Law Enforcement Personnel Retention

Is there anything departments can do to improve retention?

Retention is the ugly stepchild of recruiting. Yet, retention is cheaper than retraining. New hires cost much more in recruiting, training, and gaining of experience.

In one study, 54% said retention is a problem, but only 29% had taken definitive steps to address the issue. Of the 46% that felt it wasn't a "problem", most would likely agree that improved retention is still a good way to offset recruiting.

Retention is not as easy as it sounds. Let's break it down.

The first retention issue occurs during the probationary period. As I teach or attend recruiting seminars, I hear war stories of the effort a recruiter went through to get a certain candidate, only to have him or her drop out of the academy. I had it easy in the Air Force, but anyone who went through Marine Corps boot camp or Army basic surely had moments when they might have thought about quitting, if only they could. "The Marine recruiter was soooooo nice." Even if your basic course is not a stress law enforcement academy, it is necessary to prepare the candidate. Unlike the military, they can quit.

One way that the transition can be eased is with a mentoring system. An entire article could be written on this, but basically an experienced and caring department member is assigned to mentor a recruit or small group of recruits through some or all of the probationary process. The California Highway Patrol, LAPD, the Sacramento County (CA) Sheriff's Department and dozens of other agencies have some form of mentoring program. Not all take the recruit all the way through probation, but many assist through the academy or FTO program.

One progressive agency is the Tallahassee (FL) Police Department. They started by hiring one of their retired sergeants, Oscar Brannon, as a recruiter. This freed up a sworn officer for field duty. They also have a mentoring program. According to Sgt. Brannon, "The mentors are all volunteers from outside the FTO program. They each receive specialized training on their role as a mentor." The program is managed from outside of the FTO program to ensure employee confidentiality and buy-in. Sgt. Brannon added that the ratio is usually one to one or one to two. Would it be sexist to suggest that perhaps it is best to ask female recruits if they have a preference for a same gender mentor? Feedback I've heard is that this can be a factor.

And while we are talking gender, females are more likely to be single custodial parents. Either way, live-in academies are going to deal with recruits that have child care issues. I'm not dismissing the potential importance of a live-in environment, but anything that can reasonably accommodate this obligation will increase retention of good and diverse candidates.

Some agencies have videos of academy life to prepare the candidate.

Throughout the academy, FTO and probationary process, it is desirable to weed out those that are not suited for the agency. Resignations and terminations are expected in an academy-FTO program. According to Sgt. Brannon, Tallahassee's FTO program termination rate is 5%. From my observations, anything below that and you might be retaining those you shouldn't. Don't retain sub-par employees; you'll pay later.

Another reason officers leave is family issues. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department has hired a retention specialist who herself left police work to have a family. She works with the family and spouses to ease the transition. Lt. Hank, who runs the department's recruitment & retention section, emphasized the importance of working with the family. "We don't just hire the officer, we hire the whole family," he said. He stressed this was especially important in his department, where many of the applicants come from out of town. Adjusting to a new city could be stressful.

For non-probationary officers, why do they leave? Various businesses have conducted studies on retention and my first thought is that law enforcement is different, so study them, but realize that these general studies may not be completely applicable.

A detailed study on retention can be found on the California Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) web site. Their publication, Recruitment & Retention, Best Practices Update (2006) goes into detail. POST has found up to 4.7% of officers yearly change from one California department to another. That doesn't include those that leave law enforcement or go to other states, as I did. A COPS Office study found retention problems were especially acute in small agencies, where only 21% of sworn officers lasted 15 years or longer.

The study also emphasized the family approach, such as department open houses for families, spouse ride-alongs, and including the family in other academy and department events.

So why do officers leave an agency? Unfortunately, in most cases there is probably little an agency can do. But every officer that you convince to stay is money saved and institutional knowledge preserved. Based on my observations and some studies, here are what I see as the primary reasons for officers to leave:

  1. "I'm on thin ice anyway and prefer to resign." Not something they admit in exit interviews, but anecdotally correct. Let them go. Some officers are slugs, just not suited for law enforcement or simply not high performers. Letting them go is best, and frees up a slot for someone that might do better.
  2. Retirement. Here, there is a lot you can do. As in the case of Tallahassee PD, hiring some of their retirees back can be a good idea. Likewise, many departments have a DROP program, hiring retired officers back full time, paying them full salaries, but without benefits or retirement credits. Some of these have backfired financially on the agency. The Reno Police Department has hired officers back part time for street foot patrol and in training. Others have hired retirees as background investigators and for other administrative functions.

