4 ways law enforcement leaders can maximize human capital

An organization’s ability to manage its generational gaps and empower its human capital brokers will create a work culture where officers feel valued

By Rob Santoro

Recruitment and retention will persist as significant obstacles for law enforcement leaders until we begin to fully realize and more skillfully manage the human capital within the profession. Human capital is directly tied to an organization’s performance, technological fluency, work culture and communications style, and proficiency.

Human capital is “the knowledge, skills, competencies, and attributes embodied in individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being.” [1] Intangible human factors, such as knowledge, education, training, health, personality and other individual aspects, impact workplace efficiency, productivity and motivation. Preservation of this type of capital is critical in law enforcement, and as organizations struggle to recruit and retain officers, they also struggle to retain the organization's total human capital.

For a young officer who is exceptionally proficient in a skillset, the structure doesn’t provide robust avenues to allow the agency to maximize the human capital fully.
For a young officer who is exceptionally proficient in a skillset, the structure doesn’t provide robust avenues to allow the agency to maximize the human capital fully. (Photo/Getty Images)

As individual officers leave, the organization loses the value of capital investments made in the individual, and the agency’s net human capital decreases. Capital investments include money and resources spent on for formal training, on-the-job training and experience, education reimbursements and promotions.

Current structure can minimize human capital

Police structure has evolved little since its inception. For good reason, law enforcement organizations employ a paramilitary structure. It is essential, however, to recognize how this structure affects human capital and may exacerbate generational issues. Years of service and time-in-grade requirements for promotion eligibility necessitate that older generations occupy most command class positions, while younger generations occupy low-level supervisory classes and rank and file positions.

The most talented prospects within a police organization are required to serve a certain number of years before they’re eligible for promotional opportunities. Many agencies require at least five years of service before an officer is eligible to pursue the rank of sergeant. Time-in-grade requirements may further restrict officers before they’re then eligible for the next rank.

Most promotions in law enforcement come with a prerequisite change of assignment. A detective promoted to sergeant doesn’t remain within the investigations division but is reassigned to a patrol watch. Position reassignments deter promising leadership talent from pursuing promotional opportunities within an agency. Blanket policies and practices requiring position reassignment following promotions suppress human capital within the organization and often result in negative or mediocre returns on the capital investment in the individual.

Organizations receive sub-optimal organizational returns when an employee’s specific human capital isn’t realized. For a young officer who is exceptionally proficient in a skillset, the structure doesn’t provide robust avenues to allow the agency to maximize the human capital fully. Likewise, the structure often requires seasoned officers seeking employment at another agency to begin at the bottom of the new agency’s hierarchy, regardless of skillset. This means going through another police academy and starting over at the lowest rank. Failure to acknowledge individual human capital intensifies generational issues by diminishing younger officers’ creative contributions and older officers’ experience.

Four ways to maximize human capital

Here are four ways to maximize human capital within law enforcement organizations.

1. Identify human capital brokers

Bridging generation gaps is critical to realizing human capital within an organization. Every agency employs individuals who occupy the transition bands between generations. Those occupying the transition bands between generations are fundamental in successfully navigating and managing the gaps. They act as translators; these individuals better understand the values and perspectives of each side and serve as conduits of accurate information flow, minimizing miscommunication and misunderstanding between groups. Institutional human capital is translated down to younger generations and technological human capital is interpreted up to older generations. The most talented individuals occupying the transition bands constitute that agency’s nucleus of human capital brokers.

2. Empower human capital brokers traditionally

It is not enough to identify an organization’s brokers; leaders need to empower them. Human capital brokers must have a reinforced platform of influence. Traditionally, this is through promotional opportunities and strategic placement of the individual within the organization. Human capital brokers promoted through a standard promotional process should be kept in assignments related to their areas of expertise. This not only maximizes the organization's investment in the individual broker, but it also provides a platform for influence. The investment in the broker returns dividends through the broker’s management and supervision of other employees. Morale is positively impacted, as employees are managed by someone known to be competent in their field.

I was fortunate to work for a police chief and direct supervisor who empowered human capital brokers within our agency. I was permitted to remain within the homicide unit as the supervisor following my promotion from detective to sergeant. First-line supervisors were granted agency to govern decisions within the unit for nine months. This position included the supervision and management of the investigations, the employees, administrative case management, technology and personnel decisions.

From a job satisfaction perspective, I consider those nine months the best of my law enforcement career. From an organizational perspective, our unit solved 25 out of 27 homicides, not including prior year clearances. Vital to this success was the ability to effectively communicate up to the command classes and down to the mostly younger employees below me in the structure, translating concerns and negotiating conflicts as needed. Morale in the unit peaked during this time. No investigators or supervisors left the unit due to separation from the organization or through position reassignment.

3. Empower human capital brokers innovatively

Law enforcement agencies must maintain a paramilitary structure, but leaders must seek more progressive platforms of influence. The private sector has successfully utilized reverse mentoring programs and shadow boards to bridge generational gaps and minimize attrition rates. [2, 3] These programs go beyond mere job shadowing; they empower the individuals participating in the programs to provide legitimate input and influence decisions related to strategy, leadership, technology, and work culture within their organizations. This is the determining factor in whether these programs succeed or fail.

4. Maximize human capital through lateral hiring

A small number of supervisory vacancies should be lateral hire eligible. For instance, if there are 10 sergeant vacancies, only one or two of those should be lateral hire eligible. This shows that the organization places a higher value on loyalty and longevity in the organization since an internal officer has a higher probability of promotion than an external lateral applicant. Still, it also creates healthy competition for the lateral eligible spots and allows an agency to select the best applicants. Lateral hire applicants should - go through the normal hiring process of that organization and cycle through the testing and assessment(s) for the sought position.

The decision to hire laterally falls within the organization’s discretion. If no lateral hires are chosen for lateral eligible positions, an organization can fill them with internal candidates. However, this mechanism gives an agency options and the ability to rapidly acquire a large volume of external human capital.


Police officers enter the profession to help others. Most don’t want awards and recognition for doing their jobs well. What they want is to feel and be valued. An organization’s ability to successfully manage its generational gaps and empower its human capital brokers will help to create a work culture where the individual officer feels valued. It will also allow the organization to maximize the returns on its human capital investments across all classes.

NEXT: Could law enforcement be leader-LESS in the future?


1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Insights – Human Capital. Human Capital - The Value of People, Chapter 2, pp. 29.

2. Jordan J, Sorrell M. (October 03, 2019.) Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do It Right. Harvard Business Review .

3. Jordan J, Sorrell M. (June 04, 2019.) Why You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Younger Employees. Harvard Business Review. 

About the author

Rob Santoro is currently employed as a special agent, assigned under the Homicide Section at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Prior to the Minnesota BCA, he worked as a police officer for over 10 years at the Savannah Police Department in Savannah, Georgia. Approximately 8.5 of those years were spent in the capacity of major case investigation, primarily within the homicide unit, with four years spent supervising the homicide unit as a sergeant. Rob has a B.A. in History and B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, and an M.A. in Security Policy Studies from the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

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