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...


“That’ll give them an edge,” says Orrick.

The bucket metaphor

Jeremy Wilson uses what he calls “the bucket metaphor” to describe the demand for police officers. Here is how it works: The bucket itself represents the need for police officers. The water in the bucket stands for the officers, and its rise and fall represents the accession and attrition of those officers. Since many departments operate with fewer qualified officers than positions, the water level rarely reaches its full allocation level.

Wilson says three factors affect the bucket and its contents: Officers are “leaked” through attrition; “changing generational preferences,” meaning fewer new officers are willing to stick with policing as a career; and the size of the “bucket” keeps expanding as the demand for police work grows.

According to Wilson, police recruiters are seeing a decrease in the quality of the applicant pool. “We want people who are physically fit, people who have clean records and haven’t used drugs, people with good credit histories. All these metrics aren’t looking good for the current applicant pool because increasingly people are waived, they have credit problems, there is more and more experimentation with drugs and criminal histories — all these things are making it more and more difficult.

“The generations being recruited now are not as interested in the regimented lifestyle of police (work); they don’t want to be working midnights on Saturday — they want to be promoted tomorrow. They want to catch the kids’ ball game. They are looking for more balance,” he says.

Wilson also cites increased competition among agencies, especially for candidates with higher skill sets. Multicultural experience and the ability to speak a second language make candidates even more attractive — to everyone.

A national survey conducted among large police agencies revealed some shocking statistics that Wilson discusses in his writings. For example, Wilson says, more than 50 percent of the work forces of the agencies involved in the survey had 0 to 10 years total experience in the field of law enforcement; another 35 percent had 11 to 20 years; and the remaining 15 percent had more than 20 years experience. “We found that some agencies had upwards of 70 percent of their entire workforce within the first 10 years of service; we also found that there were some agencies that had upwards of 60 percent of their entire workforce within that third decade of service,” Wilson said.

He says in addition to the obvious problems that accompany having a large number of retirees on a department or lack of depth when it comes to experience, there are also issues with promotion: An officer who comes up for promotion in a too-crowded field will have fewer options.

That kind of top — or bottom — heaviness can really affect a department’s budget. Funding a patrol division with a primary cohort of very junior, or very senior, officers will result in two markedly different bottom lines. The overriding issues for agency executives will be to determine how to keep the department staffed in a manner that is both balanced and capable of meeting the needs of the community. Wilson says what many forget is that personnel decisions made today will have ramifications far into the future.

“We often get stuck in thinking about ‘How many officers do we need?’ and not thinking about the attributes of those officers. It’s a pretty big problem in thinking about some of the knee-jerk reactions to the economy right now,” he says.

“Those types of decisions are not just about saving money today, although it may do that. They have ramifications in the future in terms of being able to promote people, not being able to train people properly and the cost of fleet service down the road,” says Wilson.

Both Orrick and Wilson suggest that it’s time to build with an eye to long haul — not simply fill empty slots without regard to how a department will age.

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