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What officers said were the biggest challenges of 2023

What can leaders do to assure their officers that their career and their efforts within it are of high value?

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Last year’s Police1 poll results of what police officers thought were the greatest challenges of 2022 were summarized in my article, “What officers said were the biggest challenges of 2022 (and why leaders should pay attention).” As a review here is the 2022 list and responses:

  • Recruitment & retention: 52%
  • Risk of prosecution for on-duty actions: 17%
  • Officer wellness and morale: 15%
  • Media coverage of police issues: 9%
  • Ambush attacks: 4%
  • Crime spikes: 3%

Have things changed since then? As we reflect on 2023 we are now, maybe, far enough away from the disaster that was 2020, that the profession can finally find its footing again and move forward, and yet the poll numbers haven’t changed that much.
Here are this year’s poll results:

  • Recruitment & retention: 48%
  • Risk of prosecution for on-duty actions: 21%
  • Officer wellness and morale: 17%
  • Media coverage of police issues: 7%
  • Crime spikes: 4%
  • Ambush attacks: 3%

With only one inversion in priority between crime spikes and ambush, statistically insignificant, the list looks very familiar. The significance of the increase in concern for the risk of prosecution, an increase in concern over wellness, and a slight tip away from hostile media coverage may be a minor math calculus. It may also indicate a shift that will only have meaning after we see the results for the upcoming year.
Concern over recruitment and retention still remains high. Not only does this trend reflect less safety and more work for officers in understaffed agencies, but it also reflects concern about the value of the work. One might wonder why it seems so few want to do this or, on the other hand, why the heck do I want to continue to do this?

Workers in the police labor force have many of the same concerns as those in commerce and industry. Most police officers take pride and purpose in their work, still marked by an idealism and desire to serve, that makes an emotional and personal investment in their daily work more intense than civilian employment. The poll results of both years reflect both a practical and an existential concern about the very nature of what they do.

Whatever special aspects of the law enforcement vocation, its ranks are filled with human beings who want safety and stability in their lives. Finding similar concerns among other types of work is of interest, whether it disturbs or affirms the unique value of police work. According to the Harvard Business Review, employers will be using more creative means of recruiting and retaining workers, leaders will feel a tension between their worker’s needs and executives’ expectations, the traumas of the pandemic will still shape aspects of the workplace, workplace diversity efforts will create challenges, employee support with mental health services will create privacy concerns, and technology and social skills may remain in conflict. While these issues may not seem to mesh with the poll results list, the core of concerns is very similar.

Other sources cite worker shortages, retention challenges and managing employee engagement as top problems emerging in 2023. Sounds familiar, but other workplaces can’t conceive of the problems cited in both the ’22 and ’23 P1 survey concerning the question, “Will I survive the shift without getting killed or going to prison, or succumb to depression and exhaustion?”

Police executives must take note of these results, as it is likely that the sample accurately reflects the sentiments of the officers on their streets. What can leaders do to assure their officers that their career and their efforts within it are of high value? Positively engaging media and treating officers as resources that require and deserve investment are two strategies that can address what officers perceive as their greatest challenges.

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.