Roundtable: Predicting the future of police recruitment and retention

Experts interpret the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey and implications for the future law enforcement workforce


This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2021, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. Download the complete report here.

Over 4,000 officers addressed police reform, recruitment and more in Police1's State of the Industry survey.
Over 4,000 officers addressed police reform, recruitment and more in Police1's State of the Industry survey.

Police1’s State of the Industry survey explored how the events of 2020 impacted police officers.

We asked law enforcement professionals to analyze what the results mean for policing and how they can guide recruitment and retention efforts.

Panelists

Police1: Which finding surprised you the most?

Bohn: I am surprised and perhaps saddened that the survey results representing a cross-section of police function, rank and assignment suggests that the current climate has weakened law enforcement’s collective resolve to serve its communities as stated by over 72% of survey respondents.

Cherry: I was most surprised that 48% of the individuals polled do not participate in committees or task forces to research and develop new policies or consider department changes. If opportunities are offered to participate in changing or advancing an agency, why are officers not taking the opportunity to have a role in the transformation but are willing to complain about the outcomes? Passivity, lack of engagement, lack of creative vision and adversity to change could be some of the reasons why policing is in its current predicament.

Cobb: Not necessarily surprising, but a finding everyone should pay close attention to is that almost half of the respondents cited “poor agency leadership” as one of the least satisfying components of law enforcement (this is with 35% of respondents stating their current role is in administration, leadership and supervision). Almost half of law enforcement citing poor police leadership is a significant problem. Police leaders must gain the trust of the officers they supervise, be seen as credible leaders and lead by example. Unfortunately, we find ourselves with administrators that, for whatever reason, the rank and file don’t trust; managers that have no legacy (or worse, a negative one) and erode the very meaning of credibility; and others that never did and still don’t measure up to today’s expectations.

Officers want body-worn cameras and assistance from technology to help them do their jobs better.
Officers want body-worn cameras and assistance from technology to help them do their jobs better.

Dudley: I was most surprised at the answers that I feel certain the public is not aware of, which is that law enforcement professionals may want the same things the public wants. Certainly, police officers want training (95%), they want to be appreciated, they want to carry out policing duties such as serving the community (55%) and conducting investigations (45%) and leave behind to others the superfluous duties they have accumulated along the way. Officers want body-worn cameras (82%) and assistance from technology to help them do their jobs better. They also want assurances that there is transparency in their organizations, as well as with the public, in helping citizenry understand the job they are doing.

Gasparini: Despite the current climate and the challenges cited by officers in the study ‒ particularly as they pertain to lack of media, political and administrative support ‒ roughly 56% of the respondents were somewhat or very satisfied with the job; whereas, roughly one quarter were somewhat or very unsatisfied with the job. Given that this is arguably one of the most challenging moments in the history of American policing, I was expecting a much lower percentage in the job satisfaction category.

I believe that the job satisfaction rate can be explained by other data points that reveal the intrinsic reasons why police officers choose the profession and what officers find most satisfying about their work, i.e., serving their communities and the challenges and variety presented by job tasks. According to the data, these elements are what drive individuals to become officers and, well into their careers, officers are still citing these reasons as the main sources from which they derive satisfaction, so it makes sense that the overall job satisfaction rate is higher than one might anticipate.

Another finding that stood out to me was that roughly 47% of officers agreed and 23% strongly agreed with the statement: “My department’s citizens support police officers.” This reflects the feelings of roughly 70% of the survey respondents, seemingly challenging the “us versus them” narrative.

Police1: How does the current civil unrest shape our interpretation of the data?

Dudley: The same survey should be given in another year to the same respondents to see if opinions differ. Law enforcement has always been the most visible form of government representation and since March 2020, the negative feelings associated with the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place rules and public prohibitions may be associated with the police. Protests regarding elections or civil rights marches always seem to include some anti-police sentiment or aspect. Certainly, law enforcement representatives across the country have heard the message.

Gasparini: Officers are asking for more training in areas which they, we can presume, feel would help them improve job performance and increase favorable outcomes in citizen interactions. These areas also happen to mirror police reform ideals. Some of the top training areas identified by officers included communication skills, de-escalation skills and crisis intervention.

Officers were also asked to rank their top priorities in patrol duties. Here again, we see congruencies with police reform ideals: community policing, responding to emergency 911 calls, general patrol (bike, foot, or vehicle) and investigating violent crimes. Further, when asked to choose two activities from a list of common patrol officer tasks that officers would like to spend more time doing, the top answer was crime prevention followed by a near three-way tie among interacting with the public, training and crime investigation.

In conclusion, there is a significant overlap in ideals between police and reformers depicting alignment toward a common vision and direction for the future. This is the opposite of what is often portrayed in the media. This information must be widely shared to bolster police and community partnerships.

