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Dealing with toxic messages that sabotage police recruitment

Data from Police1’s “What Cops Want in 2023” survey shows law enforcement in conflict with itself on the question of how to channel negative feelings and contemporary realities

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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.

By Dr. Charles Scheer

As we near the 20-year anniversary of the publication of “Cop Crunch,” a joint PERF and DOJ report that was one of the first to identify the persistent challenges of police recruitment, it remains to be seen if the intensity of the recruitment dilemma is being alleviated. [1]

From water-cooler conversations to college recruitment fairs to police executive conferences, recruiting is on the minds of most police professionals, and for good reason: whereas earlier recruitment efforts focused on minority and women applicants, agencies now fret that their applicant pool has dried up, even permanently, as Sergeant Matt Cobb of the Topeka Police Department lamented, “our applicant pool has become an applicant puddle.” [2]

The negative implications of this crisis have affected the psyche of police professionals. A narrative has developed, one proclaimed by news media, that there are no interested applicants at all in this era of embattled police, and “our Republic is dying” as a result, according to one respondent to Police1’s “What Cops Want in 2023” survey. [3]

These strong messages contradict research that shows that as many young people are interested in law enforcement careers as are not. [4] Still, anecdotal interpretations of the state of the profession and hiring are critically important to recognize and process. Despite two-thirds of respondents to Police1’s “What Cops Want in 2023” survey having over a decade of experience in the profession, or that the majority are nearing retirement, these are messages that need to be heard and utilized in the right way to inform future generations of police officers, who incidentally are out there, waiting to be recruited.

Our own worst enemy

The data from the Police1 survey shows law enforcement in conflict with itself on the question of how to channel negative feelings and contemporary realities.

In the open-ended responses to the question about actively discouraging potential recruits from pursuing a badge, there are strongly divergent responses regarding how officers may or may not actively discourage interested individuals from pursuing careers in police work.

On the whole, respondents stated that they do not actively discourage (59%), but in open-ended responses, it appears that the message “stay away” is nonetheless communicated strongly and forcefully. According to the data, this sabotage of recruitment occurs predominantly in one-on-one conversations, and in school and college environments (which, as one who has made such opportunities available to countless agencies, is disheartening to me).

Experienced officers stated that it is their duty to communicate “how bad it is,” “to reconsider their choice,” “focusing on the negative when I used to focus on the positive,” “their health is so much better when they stay out of law enforcement,” “thankless and currently the most hated profession,” “to look for better opportunities,” “it sucks,” “the stress is not worth it,” “try and talk them out of it,” “stay far away,” “it has ruined good people,” “it ruins your faith in humanity,” “if there is anything else in life you want to do, go do that,” “advise them to look elsewhere or face prison time for doing their job as trained,” “discourage recruitment,” “find something else to do,” “tell them it’s shit,” “apply to a different department,” “they’re going to ruin their life,” “pick a more satisfying career,” “it’s not worth doing,” and “do I really need to explain it.” [3]

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These responses and many others arise from a national sample of agencies representative of the diversity of department size, location, and jurisdictional character that exists across the country. In nearly every open-ended response (number of responses = 4,141), the consequences of the current climate are evident. One gets the impression that, despite the best intentions of our recruitment efforts, if these attitudes are communicated so aggressively, we will become our own worst enemy in this crisis.

I see this phenomenon occur first-hand in different contexts. As a college professor, I watch helplessly as undergraduate students’ enthusiasm for police careers is often crushed, reversed, or transformed into a decision not to become a sworn officer. This is a particularly difficult moment as I am a professor who is currently sworn, and who genuinely understands these negative perspectives yet chooses to promote the positive features of a career that I understand is less a choice but a “calling” (I became a sheriff’s deputy after 9/11).

I also see this phenomenon when, as an adjunct academy instructor, I ask cadets if they have been dissuaded from being police officers by sworn officers, even within the department that hired them. Lately, you’ll see nearly every hand in the room raised. An unfortunate assessment is provided by one recruit who, while a month from graduation from an academy on the east coast, stated “It’s sad because I had five or six of my friends who wanted to go into this career and were serious about it. They were in the Explorers program with me, took criminal justice classes in high school and college but were turned away when other officers told them to stay away from it.” [5]

We can surmise that the Police1 survey respondents above are not lashing out at the survey questionnaire writers, ambiguous civilians or the public, or future recruits. They’re angry at what they perceive as an unjust and unsupportive apparatus of policy makers, police administrators, media and politicians – a crowd of invisible faces that have consistently road-blocked their efforts and thus dishonored the profession. Policing, says one respondent, is “in transition,” meaning that the “good old days are not returning.” [3] But this can be as much a lament for the 10-plus year veteran as it is an exciting opportunity for the 19- to 21-year-old enthusiastic recruit.

