The changing face of the law enforcement career

May 23, 2011

As police executives address 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 – at least for them. Most of the officers who shared their thoughts about policing in an economic downturn admitted that either their benefits have changed or they were in danger of changing, and confessed they haven't seen raises in some time. But most officers don't believe the stagnation of salary and benefits curbs the enthusiasm of potential recruits. In fact, some officers believe that hard times may actually increase the number of candidates applying for law enforcement jobs, rather than discourage them.

"I still see 300 plus applications apply for one position in a city that used to never get more than a dozen applications at a time. I think that people are still viewing law enforcement as a stable job that pays enough to get by," one officer said recently in response to a discussion on the forums. "The money was never the deciding factor for most of us," he adds.

Others agree. They say that in general they believe law enforcement is a relatively stable profession, with the only jobs in danger in most jurisdictions being "the low man on the totem pole."

"The dynamics are changing a bit, but in the end there will always be a need for the police," said one law enforcement veteran.

Almost all of the officers who spoke to Law Enforcement Technology admitted to either having personally experienced changes in benefits or said they anticipate such changes in the very near future. One Wisconsin based LEO said, "We've never had to pay into our pensions before and very soon we'll be paying in 5.8 percent."

Local and state agencies aren't the only ones to feel the pinch. One federal agent told LET he'd recently considered a return to local law enforcement in order to be closer to his family, but said he abandoned the idea when he saw how much the recession had impacted the local agency's budget. "My first department (a sheriff's office in the Southeast) laid off all their court bailiffs and took deputies off patrol to fill court security billets," he said.

Nationwide trend

In the past, law enforcement was considered nearly recession proof, but that's no longer true. Whole departments have disappeared into the yawning budget chasms created by cash-strapped governments, rising prices and tiny budgets. Remaining departments have seen positions axed and benefits evaporate like rain on a hot sidewalk.

Law enforcement executives say that eroding benefits will ultimately chase good officers out of a profession that already requires employees to work under stressful, dangerous conditions and put in long hours. Supporters of better police benefits point to the deterioration of those benefits as a huge stumbling block to recruitment and retention efforts. Richmond, Ky., Police Chief Larry Brock expressed his frustration with the most recent cutbacks in his department by telling local reporters that he expected the changes to send his present staff hunting for new jobs, as well as discourage prospective hires. Among the benefits lost by Richmond's officers were allowances for uniform maintenance, training incentives, longevity pay and take home car privileges for officers living outside the city limits.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, officers statewide were joining firefighters in speaking out against a proposed bill that would overhaul government pensions. The bill, which critics say will make it tougher to recruit and retain officers, would increase the amount government workers contribute to their pensions from 7 to 11 percent.

Other pension plans have switched from defined benefit to defined contribution models, which means instead of classic pensions funded by the government, retirement systems, contributions from employees or a combination of those resources, traditional pensions have been replaced by 401(k) type plans. Many experts say the day of the defined benefit plan is basically over, and more and more local and state governments will convert to defined contribution plans in the future.

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 deemphasizing 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.

"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' ballgame. 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 workforces 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 kneejerk 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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