Consider retention contracts to stop a flood of resignations

It’s tough out there, so leaders must offer hope

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Chiefs talk resignations | Retention contracts | Drones & protest planning, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

The latest PERF survey on police officer retirement and resignation isn’t as gloomy as one might expect. Even though over a third of responding agencies report higher attrition this year than the same time frame in the previous five years, only 13% of respondents said it was significantly higher. About 13% had lower vacancies, with 45% staying about the same.

As with any study, the results must be considered in the context of the limitations and possible anomalies.

The timing of the study, and the reason for comparing it to this same time period, is that retirements are typically higher as the end of the year approaches and accumulated leave time is in play. Consider, too, that thousands of officers were hired during the COPS Office police recruitment grants spurt of the Clinton crime bill years that are now coming up on their 20- and 25-year service anniversaries and happen to be eligible to retire about now.

It could be that the perception of a hiring and retention crisis is framed more from our personal questioning of why anyone would want to do police work these days.
It could be that the perception of a hiring and retention crisis is framed more from our personal questioning of why anyone would want to do police work these days. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

It could be that the perception of a hiring and retention crisis is framed more from our personal questioning of why anyone would want to do police work these days, rather than more substantial factors and actual numbers.

The "middlers" are struggling

A recent survey reported by Police1 documented reported high levels of anxiety, depression and risk factors for PTSD among officers.

An interesting result of the study was that officers at the highest risk were those in their 5th through 10th years of police service. One presumption is that more veteran officers have seen cycles of support for police wax and wane over their years and expect things to eventually get back to normal. The younger officers either enjoy the challenge while they are still 10 feet tall and bulletproof or anticipate, along with their veteran colleagues, that things will change along their career path. The “middlers” – those with five to 10 years on the job – may find themselves over-invested in a police career with no alternative, or afraid to forfeit promotional opportunities by withdrawing or changing agencies or careers.

Anecdotally, law enforcement leaders report challenges in recruitment, but not all those challenges are due to current anti-police sentiment or doomsday prognostications about the future of the country and its justice system. Many agencies are taking the opportunity to tout police reform and the chance to have an influence on the future as marketing opportunities to attract new and diverse police candidates.

What does hope look like?

Regardless of the numbers and projections, no one doubts that this is an especially unpleasant time to be a police officer, to say the least. Do leaders simply hunker down and ride out the storm along with their officers? They can do better than that. They can offer hope. Consider these what-ifs:

  • What if supervisors and chiefs had individual and very honest conversations with the front-line cops?
  • What if those bearing the brunt of the day's bad news were given the opportunity to suggest one or two things that could make their lives a little easier?
  • What if they were asked very frankly how long they can work under these conditions?
  • What if they had the opportunity to explore other career options in order to make a rational decision about staying in uniformed law enforcement?
  • What if they were offered a plan with a deadline that if by a certain date if certain things hadn’t improved, they would re-evaluate?

Bold leaders may take this approach and put it in writing: here are the things that need to change before December 2021. Examples might be less mandatory overtime, more mental health days off, measurably more public support, or a declaration of support from political leaders. It could be as simple as seeing command staff work a patrol shift or allowing officers more latitude in speaking out.

What would give hope to officers may vary from agency to agency, but if leaders can point to a brighter future and delay retirement or resignation by sincere, intentional listening and goal setting, the profession might keep a few more good people around a while longer.

NEXT: 5 steps to combatting resignations and improving retention

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