Reaching the enthusiastic generation

Frustrated cops at the midway point of their careers will naturally “speak the truth” (whichever truth they feel), and that’s a good thing, because police leaders and managers have an obligation to these people to hear their concerns in a manner that telegraphs that their organization cares.

What is immediately concerning is that these voices, however legitimate, jeopardize recruitment efforts that are wholly consuming many police agencies. The greatest irony of all – and a slightly humorous one – from the Police1 survey responses are the countless complaints about understaffing. (With attitudes like those above displayed to recruits, it’s easy to see how that can occur.)

But the overarching feeling one gets from this dilemma is how best to grapple with the frustrated generation when the enthusiastic generation is waiting in the wings. Here are some ideas:

1. Have a robust wellness program
Let’s stop talking about employee burnout as if it’s a secret, when caring for those who suffer from it is a critical feature of employee wellness. Indicate to an aspiring cop that “this agency cares” by having a robust wellness program, made available to those who may feel as if their day-to-day efforts are futile, to remedy burnout.

Agencies should have a practical support system for employees reaching burnout and be able to assist with legitimate employee grievances at all levels beyond an ambiguous “open door policy” and the requisite chain of command.
If a peer support program is too costly, consider external stakeholders.

Every toxic survey response detailed above could have been followed up with a statement about how much the department recognizes and cares that officers feel that way and are doing something about it. This is a cornerstone strategy in Mark Murphy and Andrea Burgio-Murphy’s “The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention”: listening deeply and not superficially. [6]

2. Discuss the realities of police work
We need an open dialogue between recruits and experienced officers, including administration, employees at different positions, peer support services and other entities, regarding the importance of communicating the “realities of the career” and how this difficult conversation has changed over time.

As a professor, I have a local agency conduct a “realities of police work” session that focuses on tactical realities, but those are not the only gritty facts of the career these days. They are matched equally by changing personal and emotional viewpoints, attitudes toward the public they are sworn to protect, and feelings of practical support from distant politicians that can produce negative reactions of helplessness and regret.

Don’t hide these things from young people, but don’t make them the centerpiece of every interaction a recruit has during a ride along or casual discussion. Communicate them in a structured, informed, and mature manner so that the “sugar coating” is eliminated but the attitudes of negativity are mitigated by an understanding of where they come from.

3. Reconnect burned-out officers

Utilize the officers who feel distant from their original intentions to become officers in a positive way.

An agency I once worked with on a training idea utilized middle managers, many of whom had never been asked to perform formal training tasks, to mentor up-and-coming sergeants. The reaction went quickly from “why am I being asked to do this” to pride in participation once the program was established as a central part of the agency’s training culture.

The persons who responded to the questions above can, under specific guidance and in structured environments, use their voices as a message of change and reconnect with their ability to uplift future leaders. That’s a lasting legacy we can all live with.

In no way do I feel the person who voices perpetual dismay, dissatisfaction and complaint about the direction of the profession should be made the centerpiece of any agency’s recruitment effort, but I don’t think they should be hidden from view either. As this population grows and those nearing retirement become more vocal, police leaders need to recognize and navigate the challenge of having these opinions voiced while simultaneously engaging those interested in being sworn officers. One respondent to the survey reflected, “as I was once told and now experiencing, it is truly a calling.” Providing a voice to the valuable people who have traveled the path from hopeful to (often painfully) aware can reinvigorate the workforce, strengthen cross-generational relationships in the workplace, and demonstrate to recruits that your agency truly cares about all employees.


1. Taylor B, et al. (2005.) Cop Crunch: Identifying Strategies for Dealing with the Recruiting and Hiring Crisis in Law Enforcement. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum/US Department of Justice.

2. Cobb M. (October 2018.) Police Career Expectations of Today’s Criminal Justice Students: Results of a Five-University Survey. Orlando, FL: International Association of Chiefs of Police briefing.

3. Police1. (2023.) What Cops Want in 2023. Unpublished open-ended survey responses.

4. Scheer C, et al. (2018.) Interest in Patrol Careers: An Assessment of Potential Candidates’ Impressions of the Police Recruitment, Selection, and Training Processes [Technical Report]. Hattiesburg, MS: The University of Southern Mississippi, School of Criminal Justice, Forensic Science, and Security.

5. Anonymous conversation with police recruit, May 22, 2023.

6. Murphy M, Burgio-Murphy A. (2023.) “The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention.”

About the author

Dr. Charlie Scheer is an associate professor of Criminal Justice at The University of Southern Mississippi. His research specializations are in police workforce management, police training and police legitimacy. His research has been published in “Police Quarterly,” “Policing: An International Journal” and “Justice Research and Policy.” He has provided briefings and testimony at academic and professional conferences such as the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement & Administration of Justice, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Annual Conference, FBI National Academy Associates and Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) Conference on recruitment and retention. He also is a sworn sheriff’s deputy.