[WATCH: On-demand webinar: What cops want in 2021: Key findings from Police1's State of the Industry survey]

Police1: How do the findings align with previous turbulent times in law enforcement, such as after Ferguson?

Bohn: The survey results suggest that police officers may be fatigued by the mixed messages they often receive from officials and the communities that they serve. It is perplexing that a portion of the public is blaming the police for an increase in crime and civil discord while at the same time blaming them for engaging in proactive policing that inevitably leads to more confrontation.

History has shown us that in these conditions, total crime goes up while police activity effectively decreases as interactions with the public are reduced. Ill-considered measures will often have unintended and negative consequences.

Cobb: What’s happening today is different, so I believe the data is different. Most obvious are the defund the police movement and local governments writing ad hoc reform laws banning police tactics and techniques and trying to influence policy. These aren’t conversations, they’re being implemented around the nation. There were a lot of conversations after Ferguson ‒ but not this time.

Dudley: Since the Ferguson incident, I have felt that law enforcement officers conveyed palpable feelings of frustration that the truth was not being conveyed to the public. Public perception is important and the answers in the survey seem to convey that department policies are not transparent. The public wants policies to be on display on department websites. The least satisfying parts of the job have to do with the negative perceptions from politicians, the public and the media. The majority felt that there were perceptions of officers “always being wrong.”

Police1: What can we learn from the findings to tailor recruitment efforts?

Bohn: An “emotional wave” has swept across the country following nationwide anti-police protests. The perceived aggression toward law enforcement has led to an apparent decline in policing numbers. This gravely impacts public safety and police-community relations as fewer police officers will likely mean an increase in crime. Seventy-five percent of respondents chose law enforcement as a career to serve their community. Half of the respondents indicated serving the public is one of the most satisfying aspects of working in law enforcement. Unfortunately, only approximately 56% of respondents indicated experiencing overall job satisfaction.

Cherry: I see several considerations from the data regarding improving recruitment efforts:

  • Do not have 10+ year male officers conduct modern, progressive recruitment efforts (as 85% of the study was male and 56% of those polled would not recommend a career in law enforcement).
  • Focus on attracting new applicants through relational policing and crime reduction methods.
  • Diversify law enforcement with additional underrepresented groups.
  • Potentially a young workforce is not a negative point, as they are entering law enforcement when such things as community involvement/oversight, body-worn cameras and community-based police engagement are normalized. Therefore, attrition of 10+ year officers and retirements may be the way to change the face of the policing industry and leave room for new creative and innovative policing strategies.

Cobb: Almost all research points to “purpose.” Look at how the respondents answered, “Why did you choose law enforcement as a career?" Seventy-five percent selected to serve the community, 52% selected variability of the job and 48% picked the challenges of the job. Take those three topics and tailor to your department ‒ there’s your recruiting message. Then dive a little deeper: many respondents may not have chosen law enforcement because of pay and benefits, but they may have settled with a certain agency because it had the best of one or both.

Start with the purpose and fulfillment of a career in law enforcement, then follow up with selling your specific agency. If you have Mayberry, sell Mayberry. If you have the beach, the best schools, the highest pay or cheapest healthcare, sell it.

Gasparini: The first step to tailoring recruitment efforts is to look at the data and to derive an understanding of why police officers are reluctant to recommend the profession to youth. Additionally, if policing professionals are not optimistic about the future of the field, we cannot expect them to represent the profession to prospective officers in its best light. 

Themes that emerged from the data about current officers’ lack of optimism toward the future of the profession reveal one simple reality: policing has suffered a significant image problem in the media and society at large. The gross mischaracterization and maligning of the profession by some pundits, news outlets, politicians and celebrities have not only taken a dire toll on officers but have significantly impacted how police are viewed by would-be candidates.

To tailor and improve recruiting, we must identify effective means to push forth the truth and balance the errant and pervasive narratives that are pummeling officer morale and, in turn, negatively impacting recruitment.

Police1: What can we learn from the findings to tailor retention efforts?

Bohn: Retention efforts should address our policing culture and provide officers with the tools to prevent misconduct, avoid police mistakes, increase community engagement, and promote officer health and wellness. Respondents’ have a desire for and recognize the value of training on de-escalation, crisis intervention and communications.

Cobb: That we haven’t lost everyone, but if things don’t change, we might be in trouble.

Dudley: Retention efforts can start with an emphasis on giving law enforcement officers the best training, technology and equipment to do the basic policing tenets: To serve the community, to do prevention policing and to investigate crime. Rather than resist any movement to take some duties from police, agencies should embrace the help and give some duties to other departments that are best suited to address. Respondents want to see animal-related calls for service (87%), finding shelter for the homeless (93%), handling nuisance complaints (64%), handling disputes (53%) and addressing calls involving mental illness (45%) handled by other agencies; 70% want to see crisis intervention teams respond to calls involving the mentally ill.

Police1: What do the findings show police want for the future of law enforcement?

