Trending Topics

Converting officers with 5-10 years of experience into career employees

Let’s decode the data from Police1’s State of the Industry survey to address this critical issue


If you can figure out what attracted officers to your department in the first place, then you have discovered the key to unlocking ways of retaining them.

Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Making career cops | Capitol attack lessons | Prioritizing personnel in 2021, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

I’m fairly certain that when you considered becoming a police chief, the question of, “How do I convert my officers with 5-10 years of experience on the job into career employees?” was not at the top of your list. And yet, if you can successfully find an answer to this question, you will also solve several related issues, like succession planning, job satisfaction and maintaining morale.

Let’s decode some data to see if we can discover an answer to this important question.

Complex question have simple answers

In September 2020, Police1 conducted its first State of the Industry survey that asked officers around the United States a series of questions concerning their attitudes and opinions on the current and future state of policing. Quite a few officers responded to the survey, 4,367 in total, of which 10% of respondents (416 officers) had 5-9 years in law enforcement. (Download the complete survey here.)

In my 17 years of experience as an organizational psychologist, I have discovered that most of the complex questions my clients ask me have simple answers. This question fits into that category, as does the answer.

If you want to figure out how to retain and convert 5- to 10-year officers into career employees, go back to the beginning of their careers. If you can figure out what attracted them to your department in the first place, then you have discovered the key to unlocking ways of retaining them.

Thankfully, Police1 asked a question that helps us in our quest: “Why did you choose law enforcement as a career?”

The top three reasons that this group of officers chose law enforcement as a career were:

1. Wanted to serve my community

2. Challenges of the job

3. Variability of the job.

This is great news for you! Your target employees have told you how to retain them.

Translating data into action items

Let me translate the data into action items for you:

1. Give them continuing opportunities to serve their communities. They want to engage with their community members and know that they are making a positive impact in the lives of the people whom they serve and protect.

2. Give them increasing levels of responsibility. Challenge them to come up with better ways of doing their jobs and give them the training and support they need to be successful.

3. Give them opportunities to change things up. Let them work in different areas during their shifts and their careers at your department.

I know what you are thinking: Coach, that seems too easy. It can’t be as simple as that. Well, chief, it is that easy and that simple. The truth is that our employees are not telling us anything new. In fact, ALL of the 4,367 officers Police 1 surveyed listed these three things as the reasons for joining their departments. And they are not alone in feeling this way.

Understanding employee motivation

In his groundbreaking book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink argued that for jobs like those found in all areas of law enforcement, three elements influence employee motivation: purpose, mastery and autonomy. Pink defines purpose as the desire to do something in service to a cause larger than ones’ self, mastery as the desire to improve at something important and autonomy as the desire to direct one’s own life.

Do those sound familiar? Purpose sounds a lot like serving my community, mastery a lot like challenges of the job and autonomy a lot like the variability of the job. Now, do you see why this is great news? You don’t have to find money to give people raises (although you should always pay your people as much as you can afford). And you don’t have to refurbish your police station or purchase the latest equipment (although you should be budgeting for both of these things every year). Law enforcement has three of the most important employee motivators built into its culture. Your job is to make sure that those motivators are present and that your policies, managers and supervisors are not stifling them.

How do you convert your officers with 5-10 years of experience on the job into career employees? The data says to give them continuing opportunities to serve their communities, ensure that their jobs remain challenging and keep their responsibilities fresh and engaging.

If you need help implementing any of these ideas in your department, feel free to reach out to me. For the past 17 years, I’ve been helping departments of all sizes attract, retain and develop their employees.

NEXT: See more data from Police1’s State of the Industry survey.

Coach Paul Conor, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and management consultant who has been working with law enforcement leaders for more than 20 years. He is a former US Marine infantry officer, who led Marines in combat during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Coach Paul is an award-winning author, California state-certified Team Building Workshop facilitator and former university professor. He is also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department.