The changing face of the law enforcement career

Despite the difficulty of recruiting and maintaining officers in an atmosphere thick with cutbacks, layoffs and, in some cases, the elimination of positions within their organizations, experienced officers say policing still hasn’t lost its luster...

LET asked leading police personnel experts what they see as the defining issues for police recruitment and retention, both now and in the immediate future. We spoke with two who have done more than simply walk the walk: They have each written respected books on the subject.

Roswell, Ga., Police Chief Dwayne Orrick, former public safety director of Cordele, Ga., is the author of “Recruitment, Retention, and Turnover of Police Personnel: Reliable, Practical, and Effective Solutions” (Charles C. Thomas 2008); Jeremy Wilson, Ph.D., Associate Director for Research, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, is the author of “Recruiting and Retaining America’s Finest: Evidence-Based Lessons for Police Workforce Planning” (Rand 2010). Here’s what they have to say about the future of staffing for American law enforcement agencies:

Employees should be an investment

Orrick says parallels between the private and public sectors and their respective hiring practices are increasing. For instance, studies in the private sector have shown that an individual who is experiencing difficulty paying his bills will leave for a less than 5 percent increase; if he’s able to meet his financial obligations, but remains unhappy in the job, he will leave for about 5 percent; but an employee who is happy and finds the salary sufficient to meet his obligations won’t make a change unless there’s an increase of about 20 percent on the line. Orrick believes the private sector numbers also hold for law enforcement.

“We have to start recognizing in law enforcement that employees are not an expense, but rather an investment,” he says.

Orrick points out that employee characteristics sought by today’s police recruiters are the same ones prized by the private sector: conflict resolution, oral and verbal communications and problem solving skills. That results in more competition for well-qualified candidates. Orrick says true recruiting success hinges not so much on offering competitive benefits (although he doesn’t discount their importance), but by appealing to individuals who are intrinsically motivated to become law enforcement officers.

“We’ve kind of gotten away from that,” Orrick admits.

He believes that while benefits play an important role in attracting and keeping qualified applicants, it’s love of the profession and dedication to the work itself that keeps officers hanging on, even when the economy takes a nosedive. Experienced career officers seem to agree with Orrick. As one told LET, “I still believe there are so many new officers out there eager to wear the badge that the issue of benefits will not deter them.” Several officers pointed out that most officers have moonlighted at some point to supplement their law enforcement salaries, indicating that for many it’s less about the money and more about the profession.

Orrick advocates de-emphasizing benefits while recruiting and instead concentrating on candidates who don’t simply want jobs, but have their hearts set on law enforcement careers. He adds that police executives also need to recognize the uniqueness of law enforcement officers.

“Management needs to move away from thinking that employees — particularly police officers — are easily replaceable. They’re not,” he says.

Orrick says retaining good officers should be a matter of good management. He recommends looking for non-fiscal ways to reward officers for sticking with the job when times are tough. “Everything’s on the table, from shift schedules to training,” he says.

The real game changers, says Orrick, will be the Gen X and Gen Y officers who, he says, “come into a job with no expectation of staying for the long haul. They expect to change jobs eight to 10 times during a career. That turnover is already occurring out there.”

Orrick says during bad economic times agencies actually retain the upper hand because jobs are scarce. Police agencies currently have a surfeit of qualified candidates, but he says those numbers will change when the economy picks up again. Then qualified recruits will be more in demand. Orrick says agencies can ensure they’ll attract top-notch candidates by treating their officers well, even when they can’t reward them fiscally or offer top-drawer benefits.

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