By Lt. Joseph Fender
When visualizing your current law enforcement agency, what do you feel are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Has the reduction of qualified or prospective officers affected your staffing, budget, or crime rate? What if I told you the solution to your problems is already within your grasp, but you may not be using it to its full potential?
As law enforcement agencies struggle to recruit officers and deputies, a more concerted effort to invest in the future of our profession is needed. Many of the opinions and beliefs expressed by police applicants are representative of a growing social movement toward the reimagining of policing. These attitudes are often, if not always, based upon an individual’s values or moral beliefs. If that is true, when does an individual’s value system develop? What factors are the most impactful in the formation of beliefs? Can we as law enforcement professionals do more to influence these factors and in doing so, develop today’s adolescent population into future police officers?
Who are today’s police officers?
The current demographics of police agencies suggest a generational shift has occurred in hirings over the last twenty years, and the age gap between agency executives and patrol officers is widening (Weisburd, 2011). Traditionally, the age difference between patrol officers, their direct supervisors, and agency leaders was negligible and allowed for a nature progression of tenure and experience through the ranks. However, a 2015 study of large American metropolitan police departments revealed a significant gap in age between patrol level officers and the top executive ranks (Wareham).
The previous natural progression of tenure, often through an established rank structure, provided police agencies the ability to forecast and plan for succession within their organizations. Additionally, both tenure and a variety of experiences have traditionally allowed for officers to build upon their knowledge, skills and abilities with each successive rank or assignment. But recently, social and economic factors such as a changing social opinion of policing and pension reform legislation have slowly widened these age gaps. A dwindling applicant pool has created significant shortcomings in tenure and experience in officers between 8 and 20 years of service (Wareham, 2015). Today’s police agencies are now reflective of these changes. Agency executive officers and command staff are generally of Generation X (1965-1980), while the overwhelming majority of patrol officers are now of Generation Z (1997- 2010). This suggests the future cadre of police departments will become increasingly young over the next decade as agency executives retire and are supplanted by significantly younger staff.
These younger officers have also been shaped by influential factors unknown to previous generations. Their values and morals, almost exclusively shaped in adolescence, are more collective rather than individually based. These differences have a significant effect on the way they view the mission and philosophy of policing. If this trend continues, what current events are shaping the next cadre of officers?
How are the values of future officers being shaped?
Whether values are developed through social interaction, parental guidance, or formal education, they play an important role in how information is processed and become the basis for decision-making (Bedwell, 2017). These are the years in which adolescents process information at a rapid pace and begin to understand what part they play in the world around them. Young adults today are more technologically developed than their parents, and worldwide information is available to them like never before. Social media, the internet, and a more digitally connected community have enabled adolescents to share opinions on world events in ways previous generations would not believe (Bedwell, 2017). However, with this ability to instantly communicate feelings and opinions, so also comes an enormous amount of misinformation and bias.
Police centric events such as the death of George Floyd in 2020 have been portrayed in different ways, many of which were viewed as harmful to American policing. These controversial events are magnified by social media platforms and disseminated worldwide within seconds; many of which lack proper vetting, context, or accuracy of events. Because of social pressure to conform, many adolescents develop a “herd mentality,” as some fear being ostracized for having an opinion different from the masses (Adkins, 2022).
With the current values and norms of adolescents, how will this affect policing?
Understanding how adolescents make decisions, what those decisions are based on, and how learned biases, values, and opinions shape their choices will allow for a more tailored work environment when they reach recruitment age. No longer can the public service sector assume there will be an ample supply of able-bodied workers to fill vacancies caused by attrition or retirement. Current studies suggest millennial employees are much more transitory and only 29% are “engaged at work” or emotionally connected to their job (Adkins, 2022). This means we must not only change for the sake of recruitment, but for retention of officers as well.
