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What young officers truly desire from their career, written by a truly young officer

By acknowledging our desire for purpose, professional development, community engagement and work-life balance, departments can attract and retain the best young professionals


A desire for meaningful community engagement is a defining characteristic of young police officers.

Leon Nguyen/hnguyen

Becoming a member of the law enforcement profession is a significant decision many young people make who are in pursuit of a rewarding and meaningful career filled with adrenaline and experiences like no other.

Understanding what the next generation of officers want from their career is crucial for agencies to be able to attract, retain and support these enthusiastic individuals who wish to serve and protect their communities.

Let’s delve into the key desires new officers harbor as they embark on their professional journey:

Purpose and impact – it’s much more than the salary

Young professionals, just like me, who express interest in a policing career crave responsibilities that provide them with a strong sense of purpose and the opportunity to make a positive, lasting change. We want to contribute to the safety and well-being of our communities, often motivated by a genuine desire to help others and embark on unique problem-solving journeys each day we suit up. We seek a career where our actions matter and where we can witness the tangible difference we make in people’s lives. The desire to want to help others may sound cliché, but for me and many others, it’s an authentic desire we feel called to act on.

Trust and transparency – they’re buzzwords, but that’s because they’re important

Transparency and trust are crucial for young police officers. We desire a work environment that fosters open communication and accountability. Building trust within the community and among our colleagues, especially our leaders, is of utmost importance to us. If we sense even the smallest amount of distrust between us and our community or our leaders, we will make overt efforts to correct it.

Law enforcement’s previous paramilitary-like structure does not work for us. We want to see transparent policies, procedures and decision-making processes within our department, and we want our leaders to mirror the same strong work ethic that we have. “Because I said so” isn’t going to help you retain young talent. We like to ask for both personal and professional advice and talk about our lives outside of work with our colleagues whom we feel we have a connection with, so that may mean speaking with the “higher-ups” not in the linear “go up the chain of command” style that the law enforcement culture has focused on for decades.

Leaders need to let this happen. This transparency and openness ensure fairness, equity and a strong ethical foundation for us to grow into prosperous public servants and build life-long relationships.

Because the policing profession is such a tight-knit family, our veteran colleagues and leaders are what we will become – just as a child learns character and ethics from their parent. Leaders need to cater to those relationships and offer a workplace that supports a mutual feeling of trust where healthy relationships are a primary objective.

Professional development – our college degrees are valuable to us, as extra training

Young police officers have a strong appetite for professional growth and development. We desire comprehensive training programs that equip us with the necessary skills and knowledge to handle the complexities of modern policing. Continuous education and training opportunities, including specialized courses, leadership programs and mentorship initiatives, are of high value to us. Such avenues allow us to stay up to date with evolving practices, foster career advancement, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves as public servants and of the community we serve.

You will notice that we opt in for additional responsibilities within our organizations as we value a breadth of knowledge and experience that go beyond our responsibilities as a new patrol officer. We value advanced education and earning collegiate degrees that add a theoretical foundation of knowledge to our practical ideas of policing, which add value to the academic theory-to-practice approach to 21st-century policing and leadership. We like to ask “Why?” and we don’t have ulterior motives for it. As we professionally develop, we will closely mirror the career paths and decision-making of those we admire, and asking “Why?” builds our mindsets and helps us develop our decision-making processes and solution-crafting capabilities. When we ask, we can connect the dots on why our leaders do what they do, and we feel that sense of trust strengthening.

Community engagement – we know from our predecessors that this is our bread and butter

A desire for meaningful community engagement is a defining characteristic of young police officers. We wish to establish strong relationships with the public we serve, aiming to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community, especially those communities that have an inherent distrust of law enforcement. We understand the importance of building trust and mutual respect, and we actively seek opportunities to engage with community members, schools and local organizations to make meaningful, career-long relationships. We value community policing approaches that prioritize collaboration, problem-solving and prevention over reactive measures. When we ask to be a part of an event or create a new program, say yes and help us build it. The flexibility and desire we have to try new things only benefit the department as a whole. If you as a leader are nervous about a new program’s success, call it a pilot project and learn from its unintended consequences just as much as you learn from his accomplishments.

Work-life balance and well-being – it’s not that we don’t like to work, it’s that we value our time

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is vital for young police officers, and that’s not unique to just young police officers. It’s a generational phenomenon. We want a career that supports our personal well-being, allowing us to have fulfilling lives both inside and outside of work. Organizations that prioritize the mental health and well-being of their officers, offer support systems and provide resources for stress management and resilience-building are highly attractive. We’re going to work hard while at work, but you may notice that filling overtime shifts or asking for volunteers may be more difficult with younger officers. It’s nothing bad – we just have established boundaries with our careers and we’re better at saying “no” so that our personal lives are more nourishing.

If you notice that your younger folks are leaving, take the hint. It’s usually not a mere coincidence. Your young officers are leaving because you as a leader haven’t fulfilled one or more of these beliefs and they found a better culture elsewhere. This is ever-so clear in today’s day of lateral transfers. It’s becoming easier and easier to leave one’s current agency and go work for an agency that better aligns with one’s personal and professional values. In fact, people are being individually recruited by other agencies to come and join their teams.

By acknowledging our desire for purpose, trust, professional development, community engagement and work-life balance, departments can create an environment that attracts and retains the best young professionals. In doing so, we empower the next generation of police officers to serve with dedication, integrity and a strong sense of purpose, ensuring safer and more harmonious communities for all.

NEXT: What young cops want (and what police leaders can do about it)

Hunter Panning is a police officer and newly appointed School Resource Officer in a suburb city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hunter sparked an interest in police culture and leadership while studying for his Master of Public Administration – Organizational Leadership & Change Management degree. Hunter has interests in multiple areas of policing, including improving the role of the Public Information Officer and examining the relationship between strategic public information release and a community’s sense of trust, as well as peer support and officer wellness programs, improving the role of the School Resource Officer, and the implementation of drone use in public safety. Hunter believes that the police profession brings challenging and complex human dynamics to organizations and only the brightest leaders should be charged with influencing the cultures and leading the organizations.