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What 1,000 rural LEOs have to say about the state of recruitment, retention and their overall job satisfaction

While rural officers are strained by the same stressors as officers in the cities, they are less unhappy about it


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Police1’s “What Cops Want in 2023” State of the Industry Survey asked officers for their thoughts about the recruiting and retention crisis afflicting law enforcement. Nearly every department in the nation feels the pressure building as they compete for a dwindling pool of applicants. The survey’s results showed that there are more similarities than differences in the way this crisis unfolds, no matter where respondents live or work. It also showed that, while rural officers are strained by the same stressors as officers in the cities, they are less unhappy about it.

First, the basics: Who responded and what are they like?

The largest group of responses came from officers in municipal police departments, in their middle years (between 36 and 55 years of age), who are veteran officers with from 10 to 30 years of service (a total of 66% of respondents). This was the case no matter where the respondents worked.

Respondents as a whole tend to be well educated; while rural officers are more likely to have only a high school education than their urban and suburban peers, nearly 60% of them have some college education and about a third have bachelor’s degrees. (Oddly, at the Ph.D. level, the difference between urban and rural narrowed to a tenth of a percentage point.)

When asked why they chose to work in law enforcement, a large majority of all responding officers (68%) answered “to help people” and “to serve my community” (62%). In general, most officers are (still) male and white, and about a quarter of them are military veterans.

Who are the rural officers who responded?

Nearly 1,000 rural officers responded to the survey, with small but influential differences appearing between them and their urban peers. The majority of overall respondents work for municipal departments (62%), with only 22% working for sheriff’s offices, and bare single-digit responses from tribal, federal or state agencies. Responding rural officers, however, work for sheriff’s offices at more than twice the overall rate, and less than 30% work for municipal departments.

Responses from state and federal agencies are a reminder that “rural’ describes places, not types or sizes: nearly 14% of rural officers who responded work for state agencies (ex. highway patrol or game wardens) - a small number, but more than a 50% increase compared to the overall response.

The how and why of who’s working where

In every discussion of law enforcement’s recruiting and retention crisis, the same topics arise: leadership, media, the public, pay and benefits, tools like hiring bonuses, and so on. This is where the gap between rural and urban officers takes shape.

Rural officers are slightly more likely to cite family tradition or close friends who are officers as reasons they considered the profession. They’re less likely than urban or suburban officers to cite pay, benefits, or job security as a draw.

Signing bonuses had minimal effect on attracting applicants to most agencies; in fact, zero rural officers cited a signing bonus as influencing their decision to accept a job. (Possibly because, for about 90% of the rural officers who answered, the bonus in question was $5000 or less - in some cases, a lot less.) About 30% of urban officers, on the other hand, reported bonuses of $10,000-25,000, enough to help with a move or a down payment on a house. Size does matter sometimes. Tight budgets and small tax bases can make it hard to find extra cash for a new hire.

Recruiting efforts by rural agencies tended to concentrate on one-on-one conversations, and career fairs rather than social media, videos, or dedicated recruiters. Rural departments also report being less than half as likely as urban departments to change requirements for academy graduation. One caveat here: large urban departments often have their own academies, and therefore more control over requirements. Smaller departments depend on academies run by larger ones, and academies run at state level or as part of a community college program. In that case, they have no authority over graduation requirements anyway. Rural departments are also less likely to say they have lowered hiring requirements like fitness standards or prior marijuana use.

Rural officers are far more likely than suburban or urban officers to have worked for multiple agencies. A full third of rural officers have worked for three or more agencies, and another 15% have worked for four or more. There’s likely more than one reason for this, but the simplest is likely to be promotion paths and the availability of specialized positions. In a small department (and most rural officers work in departments with 49 or fewer positions), an officer might have to wait for someone to die or retire to make sergeant, or become a K-9 officer. It’s a lot faster to transfer to a different department with an open position.


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What stressors do rural officers see?

The survey asked officers about stressors in their departments that can lead to attrition, or hiring obstacles. While all respondents are experiencing impacts from short-staffing, rural officers experience those impacts differently.

Rural officers reported short staffing almost as much as their peers from more populated places, but fewer of them reported increases in mandatory overtime or concerns about on-duty safety. In fact, when asked if they are less likely to make traffic stops because of staffing concerns 62% of rural officers disagreed or strongly disagreed, compared to 47% of urban officers.

Fewer rural officers reported increased safety concerns because of staffing levels, as well. Considering that a majority of rural officers also stated their departments only ever had solo officer patrol to begin with, it’s less likely that the officers are unconcerned about the effects of short staffing on officer safety, than that they’re just used to it.

Remembering the small size of many rural agencies, we also cannot assume officers aren’t working overtime, because they report less mandatory OT. A lot of departments in rural areas are so small that they’re exempt from FLSA regulations, and never paid overtime to begin with. They’re not reporting increased response times for calls because their response times have always been long. In many places rural and remote departments have eliminated entire shifts, and have long drives to answer calls anyway.

While rural officers are less likely to report negative effects on retention from poor leadership (although it’s still a pretty big deal at 42%), or a hostile community, they are more likely to be dissatisfied with their pay (42% compared to 29%) and benefits (22% compared to 14%) than urban officers. In fact, other than negative media coverage of police issues, which was cited most often by all respondents as adversely affecting recruiting, “higher pay in other professions” was the largest reason for lagging recruiting in rural areas.

Officers everywhere had similar concerns about two other factors affecting retention: increasing ambush attacks on LEOs, and worsening pensions. However, rural officers were more likely than other respondents to say that positive interactions with community members are stable. They reported fewer problems with citizen complaints, verbal abuse and intrusive filming by the public.

When officers leave, where do they go?

This is possibly the most discouraging part of the survey responses. When officers were asked if they had plans to leave their agencies, the answers were split about equally between yes and no. But when the ones with plans to leave were asked where they are going, the overwhelming majority are leaving the field entirely: 61% are retiring, and another 29% are taking jobs in a completely different field. That’s not sustainable.

What does it all mean?

The survey overall means what most people have been thinking: law enforcement is struggling. Rural officers especially are wrestling with a disconnect between their desire to serve communities they value, and their ability to continue working where they can’t pay their bills.

It’s not all bleakness: rural officers are still more likely to say they are satisfied with their career than not, although the “‘satisfaction gap” between rural and urban officers has narrowed since last year.

By comparison to urban officers, the problems facing rural departments look slightly more fixable. Their relationships with their communities and local media are less fraught, and those are matters least within the control of law enforcement agencies. A focus on skilled and fair leadership, and commitment to bringing pay scales and benefits up to modern standards would go a long way to attracting and keeping quality officers in rural areas.

NEXT: 12 tactical options for surviving a personnel shortage

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.