A study conducted in 2019 revealed young adults are becoming increasingly frustrated with their current working conditions and are seeking employment opportunities which more closely align with their values (Karamchandani, 2020). The Covid 19 Pandemic and the ability to telecommute allowed many younger workers to spend time at home, in a less stressful working environment. To that end, there was a dramatic decline in those applying for jobs within the criminal justice field per capita in 2019 (Smith, 2022). Young adults are seeking employment in areas which they believe provide them with a sense of personal fulfillment and the ability to balance their personal lives and a career (Adkins, 2022). As the profession of policing struggles to meet recruitment goals, changes need to be made to attract future officers by matching the desire for meaning and fulfillment with the realities of law enforcement.
As the United States emerges from a nearly two-year hiatus of workers physically being present, employers are struggling to fill open positions (Adkins, 2022). While there is no shortage of potential employees, their desire to alleviate stress and seek employment which gives them a sense of purpose has supplanted the more traditional goal of becoming successful. No longer are workers as concerned for monetary incentives, health benefits, or corner offices. This generation of entrepreneurs are more focused on a career which provides personal fulfillment and a sense of purpose.
Many believe today’s adolescent population lacks maturity and the interpersonal skills needed to successfully navigate a career in policing (Decker, 2020). Many adults surveyed expressed concern their teens would be unable to cope with the stressors and decision-making requirements often faced by officers. Additionally, the lack of traditional preparedness caused by a generation of adolescents who favor isolation and technological stimuli rather than team sports created a fear that many would be unable to complete the rigorous physical requirements of general policing.
According to Alter (2020), a growing acceptance of more liberal social views has also given rise to a generation who are more liberal in their opinions; they tend to favor government-run health care, student debt relief, marijuana legalization and criminal-justice reform. Since law enforcement has traditionally functioned as a para-military organization, many of today’s liberal youth have expressed a growing fear or distrust of historical policing. Those who do see the profession as a viable opportunity have expressed a more holistic and guardian approach to the enforcement of law, rather than an authoritative stance. After the tragic events surrounding the killing of citizens by police, many adolescents have adopted a less intrusive and more socially inclusive view of how they want to be policed.
Additionally, today’s generation of young adults between the ages of 15 and 35 have been raised in an era ripe with technology (Adkins, 2020). Cellular telephones, social media, and video gaming systems, despite their ability to positively impact society’s level of information sharing, allow for a lack of physical and psychological discipline in young adults. Some research suggests this lack of perceived morality in young adults leads to difficulty in distinguishing between right and wrong; a character trait that is essential to performing the duties of a law enforcement officer. Books, newspapers, and other written forms of communication are being phased out of the educational system, and the information being disseminated in both high schools and colleges often comes from a single point of view. Limited perspectives, specifically those which involve the practice of policing, generate bias due to ignorance and inaccurate information often fueled by local or national politics.
What can we do now?
A review of current research suggests employers must make a concerted effort to recognize the value trends expressed by their workforce to develop recruitment and retention measures. The workforce of America has been shaped many times by world events, and the current generational shift in values is no different. Police agency executives have already begun to lobby for changes in their states’ hiring requirements.
The most significant change current law enforcement leaders can make now is to reimagine their expectations with respect to hiring standards. Shifting priorities from the model of a young, virile, or impressionable applicant to one who possesses more significant education and life experience will inevitably produce a more mature and thoughtful officer. Additionally, consideration should be given to hiring recently retired officers on a part-time basis, so as not to interrupt their pension benefits. This would allow them to mentor new staff and provide a knowledgeable and reliable supplement to an already stressed workforce.
Law enforcement agencies need to invest in the well-being of their employees and seek out candidates with varied life experiences. Expanding recruitment efforts to those who are already employed in mainstream career fields rather than concentrating on candidates who meet the minimum age of 21 is imperative. In fact, studies suggest the minimum age for applicants nationwide should be raised to 25 (Decker, 2020), thereby allowing future officers time to mature and complete continuing education, even if they have already served in the armed forces.
