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Are we witnessing the ‘lost generation’ of policing?

A significant portion of the policing workforce who entered the profession with the idealistic vision of being servants to their communities are pessimistic about the future of law enforcement

Lone police officer walking in blue night shadows

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Editor’s note: This feature is part of Police1’s Digital Edition, What cops want in 2023, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1’s State of the Industry survey of 4,100 officers about the police recruitment and retention crisis. Download the complete report here.

The results of Police1’s recent “What cops want in 2023” survey, in combination with survey results from past years, are beginning to paint a picture of the collective mindset of today’s policing professionals that is not only concerning but also becoming quite alarming.

There can be little argument that the policing profession is experiencing an intense level of scrutiny which, although not completely unwarranted, is also unprecedented. With each headline story of excessive force or ethical misconduct comes increasing public and political calls for police reform. Reform, in and of itself, is not a bad thing and many leaders around the nation are also embracing this new reform movement.

But the impact of years of criticism and disparagement goes deeper than that, as the survey results show. While those of us in the profession understand that we all tend to get painted with a broad brush, when the paintbrush is used as a weapon to attack the integrity and values of our most visible public servants, the wounds may not heal.

Why cops become cops

One of the most misunderstood aspects of policing is the set of internal motivators that compel a person to enter the policing profession to begin with. Many members of the public presume, inaccurately, that people become cops because they like to arrest people, like guns, like to use authority, or want to make a lot of money. Aside from the last one, some of these presumptions are somewhat understandable.

In reality, however, the internal motivational factors that inspire young people to enter the profession are not only much deeper, but they also have not changed much over time. When asked why they chose law enforcement as a career, 68% of the respondents selected “To help people” as their primary motivator. This was followed closely by “To serve my community” at 62%. These two similar responses far outweighed all other responses to this question and are remarkably consistent with responses to similar questions in past surveys.

Regardless of age, background, or education, this sense of servanthood is the single biggest reason why people become cops. As several respondents commented, “It is a calling.”

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These results also correlate well with the results of the survey questions regarding overall job satisfaction. When asked about overall job satisfaction, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most satisfied, nearly 58% indicated an overall job satisfaction rating of 7 or higher. When asked to select the most important factors that contribute to those ratings, the single highest response category was “serving the community” with 46%.

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To summarize these responses, by overwhelming percentages officers are driven to enter the policing profession by the opportunity to serve and help others, and it is the fulfillment of this value set that keeps these officers motivated and satisfied with their jobs. This is the very lifeblood of the noble profession.

Why, then, does it feel like we are inching farther and farther away from this lifeblood, and closer to life support?

The impact of job de-motivators

Continuing with the results of the P1 survey, there are three significant question outcomes that not only help to explain our current challenges with recruitment and retention but are also predictors of even greater challenges to come.

When asked to identify the least satisfying aspects of their job, respondents focused on a collective set of replies that could possibly be the most significant results in this analysis of the survey. Of the top six replies to this question, five can be negatively associated with the single most important reason why most people become police officers. These five least satisfying aspects of the job (not including leadership concerns) are:

  • The presumption that the police are always wrong
  • Negative comments from citizens
  • Media spotlight, presumably negative
  • Attention from politicians, presumably negative.
  • Serving a community that doesn’t appreciate the police.
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This set of replies should not be taken lightly or dismissed off-handedly as “That’s just the way it is.” Taken in the context of our previous analysis of the survey results and the motivational factors that draw people to the job, they provide a deeper understanding of the most significant issue facing the profession.

By and large, this profession recruits some of the most altruistic and selfless people within society. They are motivated by and draw tremendous satisfaction from, the opportunity to serve and help others. It is the single most important personal value that they bring with them when they join the profession, and it is the common thread that binds many of us together.

Yet these same people are now working in an environment in which the police are often presumed to be wrong, are misunderstood, and are openly criticized by the very citizens and community leaders that they seek to serve. One particular respondent summarized it this way:

“I used to love the job, but all the negativity surrounding the profession has really taken a toll. Especially, because it is vastly unwarranted. Police officers are being used as political pawns and many falsehoods have been put forth and accepted by many as truths.”

The comments from this professional were not isolated observations. Hundreds and hundreds of respondents to the survey took the time to write similar concerns, and their shared sense of desperation at this new “reality” was clearly evident.

Two final question outcomes also show the significance of the “toll” that this is all taking on our police officers. When asked how likely they would be to recommend a career in law enforcement, only 29% indicated that they were likely to do so. Finally, when asked if they were optimistic about the future of law enforcement, 70% of the respondents said that they were not optimistic about the future of law enforcement.

All of this leads to a very troubling set of conclusions: In a relatively short period a significant portion of the policing workforce, the majority of whom entered the profession proudly and with the idealistic vision of being servants to their communities, now are pessimistic about the future of the profession and would not recommend it to others.

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Is this the “lost generation” of policing?

As America emerged from World War I in the 1920s, many Americans found that the impact of the great war had a lasting and profound effect on their life views. Disillusioned and cynical about the values that they had been taught to respect but now feared that they could no longer rely upon, this generation of young people began to question their notions of self-identity and purpose. Best characterized by the artists and writers who fled the United States for Paris in search of a collective set of new ideals, they became known as the “lost generation.”

One of the traditions of American law enforcement is that those who enter the profession have the great fortune to learn from those who have worked, studied and succeeded in it for years. Those senior officers share their knowledge and their skills, but they also share their dedication to the terminal values of the profession, and they model them as if those ideals and values are worthy of the devotion of an entire career. Because they are.

What happens, however, when the majority of a generation of policing professionals no longer embrace those ideals and values without question? What happens when those of that generation become disillusioned and cynical, not from the years of stress and trauma that they have experienced, but from repeated and direct attacks against their core beliefs that essentially say to them, “We don’t trust your motivations and we don’t believe your values”?

For perhaps the first time in the history of American law enforcement we may be witnessing a “lost generation” of policing. A generation who can still remember the sense of honor that they felt when they first put on the badge, and the importance of the legacy that they were about to inherit. Now a generation in which too many members are starting to whisper to themselves, “Was this really worth it?”

The hallmark symptoms of this lost generation of policing are the clear and established survey trends that show that too many members are no longer optimistic about the future or feel that the values that they brought to the job are respected or even important anymore. The most significant warning sign from the lost generation, however, came from the survey comments from many who said, “It’s not a job I can recommend in good conscience.” This is certainly not true for all, but many.

As a profession, we are facing significant challenges related to recruitment and retention. We are trying to address these challenges through a variety of monetary and transfer bonuses. Some of these efforts have shown positive results. But our greater challenge is looming on the horizon. We have at least one generation of officers who are losing faith that the values of servanthood and selflessness are still worth dedicating a career towards. How can we expect our younger and incoming generations of officers to think differently?

Let’s hope that this does not become the legacy of the lost generation. They deserve better.


Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.