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:
- "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.
- 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.
- "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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.