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The new era of law enforcement: Civilianization

Creating civilian positions in key areas will bridge current vacancies and provide a fiscally responsible way to meet the needs of the communities we protect and serve


Although policing has struggled to fill vacant positions for years, there has been little innovation to fill them in alternative ways.

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

Article highlights

  • Police agencies in the U.S. are grappling with a severe shortage of sworn personnel, with only 70% of positions filled, due to recent unrest, the pandemic, and new laws.
  • A survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) revealed that 78% of agencies are struggling to recruit qualified police officers, with 75% finding recruiting even more challenging than five years ago.
  • Declining trust in law enforcement, exacerbated by high-profile incidents, is hindering agencies’ ability to attract and retain police officers, prompting a need for innovative solutions.
  • The future of policing is expected to become increasingly administrative, with opportunities to deploy unarmed community service/safety-type officers for non-hazardous situations.
  • A growing trend of civilianization in law enforcement involves hiring civilian investigators, commanders, and leaders from diverse backgrounds to bridge staffing gaps, reduce costs, and enhance community service.

By Deirdre Rockefeller-Ramsey

Police agencies in the U.S. consist of more than a million total employees, with sworn personnel making up approximately 70%, and civilian professional staff making up the remaining 30%. [1] But departments nationwide are suffering from high vacancy rates due to recent civil unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic and new legislation.

In September 2019, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conducted a survey of agencies in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the sworn staffing crisis and its impacts. The survey showed a staggering 78% of agencies reported difficulty recruiting qualified candidates for police officers, 65% had too few candidates applying, and 75% reported recruiting is more difficult today than it was five years ago. [2] The IACP also found 50% of responding departments had to change policies to increase their chances of gaining qualified applicants, and 25% had to reduce or eliminate certain services, units or positions due to staffing difficulties. A national survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in June 2021 showed agencies across the country were, on average, seeing a 7% vacancy rate for police officers. [3]

With recent high-profile incidents and civil unrest, trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low, [4] which also has a direct effect on agencies’ ability to recruit and retain police officers. Thus, departments should look outside the box and more closely at what roles could be filled with civilian staff. Filling roles this way will help bridge the gap in vacancy rates and preserve sworn staff for areas where police powers are required, such as patrol. Professional civilian staff can instead fulfill duties that are nonhazardous but traditionally filled by sworn staff. [5] In doing this, departments can realize significant budget savings. They will also create career pathways and promotions for professional staff that increase the retention of institutional knowledge and overall effectiveness of the agency.

The future of policing

Law enforcement is changing. In California, more bills are enacted related to police reform every year, and agencies must find ways to comply with the administrative workload while often operating below staffing minimums. Many California agencies are implementing mandatory overtime to staff patrol, which typically means specialty assignments, such as investigators, forensics and crime scene investigators, will go unfilled. If these trends continue, the future of policing will become even more heavily administrative as more technology is rolled out to assist in the gathering, processing, storing and releasing of data.

So what implications will this have for the future of policing? Law enforcement leaders need to take a hard look at what duties actually need police powers – the reality that many don’t, which creates an opportunity for change. Life-threatening emergencies only make up roughly 18%-34% of 911 calls that would require the presence of an armed police officer. [6] It has been argued in recent years that putting armed officers on calls where they aren’t needed has contributed to distrust in the police from communities of color, those with mental health issues and those who have been disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. [6] It is also widely believed that it’s common for police officers to fire their guns, but in reality, only about 27% of officers have ever fired their weapons on the job. [7] This could be used to justify answering some field calls with unarmed community service/safety-type officers. [8] Hiring these positions, which are traditionally easier to recruit and retain and cost significantly less, could help supplement the vacancies on patrol.

Within departments, positions in investigations are usually held open so officers can staff patrol, which has a direct impact on the ability to investigate crime and arrest perpetrators. In response, departments such as those in Phoenix and Baltimore are moving to hire civilian investigators to help move cases forward in the face of severe staffing shortages. [9,10] In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the police department hired a San Francisco-based consultant to do a personnel study, resulting in a 211-page report that recommended hiring only 11 more sworn positions but 116 civilian positions. This was predicated on the transition of some sworn positions to civilian staff. Without transitioning, it would need 133 sworn and only 27 civilian positions. [11] The budget difference in this makeup would cost the taxpayers of Milwaukee a pretty hefty sum; on average, sworn salaries can cost upward of 50% more than civilians’. The report was released in January 2023, so it is still too early to see what Milwaukee does in response to the recommendations.

Civilian commanders are also trending in law enforcement agencies. These positions are usually part of the executive command team and typically oversee the divisions with the largest number of civilian staff. This includes positions such as dispatch, records, property and evidence, finance, policy/accreditation, human resources and forensics. In Syracuse, New York, Mayor Ben Walsh’s 2023 budget proposal would create a civilian commander responsible for overseeing department reform. [12] This position would be equal in authority to other commanders, including deputy chiefs. In the United Kingdom, a direct-entry program allows civilians with no background in law enforcement to enter policing at different ranks, such as inspector, superintendent and chief constable. [13] These ranks, compared to U.S. ranks, would fall between lieutenant/commander, commander/captain and chief. [14]

This program aimed to recruit individuals from outside law enforcement who could enter these leadership roles and bring with them experience and perspectives from diverse backgrounds to support the development of policing. [13] The program would put these individuals through an intense training program (18 months for the superintendent rank) geared at getting them familiar with the law enforcement profession. After the first five years of its implementation, an evaluation of its effectiveness concluded it could work on an expanded scale and that the skills brought in from previous careers were beneficial. [13] Throughout California, many civilian commander positions are being recruited to bring a different perspective to the decision-making and direction of their agencies. These positions create promotional opportunities for civilian staff, which in turn create retention, reduce the loss of institutional knowledge from “rotational” positions, help alleviate burnout, distribute the workload and keep service to the community at the forefront.