Bohn: We can learn from the survey results that law enforcement leaders, practitioners and subject matter experts must educate elected officials and the public we serve regarding best practices and the current training standards that exist for our law enforcement officers. Police officers need clear guidance.

Cherry: The 1- to 10-year officer is the future of law enforcement, as they are re-shaping what policing is and will become. This survey solidified that change is difficult, particularly for mid-career officers. The future of law enforcement will be driven by officers who are engaged in building community partnerships and actively making internal change, community stakeholders, societal influences and the courts.  

Cobb: The future needs strong leadership that the rank-and-file trusts to do the right thing. We need advocacy in the community reigning in radical presumptions and knee-jerk proposals and resolutions. Other than 66% of the respondents voting in elections, advocacy efforts were unremarkable. I understand officers not personally advocating, but we can support the various groups that support us. We can engage the power players in our communities, explaining where we’re at and what we need and find out what the community needs. Most departments don’t need local businesses catering lunch, we need those business owners engaging the local government. The community may not need police to set up a popcorn and slushy stand, they may need someone to sit between gang leaders and try to figure out how we're going to stop the killings. The future of law enforcement calls for getting back to the basics of American policing where our focus is on making our communities safer.

Dudley: The future of law enforcement depends on improving communication and bonds with the community. Law enforcement career emphasis should be on the primary functions of serving the community, stopping crime and investigations. Training, technology and confidence should be placed high on the list of priorities of the next recruitment phase for tomorrow’s law enforcement officers (95% wanted priority in training funding, 82% wanted body-worn cameras and 74% wanted facial recognition technology). 

Respondents expressed the need for more transparency, better communication and more support. Ninety percent of officers want continued support in qualified immunity while doing their job, 58% wanted to keep "no-knock" warrants and nearly 75% did not like the idea of mandatory verbal warnings before a firearm discharge. The public should be given reasons to understand why those are necessary for the safety of the officer.

Officers had no problem with de-escalation techniques and 70% agreed with compensation to be provided for officers to live in the communities that they serve.

Police1: What finding are you most optimistic about?

Bohn: While the emotion our profession feels is real, we must always be mindful that law enforcement is a noble profession. I am certain that law enforcement leaders will meet the current challenges and challenges ahead. The first responsibility of those who govern is public safety and law enforcement is critical to ensuring that safety.

Cherry: I am optimistic that 10+ year officers are open to some progressive policy changes, i.e., alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of minor crimes/or first-time offenders, patrol officers equipped with a body-worn camera, police department policy posted on the department website and a ban on respiratory chokeholds. I think the responses of “some support” and “full support” show that policing attitudes are creeping toward the acceptance of some change.

Cobb: That 83% of the respondents have 10 to 30+ years in the profession. So much time and so many resources have been spent recruiting and hiring since 2008-2009. I think we tend to write off our 10-, 20- and 30-year veterans as burnt out with bad attitudes and retired on duty. This shows that officers from 10 years of service to 30-plus years of service still care and want their voices heard. And that they haven’t given up.

Dudley: I am most optimistic about the finding on the background of the respondents. More than 82% possess an associate, bachelor's, master's, or higher degree. I believe the number will increase over time, showing a progression toward a better-educated law enforcement profession.

Gasparini: I am most optimistic about all of the findings that indicate an aligned vision for the future between police officers and their communities. The data shows police officers are prioritizing training areas geared toward community policing objectives to include improvement of communication and de-escalation skills and crisis intervention training.

The data also shows crime prevention and interaction with the public at the top of the list of activities in which officers would like to spend more time not only training but engaging during their workday. The fact that officers are for these community-oriented principles; the fact that serving the community remains the top reason people are drawn to the profession; and the fact that serving the community remains the top reason for job satisfaction overall should hearten community members, reformers and critics alike.

About the panel

From L-R: Scott L. Bohn, Officer Terry Cherry, Sergeant Matt Cobb, James Dudley and Janay Gasparini, Ph.D.
From L-R: Scott L. Bohn, Officer Terry Cherry, Sergeant Matt Cobb, James Dudley and Janay Gasparini, Ph.D.

Scott L. Bohn is executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. He previously served as police chief for the West Chester Police Department from 1999-2020, having joined the agency in 1986.

Officer Terry Cherry has been with the Charleston Police Department for 8½ years and currently serves as the agency’s recruiter. In her role as a recruiter, she developed a five-year recruitment strategic plan in compliance with the department’s racial bias audit and developed quantitative measures to track the plan’s success.

Sergeant Matt Cobb has served with the Topeka Police Department for 13 years. He currently is the lead instructor for and administers the Topeka Police Academy.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has a master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the criminal justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., is a proud former police officer who served as a police instructor, FTO and crime scene technician. Gasparini has taught collegiate criminal justice courses since 2009 and is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2021, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 4,000 officers about police reform, recruitment and more. Download the complete report here.

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