    If the rules are broken, change the rules. If you have civil service rules or laws against this hire-back practice, consider changing the rules!

    One option, often subject to contractual negotiation, is a year-end retention bonus, big uniform allowance, or other lump sum payout. This may encourage an officer to stay to get that, and then maybe you can dangle some other carrot.

  3. "This job is not what I thought". "People are mean to me." "I see a lot of death and evil". "It's dangerous, bad people want to hurt me". "My wife threatened to leave me" One officer told me that she dealt with an infant drowning case during her probation, and could not handle it. In these cases, perhaps it is better to just let them go, but again, if properly prepared through a pre-hire indoctrination, ride-alongs and mentoring, this could be avoided.
  4. Money and Job Security. Many smaller departments can't compete with the salaries that larger departments can offer. This is a fact of life. Likewise, many don't like the initial assignment, which on a sheriff's department, may be the jail. Maybe they join a school, college or transit police and really want to work the street. To many, the #1 goal is just to get hired, someplace. Once they have their foot in the door, they may start looking at other options. This is a hard one to overcome, but small departments might try working with employees on internal career advancement, selling the slower pace (some want a faster pace), cost of housing, etc. Many sheriffs have hired correctional officers, who are a different classification than road deputies. This also gives the agency a chance to evaluate jail performance and consider them for advancement.
  5. Job Security. Perhaps the earlier statistic on small agency turnover might also reflect a fear of termination. Many small agencies do not have the same level of civil service protection or labor association representation. Stories abound of newly elected sheriffs cleaning house, firing all incumbent staff and making them re-apply for their jobs. Most of us would not want to work where any small dispute or error could send you packing.
  6. Working Conditions. Chiefs and sheriffs don't want to be told how to run their department, but morale, working hours, advancement, a sense of belonging and esprit de corps are all factors that can affect an officer's decision to stay or go. Books have been written about these subjects, and it has been said that employees quit supervisors, not organizations. A happy employee is far less likely to leave.

One incentive worth considering is a take-home car. An officer considering an agency that doesn't offer this may think twice when considering the cost of another private vehicle, increased gas and insurance, etc. Take-home cars increase public visibility of police and decrease response times to major emergencies and officers needing help. They are very common in some areas, such as Florida, and rare in other regions, such as the west coast.

A similar benefit is housing. A western hospital provides temporary housing to new employees, and the Mountain View (CA) Police Department has dorm-like housing where employees can stay while off duty after their 12 hour shifts. They then go home on their 3-4 days off a week. Some departments allow personnel to park their travel trailers in the parking lot. The 10- or 12 hour day work schedule allow the employee to live in more affordable or rural areas with good schools. It also saves briefing time, gas, and has other benefits.

Old rules die hard, but many agencies have a "once you're gone, you're gone" policy. Consider changing the rules to allow an employee to return within a year without having to start from scratch.

When senior officers with specialized knowledge are planning to leave, it is important for the department to recognize that and take steps for junior officers to work with them to gain some of that information. In my former agency, Sgt. Bob Rice handled all the special events, traffic control, related PR, and motor assignments. His retirement was a big loss to the agency. With him went a great deal of institutional knowledge. Make sure that gets passed down.

A final issue for those trying to understand retention is to understand the difference in generations. Baby boomers are different than so called Generation X and Y officers. There are articles and training on this, and an understanding the distinctions will prove most helpful.

In summary, some personnel losses may be unavoidable and even beneficial. On the other hand, improved retention begins at the recruiting phase, to be sure the applicant understands what they are getting into. Family must be included, all along the way. This may include some consideration of child care needs. Consider a mentoring system. Changes in morale, working conditions, job security, housing and scheduling are factors that can affect retention. Take-home patrol cars can also be a nice draw.

Retirees may be retained in various ways, so as to soften the loss from their departure. Try to understand the different expectations and needs associated with baby boomers, and Generations X & Y.

Retaining good officers saves the department valuable re-training costs and should not be ignored.