An emphasis on emotional intelligence and behavioral tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Test, should be paramount in the hiring of officers. In fact, Gordon (2020) notes, “…personality type does seem to have a significant association with school and career preference and satisfaction.” Although not the highest rated test of personality traits, the MBTI is a valuable instrument that can help police managers recognize personal differences in their subordinates and use them to strengthen their agencies (McMahon, 1984). Antiquated psychological exams should be eliminated as they have proven to be minimally effective in eliminating unsuitable candidates (Travis, 1993).
Police agencies’ communication efforts with adolescents should be meaningful and address the concerns expressed by today’s youth. Partnerships between high schools and colleges should be established so that young adults can intermingle with patrol officers who can answer questions and address concerns. Internships in police agencies should be expanded to a more diverse population of youth and include a component in which officers regularly attend both high school and college courses to provide information on current practices, policies, and procedures.
Many law enforcement agencies lack sophistication when it comes to the technology they employ to address crime trends, respond to calls for service, write reports, and communicate with one another. Much of the disparity between agencies and their technological shortfalls can be attributed to decreasing budgets. However, this is an area that can be improved upon and used to recruit a more resourceful applicant. Police executives should invest heavily in technology already being used by today’s adolescents. Text to talk software for writing police reports, automated or electric patrol vehicles, and smart watch technology for measuring biological functions of the heart are already being used by millions of teens and their parents nationwide.
Research has already shown young adults are migrating away from traditional employment in cities for a more palatable lifestyle in the suburbs of many American cities (Kotkin, 2013). Typical 9a.m. to 5p.m. schedules have been supplanted by varying working hours, built in break times, and more frequent vacations. Although law enforcement has nearly always been considered shift work requiring officers to be physically present to complete their daily tasks, there are many positions which can be tailored or augmented to provide a better lifestyle balance for their employees. The ability to respond from home or one of several “mini sub-stations,” similar to what is used currently by nearly all fire departments, may be a viable option. Departments may also have to consider providing childcare, paid meals, and scheduled break times in order to compete with private sector jobs.
The future of policing is bright!
The reimagining of policing has been topic used by many politicians in passionate speeches during the last decade, yet little change has taken place. In fact, one can argue that following the most recent civilian deaths at the hands of the police, there has been more regression than reformation. The reimagining of policing is the responsibility of not only current stakeholders, but future generations as well. Inclusion of an adolescent perspective on what changes are needed is crucial as they will be the officers of tomorrow. Expanding dialogue to a younger generation will create trust and a sense of ownership in their future. Police agencies could create a multi-generational roundtable including all ages so each can learn from the other to help develop and implement new ideas regarding enforcement strategies and department policies. Giving young adults the opportunity to shape the departments they will someday inherit will give them a sense of pride and instill the importance of a career in public service.
The future of policing, as with many careers, is uncertain. However, with uncertainty comes opportunities both for agency executives and future police officers. The current values, beliefs, and social norms of our adolescent population are not too unlike those of our own. Law enforcement leaders must make a concerted effort to invest in the development of future officers. Identifying what is important to young adults and teens now, will allow police agencies to tailor their recruitment efforts as these applicants become of hiring age and experience. Forecasting the wants, needs, and desires of future police officers, coupled with changes in the current procedures and policies of policing, will be critical in identifying the best and most capable officers of the future.
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About the Author
Joseph Fender is currently assigned as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. His previous assignments as a lieutenant include Watch Commander and Operations Lieutenant (Lancaster Sheriff's Station), Service Area Lieutenant (Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station), Detective Bureau Lieutenant and Interim Unit Commander (Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff's Station), and Executive Aide (North Patrol Division). Fender joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2000 after serving in the United States Navy. He has earned the Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, Supervisor and Management Peace Officer Standards and Training Certificates, and completed a master’s degree program in Criminal Justice at American Military University. He also has completed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy Class #273, the Los Angeles Police Department's West Point Leadership Academy, and both the Peace Officer Standards and Training’s Command College, Class #69, and Supervisor Leadership Institute.