By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Police officers are quitting the job, and few are applying to take their place. This is not a new phenomenon; it has the been the trend for several years.
The exodus is exacerbated by the current climate in which police work; it is increasingly dangerous, lacks public support and incurs intense media scrutiny.
The economic and social changes have made it harder for law enforcement leaders to keep their organizations fully staffed. Insufficient staffing levels affect the quality of service provided to the community as well as the performance, productivity, and morale of the officers within the department.
Shortages of Law Enforcement Officers Differ from Agency to Agency
The severity of the shortage differs from agency to agency. In 2018 the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) surveyed 411 small (33%) midsize (40%), and large (27%) law enforcement agencies in the United States to understand the extent of the profession’s recruitment and retention issues. The research concluded that there are three separate problems affecting staffing levels:
- Police agencies are receiving fewer applicants
- Officers are resigning before retirement age
- An increasing number of officers are eligible to retire
The PERF study also found that, to maintain a constant influx of qualified police candidates, law enforcement leaders should seek and identify future officers in local high schools.
Teenagers are beginning to decide their career paths in high school; therefore, developing innovative recruiting efforts that target high school students is paramount to building the future workforce. Young people need to recognize the role of police officers as allies and not adversaries as the media commonly portrays them.
External Factors Contributing to the Loss of Police Officers
There are three prevailing external factors affecting the ability of police leaders to attract and retain candidates:
- A strong economy
- The physical and mental dangers associated with policing
- The poor image of policing
First, recruitment and the pool of qualified law enforcement applicants decreases when unemployment rates are low and the economy is healthy because people are less inclined to enter dangerous, low-paying careers then.
Second, policing is dangerous, both physically and mentally. According to the FBI, in 2019, 89 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, 48 of them in feloniously acts and 41 in accidents.
Surprisingly, more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. Because the federal government does not require law enforcement organizations to report police suicides, a non-profit organization, Blue H.E.L.P. collects and verifies data from several sources, including law enforcement agencies and surviving family members. In 2019, at least 228 officers died by suicide.
Officers Are More Susceptible to Committing Suicide than the General Population
Police officers are more susceptible to committing suicide than the general population because they are continuously exposed to highly charged, negative or violent situations. The continuous exposure to violence and trauma increases the risk that police officers will experience stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and finally suicide.
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Third, the public’s perception of law enforcement has deteriorated over the past decade to negatively affect the ability to recruit new members to the profession within their respective communities. Police encounters with citizens, especially those involving the use of force, are often highly publicized; consequently, public scrutiny has increased about law enforcement operations, accountability, training, and organizational culture. Social media provide a global platform for citizens to share their opinions about their interaction with police officers.
The public’s perception of law enforcement varies from one geographic region to another and is often affected by the demographics of the region. Incidents of police misconduct negatively affect recruitment efforts. Improving community and police relations is fundamental to the development of effective recruitment and retention strategies.
A Police Department’s Legitimacy Depends on the Community Level of Support
Most critically, law enforcement must improve its relations with the Black community and juveniles. Researcher Jennifer Beck conducted a literature review of 92 empirical studies that examined perceptions of the police across various racial and ethnic groups and found that Blacks have the least favorable view of the police.
According to Pew Research, Blacks underrepresented in many law enforcement agencies. Minorities are also underrepresented in leadership roles within police organizations, limiting their role in the execution of law enforcement functions.
Police departments that actively recruit and employ minority officers enhance their legitimacy among those groups, improve interactions and increase confidence among minorities. Fostering working relationships with minority community leaders like churches, small businesses, and local organizations is paramount in cultivating better relationships and aiding in recruitment efforts.
Growing Your Own
Law enforcement leaders must also consider the influence that officers have on juveniles in their community because today’s youth are potentially tomorrow’s police officers. Police officers have an opportunity to positively influence juveniles through the School Resource Officer (SRO) program and other interactions.
Serving the Public
Law enforcement organizations should strive to establish and maintain positive relationships with their respective community to fulfill their responsibility of serving the public. Many people develop their view of law enforcement based on personal interaction with a law enforcement officer.
Police organizations must serve and adapt to diverse racial and ethnic cultures and generational differences. Accordingly, recruiting police officers who reflect those differences can assist in this endeavor.
Law enforcement leaders can mitigate contributing factors to the police recruitment problem by actively cultivating relationships with the community and strategically recruiting and selecting people who share their organizations’ values.
About the Author: Dr. Nicole Cain is an Assistant Professor with American Military University and has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than 14 years. She recently earned her Ed. D. in Organizational Leadership from Southeastern University. Nicole has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities to include patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community-oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations.
Nicole is currently assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section’s Felony Intake Office where she prepares all felony cases for the State Attorney’s Office. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses, and conducted interrogations.
Peck, J. H. (2015). Minority perceptions of the police: A state-of-the-art review. Policing, 38(1),