers face when deciding on a department to join or stay with


My advice to officer: Put your wallet in the back pocket and keep your career centered on the heart, where your family and the quality of life you want are the priority.


There are 50 states, five territories, 18,000 police agencies including nearly a hundred federal badge carriers and an average turnover rate of 14% or more among the estimated 800,000 police officers in the U.S. Pay ranges from eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps to nearly five times the average U.S. earner’s income, with hiring bonuses as high as $75,000.

Finances seemed to be the focus of a WalletHub report, the findings of which were reported recently on Police1, purporting to label the best places for a law enforcement career. I suspect that the average citizen would assume that pay and benefits are driving factors. This perception can lead to support for higher pay and recruiting bonuses, but police officers, like workers in other fields, have a much more complicated matrix for deciding on a department to join or stay with.

I’m going to make some assumptions based on my experience since I don’t have empirical evidence to answer the question of why applicants choose a particular place to work. At this point in my career, I am not even sure if the motives to enter police work are the same in this generation as they were when I was a pup. After a high school ride along with my hometown police department, I was hooked. Off to college, I went to study criminal justice, but mostly to kill time until I turned 21.

When my 21st birthday grew close I applied with the city police where my campus was located. With my A.A. degree and Army MP training from the National Guard, I was hired and began my three-week FTO. I attended the 3-week police academy six months later. (Yes, I am a museum piece.) I was living my dream and would have done it for free, so salary was irrelevant. I assumed that my colleagues had entered the profession with the same passion I had. I found out that some had applied for any city job they could get, and the police department happened to hire before the fire, water and sewer departments did. Others had been laid off from civilian jobs, or were getting out of the military and just needed a job. Several were Vietnam vets.

My point is that nobody then, and hardly anybody I’ve worked with since, sought out that particular place to work because of pay and benefits. It took me another 20 years before I even thought about retirement, and I just adjusted to my salary. I was in my home state of Missouri not far from family, and the opportunity arose so I took it. My guess — and the readers will correct me if I am wrong — is that those personal factors still prevail.

Watch this video about WalletHub’s best & worst states to be a cop survey

Many Police1 readers seem to agree in principle. One reader stated “The data gathered to form the results did not include the human element. For instance, many officers are leaving states like California and New York at alarming rates even though both states ranked high in the article.” Another officer, alluding to his home state of Illinois, asks “Have you taken a look at the state laws that have either defunded the police, eliminated cash bail, stripped the police of necessary tools to do their jobs, made it easier to file complaints and/or de-certify police officers and otherwise make it impossible for officers to do their jobs?”

A reader in Massachusetts comments “I think we’re missing an important factor or two here. Things such as job satisfaction. Support from the courts. Support from the community. A sense of general appreciation.” This officer laments the degraded court system in his state, saying “Mentally I have completely checked out. Most don’t undertake this profession for money. It’s more than that. A sense of community. Protection of those who can’t protect themselves. The satisfaction of removing criminals from the public. Long story short they’re intangibles that I don’t think WalletHub can measure. Take 25% of my pay but really stand behind me and support me. I’m all in again.”

Readers debate the importance of factors beyond compensation, such as the impact of community support and state legislation on job satisfaction for police officers

I always told my rookies, and later, my students, all of the reasons not to be a police officer, but added that if that’s what they passionately wanted to do no one could talk them out of it. Frankly — and I say it with grief — after a lifetime of celebrating what a great career law enforcement can be, my enthusiasm for encouraging young people to sign up has waned. It is a much more dangerous life than ever, and I don’t mean because of the bad guys on the street.

Perhaps today the pride of the badge and the warm feeling that comes from being a hero is just a part of career decision-making. Some places are more hostile than others toward their armed government agents. I might advise avoiding states, like my adopted state of Colorado, that have:

  • Eliminated qualified immunity
  • Imposed additional burdens of financial liability to its officers
  • Are constantly attempting to reduce private firearms ownership
  • Restricted officers from enforcing existing laws, such as traffic regulations
  • Decriminalized former felonies
  • Reduced prison sentences and bail requirements
  • Moved to retirements based on fluctuating market conditions rather than guaranteed benefits.

Whatever merit such legislation may hold, they are indicators of a social construct that denies personal accountability and threatens individual liberty. As a criminal justice scholar, I find scant empirical evidence for most of these measures, indicating that politics rather than public safety rules.

What then is my counsel to the law enforcement job seeker? The profession is resilient and its officers can accommodate the changes that have, can and will happen no matter where they are. Put your wallet in the back pocket and keep your career centered on the heart, where your family and the quality of life you want are the priority.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.