Knowing all of this, what should police leaders do today?

Solution: Transition to hiring more civilian staff

Recruitment and retention are a massive challenge to law enforcement agencies nationwide. One key factor contributing to that could be generational issues. Generation Y (a.k.a. millennials) are between the ages of 26 and 41, and Generation Z is between the ages of 10 and 25. Both these generations make up the target age range for applicants who become entry-level police officers. There are many studies on generational differences and how leaders must understand their employees to manage them effectively. Generations Y and Z, above all, want employers who care about their well-being. This differs from Generation X, who thinks the organization’s ethical leadership is the essential characteristic.

Generation Y also thinks open and transparent leadership is essential, as well as diversity and inclusion of all people. [15] This shows that if command doesn’t shift from its traditional paramilitary model, it runs the risk of losing or never hiring Generation Y and Z officers. It also risks creating burnout with mandatory overtime and constantly holding specialty positions open. Generation Y and Z might try out law enforcement as a career to see if they like it, then happily move on to another profession where they feel valued and not burned out.

Another threat to law enforcement agencies in California is the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) of 2013 and its impact on the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). This act created the ability to jump from agency to agency if one chooses with no consequences except a new seniority date, creating significant movement all over California and contributing to higher-than-normal vacancy rates. Agency loyalty now seems to be a thing of the past. Concerns regarding PEPRA retirement salary caps, limited medical plans and an additional seven years of employment before hitting retirement age are also concerns facing Generation Y and Z compared to their classic partners.

The president of an officers’ association for a Bay Area police department spoke about the impact of PEPRA on recruitment and retention. He believes police officer staffing is the next state of emergency. The vacancies faced by departments in the Bay Area number 3,000-4,000, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Officers used to stay at an agency for 30 years, but now they aren’t. This leader also believes agencies must start thinking outside the box and offering perks such as rotating schedules by seniority, sleep “hotels” for those with long commutes and in-house meal services. [16]

Since PEPRA employees are typically going to be Generation Y or Z members who have potentially grown up in the Bay Area and its unique environment, they may have friends or family working at companies that offer such perks. These perks draw candidates away from law enforcement as a career choice. These kinds of radical changes are usually a hard sell for government agencies or can take a lot of time and expense to implement. This means that without change, vacancies will continue to rise if we don’t start thinking outside the box.


Although policing has struggled to fill vacant positions for years, there has been little innovation to fill them in alternative ways. Transitioning to professional staff managers can start today if the leader follows these simple steps:

  • Assess the vacancy rate in specialty positions to identify if civilian staff with specialized training can mitigate the workload.
  • Assess the executive command staff to see if civilian-led divisions can be implemented to create promotional opportunities for the professional staff and retain institutional knowledge.
  • Talk to city/county leadership about funding some nontraditional methods of recruitment and retention. Solutions should aim to both target current employees and attract new ones, aligning with the values of Generation Y.

With the projected trend of vacancy rates in the sworn ranks and the varying causes behind it, law enforcement leaders need to start thinking differently about providing essential services. Creating civilian positions in key areas will bridge current vacancies and provide a fiscally responsible way to meet the needs of the communities we protect and serve. The future of policing in California shows no slowing down when it comes to more legislation, and the fallout of that is administrative workload. Agencies should start preparing now to add to their staffing in the form of civilian personnel.

Topics for discussion

1. Innovative recruitment strategies: Given the challenges in recruiting police officers, what innovative strategies can law enforcement agencies employ to attract qualified candidates, especially from younger generations like Millennials and Generation Z who have different expectations and values?

2. Civilianization in policing: What are the advantages and potential drawbacks of transitioning non-hazardous roles traditionally held by sworn officers to civilian staff? How can agencies strike a balance between maintaining public safety and reducing costs through this approach?

3. Future of policing: As law enforcement faces increasing administrative demands and staffing shortages, what steps can police leaders take to adapt to this changing landscape? How can technology and community involvement play a role in shaping the future of policing while maintaining public trust?


1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (September 2023.) Occupational Outlook Handbook: Police and detectives.

2. International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2020.) The state of recruitment: A crisis for law enforcement.

3. Police Executive Research Forum. (June 2021.) PERF Special Report: Survey on police workforce trends.

4. Ortiz A. (August 2020.) Confidence in police is at record low, Gallup survey finds. New York Times.

5. Elkins FC. (September 2021.) Civilian personnel: A departmental force multiplier. Community Policing Dispatch.

6. Irwin A, Pearl B. (October 2020.) The community responder model. Center for American Progress.

7. Morin R, Mercer A. (February 2017). A closer look at police officers who have fired their weapon on duty. Pew Research Center.

8. Ruiz J. (August 2022.) Civilians, not officers, could soon respond to certain police calls in Long Beach. Long Beach Post News.

9. City of Phoenix. (March 2022.) Phoenix police create new opportunities for civilians.

10. Quaranta C. (June 2022.) The Baltimore Police Department is hiring civilian investigators: Who will they be? Baltimore Banner.

11. Hughes E. (January 2023.) Milwaukee police staffing study stresses civilianization, addressing disparities. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

12. Libonati C. (April 2022.) Syracuse mayor Ben Walsh wants civilian to carry out reform from inside police department.

13. Campbell I, Colover S. (July 2020.) Direct Entry Superintendent programme. College of Policing.

14. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Police ranks of the United Kingdom.

15. O’Boyle E. (March 2021.) 4 things Gen Z and millennials expect from their workplace. Gallup.

16. Anonymous. (April 2023) PEPRA Implications Discussion.

About the author

Deirdre Rockefeller-Ramsey is business manager and acting records manager for the Fremont Police Department in California.