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Crisis or bump in the road? 6 takeaways for police leaders from the ‘What cops want in 2023' survey

Over 4,000 officers from rookies to veterans responded to the Police1 State of the Industry survey on recruitment and retention. Here’s what leaders need to know

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Click here to download Police1’s digital edition for in-depth analysis of the State of the Industry survey, including why officers love & hate their jobs, the toxic messaging sabotaging recruitment, and how technology can help with staffing shortages.

Any survey has potential faults, but as a researcher myself (not on this project), I can say that Police1’s third annual State of the Industry survey on the state of policing reveals some solid outcomes.

The essential parts of good survey research are selecting a representative sample of respondents, asking good questions and making interpretations sustainable within the context of the responses. As part of my analysis of the results of the survey (you can make your own analysis), I conclude that by far the most important solution to police recruiting and retention is political and cultural leadership that reestablishes the essential value of law enforcement.

Who took the survey?

Over 4,000 officers from rookies to old-timers responded to the Police1 State of the Industry survey on recruitment and retention. Respondents included rural, suburban and urban officers from a variety of agency types, and roles ranging from patrol to administration and a variety of assignments in between. Agency sizes varied from fewer than 10 officers to over 1000. Over 75% of responding officers have earned college degrees.

Why do officers go or stay?

Top answers for why the respondents chose law enforcement are the areas of helping, serving, variety and challenge of work, and fighting crime. Job security and compensation were cited by fewer than a third of officers. The top three answers to what officers find most satisfying about the job were crime-fighting, relationships with colleagues and community service.

The top three least satisfying things about police work were cited as the presumption that police are wrong, negative citizen comments and poor leadership. Only five percent rated themselves as highly satisfied with their law enforcement career on a scale of 1-10, with an additional 30% rating their career satisfaction at an 8 or 9, with 8 being the most frequently cited satisfaction point. An additional 45% rated their satisfaction in the mid-range between 5-7, leaving about 15% less than thrilled by their law enforcement experience.

Leadership takeaway: Affirmation and concentration on officers’ core values of service and crime fighting should be central to management decisions and mission statements. Money may be the butter, but living out internal values is the bread.

Churning and change

Half of the respondents stated an intention to move to a different law enforcement agency within the next five years, but when comparing to a question about why, 60% said they were planning to retire, 20% looking to make a lateral or promotional move, with the balance pursuing non-law enforcement or other law enforcement related employment but not as a police officer.

Well over half of those answering the query of why they are staying with their agency cite their satisfaction, with fewer citing things like not wanting to relocate or not finding favorable opportunities elsewhere.

Without a history of these questions having been asked over the past few decades, we can’t say if these churning trends are new or not. My experience leads me to believe that this is nothing new. Officers have always moved, sought other opportunities, navigated life changes and looked for greener pastures. I know I have.

Leadership takeaway: At any one time a percentage of your officers are peeking over the fence to see what else is out there. That’s just the nature of the beast, but your “recruiting” efforts should extend to the good folks you already have on board. Keep selling your department to your officers.

Personal recruiting

Over two-thirds of officers responding rated their likelihood of recommending policing to others as a career between 1-5 on a scale where 10 signifies that they would highly recommend the career, a choice made by less than 6%. While a significant majority of officers would not make an effort to actively discourage a person from a law enforcement career, 10% said they would and 30% said that 2020 was the year they started discouraging others from joining. Using a 1-10 scale a little over half of respondents rated their hopes for the future of law enforcement 5 or under.

This is a sad and recent trend, reflecting my personal experience as a cheerleader for a police career that has become muted since covering the Ferguson riots in 2014. Whether this has a significant impact on recruiting, however, is likely not a major concern. When questioned about their influences for choosing a law enforcement career, relatively few of the respondents said it was due to friend or family influences, so for many, it was never a significant factor.

Leadership takeaway: While person-to-person recruiting may not be the national feeder of police recruitment, locally it can be fostered by family days, Explorer and other youth programs, and long-term investment in young people.

Money doesn’t make the world go around

Regarding signing bonuses, only about 15% said it was an influential incentive to join a particular agency. Since this is a recent trend, the numbers aren’t parsed to show what percentage of rookie officers or lateral transfers this represents among the police population, but the general picture is that financial incentives for hiring aren’t the most significant draw to an agency. Location and salary are rated as significant factors.

Although nearly a fourth of respondents were in their current position as a result of a lateral transfer from another agency, 95% were not influenced by a promise of a bonus or hiring incentive. Retention bonuses were not highly rated and were offered to only slightly over 10% of respondents who had gotten one.

Looking back at the things that keep cops being cops, salary and benefits were not insignificant but were not the top vote-getters. Feeling valued and supported and being true to their calling of serving their community and crushing crime were most significant. If policing ever becomes about money, the essence of noble service in law enforcement may be seriously damaged.

Leadership takeaway: Don’t stop fighting for better finances for your officers, but realize that throwing money at recruitment can be only a temporary measure with limited effectiveness.

Low numbers, high impact

Significantly, 90% of officers taking the survey report that their agency is not fully staffed, and nearly 80% say they’ve seen the direct impact of low staffing. A third reported an increase in their overtime work and the same margin reported that low staffing affects their safety with 45% reporting making fewer traffic stops due to a lack of backup officers. Two-thirds of officers report a reduction in training time due to staffing shortages. Almost half report being denied time off requests to maintain shift coverage and a third report being pulled off of specialty assignments to return to patrol. Nearly half of officers note an increase in handling high-priority calls as lower-priority calls take longer to address according to 60% of officers.

From a variety of response choices, it is clear that police agencies are employing a variety of recruitment strategies. These include not only increases in advertising but reductions in qualification standards and police academy requirements. Only 20% of officers express any confidence in these efforts in comparison to the major impediments to attracting candidates. Asked to cite the top three impediments to police recruitment respondents most frequently cited media coverage – cited by nearly 80% of officers, lack of administration support, and police reform legislation including loss of qualified immunity.

Leadership takeaway: Workloads are hard on morale. Adjusting service delivery and using more non-sworn personnel (cheaper and easier to hire) can fill some service gaps to free up officers. Consider alternatives to overtime and leave canceling.

Change is local

The implications for recruitment are to remind us that people who want to choose law enforcement are just like I was when interviewing. “I want to help people” was my answer to the interview question. It was true then, and it remains true today. The negatives reflect the need for validation that those values of services and fighting crime are still highly valued. Nationally, it will take a wave of citizen protests against the anti-law enforcement officials that rose to influence over the past decade. Until that political and cultural change, it is incumbent on local leaders to make individual agencies and officers a source of community pride and camaraderie regardless of national trends in anti-police rhetoric and activism.

The hope for the future of law enforcement is not in the budget, it’s in the hearts and minds of the voting public and police leaders.

Leadership takeaway: The key to keeping officers may be you.


On-demand webinar: The impact of the police recruitment & retention crisis

Our expert panel discusses key insights from Police1's State of the Industry survey on the impact of short staffing, mass retirements and lateral transfers

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.