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How one department moved the needle on police recruitment and retention

The Phoenix Police Department hasn’t been spared the national factors impacting police recruitment and retention. Yet, in 2023, the department saw a year-end gain in officers

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Police departments are facing a “historical crisis” in recruiting and retaining officers. In Police1’s annual poll of the greatest challenges facing the profession, recruitment and retention topped the list in 2021, 2022 and 2023. The reasons given are numerous:

  • A strong job market: A growing economy, low unemployment and increased options for remote work have made it easier for job seekers and current officers to find attractive employment outside of policing.
  • Other police departments: With more agencies competing for fewer officers, some officers are leaving their department for one with better incentives.
  • Negative public perception of law enforcement: This has made the job more difficult, resulting in increased retirements and resignations, and fewer applicants.
  • Health risks from COVID-19 and resignations in the face of mandated vaccination.
  • Occupational health and wellness challenges that deter a younger generation more focused on work-life balance.

That’s why an Arizona newspaper article about the Phoenix Police Department growing its officer ranks caught my attention. The Phoenix Police Department hasn’t been spared the national factors impacting police recruitment and retention. Yet, in 2023, the department saw a year-end gain in officers. The article noted several reasons for this:

  • The city improved pay incentives.
  • The legislature passed a law in 2022 that allowed officers to defer retirement. Fifty-eight percent of qualified officers took the extension, reducing attrition.
  • The department expanded its wellness unit. It partnered with a counseling services company to offer 24/7 counseling to officers and their families. It contracted with athletic trainers and mental performance counselors.
  • The department set a goal of increasing women in the ranks from the current 14% to 30% by 2030. The campaign includes showcasing more women in recruitment advertising.
  • Recruitment also plans to begin highlighting more officers in roles not usually advertised — broadening attention from primarily tactical operations to other work like that of homicide detectives and sex crimes investigators.

The news article mentioned a broader study of police (and fire service personnel) recruitment and retention published earlier this year by researchers in Arizona’s three major public universities and the Morrison Institute for Public Policy. That study was based, among other data sources, on:

A representative survey of 6,855 residents from Arizona and neighboring states;

  • A statewide survey of 4,999 current law enforcement officers including municipal police departments, state public safety agencies, and county sheriffs’ office employees;
  • A systematic review of public safety recruitment and retention policy literature; and
  • Interviews with 64 leaders in government and public safety agencies at the city, county and state level.

That amount of data is something to be reckoned with — and learned from. The study reveals opportunities for improving recruitment and retention. The Phoenix Police Department is showing that seizing those opportunities can have direct positive results.

The complete study can be found here, including the surveys used which might be adapted for use in other jurisdictions. Some key takeaways of the study include:

  • Factors most positively associated with overall job satisfaction were “soft” workplace conditions such as achieving work-life balance, feelings of autonomy, receiving support from superiors and a sense of personal safety. Satisfaction with compensation and benefits packages also correlated strongly with overall job satisfaction.
  • As officer perception of the public’s support increases, the desire to pursue an alternative career decreases. But it is not just the general public’s support. As one respondent noted, “The officers need to know they are supported by the city leadership and not used as a political object.”
  • Not surprisingly, the staffing crisis is negatively impacting officer morale and adding to their job stress.
  • Officers who cannot afford to buy a house in the jurisdiction in which they work are the least likely to work until retirement. Housing stipends, moving expenses, or other housing assistance can improve recruitment and retention.
  • While officers reported that the high-stakes nature of their work placed a toll on their mental and emotional health, they also said such distress didn’t reduce their overall commitment to the job. [Author’s note: It is commendable that the stress of police work doesn’t lower current officers’ commitment to protecting and serving, however, it may well reduce their effectiveness, and take a toll on their family and off-duty life. As such, mental and emotional wellness services remain an important factor for improving retention and improving recruitment of a younger generation focused on work-life balance.]
  • Officers’ responses to different job tasks indicate opportunities for improving job satisfaction by employing more community service officers (CSOs) to take over community outreach, administrative duties, and low-priority calls to free sworn officers to devote more time to more popular tasks like high-stakes calls and search and rescue. This change could also attract recruits who don’t want the personal risk of higher stakes calls that attract other candidates to become CSOs, while also improving staffing and workloads for both positions.
  • Recruitment and hiring practices within many organizations haven’t changed substantially in decades. This includes a lengthy hiring process and training before employment and payment are certain. Solutions offered by police leaders include continuous and proactive communication and follow-up with candidates through the hiring process to mitigate uncertainty. Several sheriff’s offices place potential new hires in corrections officer positions while they wait for the lengthy background check. Other organizations have embraced new technology for recruitment. Many have enhanced their online presence, especially with social media (including podcasts) to encourage more applicants. Other agencies have opened their doors to showcase the advancing technology of the job — like crime analysis centers, technology in patrol cars and drones.
  • Surveyed leaders emphasized the importance of departments keeping up to date with any new services and programming to help support the mental and physical health of officers. Additionally, leadership must reinforce a culture that eliminates the stigmatization of behavioral health care and promotes follow-up.

The study takeaways indicate that department leadership, elected officials, legislators and the public all have opportunities to address the public safety recruitment and retention crisis facing their communities. The Phoenix Police Department is showing how seizing some of those opportunities can work.

Download this in-depth analysis of Police1’s State of the Industry survey on the police recruitment and retention crisis

As a state and federal prosecutor, Val’s trial work was featured on ABC’S PRIMETIME LIVE, Discovery Channel’s Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. Described by Calibre Press as “the indisputable master of entertrainment,” Val is now an international law enforcement trainer and writer. She’s had hundreds of articles published online and in print. She appears in person and on TV, radio, and video productions. When she’s not working, Val can be found flying her airplane with her retriever, a shotgun, a fly rod, and high aspirations. Contact Val at www.valvanbrocklin.com.
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