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Retaining Police Talent

For several years, many police agencies were faced with high levels of employee turnover. One of the primary reasons for the turnover was the number of opportunities that was available in the booming economy. The recent economic slowdown has provided many of these agencies some relief. However, with an economic rebound on the horizon, the conditions are developing for the perfect storm in police officer turnover.

A number of factors may be contributing to this event. First, greater numbers of baby-boomer generation officers, who have been the backbone of agencies for years, are reaching retirement age. As younger officers move into organizations, leaders can expect shorter tenures. Unlike previous generations, officers entering the workforce today do not anticipate having life-long employment with one agency. In fact, most employees change jobs an average of ten times during their professional lives. In addition, recent hiring freezes and furloughs have led many officers to question their job security or desire to stay with an agency.

To make matters worse, recent economic conditions have given management more control of the employer-employee contract. From their perspective, this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, some employers have become overconfident and returned to using poor management practices. If agencies do not take steps to address these new challenges, they can anticipate dramatic increases in officer attrition in the near future.

To develop a high retention environment, leaders must identify and eliminate conditions that are pushing officers out and enhance those factors pulling them into the department. The challenge for leaders is to provide an environment that is focused on addressing officers’ individual needs while at the same time accomplishing the organizational goals. Some of the issues that should be considered include compensation, leadership, selection processes, developmental opportunities and the organizational culture.


Employee compensation is a dynamic process that is fundamental to developing an engaged and effective organization. Police leaders cannot successfully initiate other efforts to motivate and retain staff if they are not provided with sufficient funding to meet their officers’ most basic needs.

Unfortunately, many elected and administrative officials view employees as an expense and compensation as a problem. Salary increases occur only after much public debate or the loss of a number of officers. Once adjustments are made, the issue is often forgotten until the department falls back below standard, experiencing decreases in morale and increases in turnover.

As a general rule, agencies do not have to pay the highest wages, but they must be at or above market average. Protections must also be put in place to ensure that salaries remain competitive and salary compression of veteran officers is avoided. Compensation is more inclusive than basic salary. Organizational leaders must ensure equity exists with employees’ entire compensation package including leave, retirement and insurance benefits.

Build Organizational Leadership

Individuals leaving agencies often cite their immediate supervisor as the reason for their resignation. When asked about the most dissatisfying period in their career, most persons will describe a time when they worked for a manipulative, micromanaging, overbearing manager who was only concerned with his own interests.

One of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement agencies today is a lack of leadership development throughout the profession. This is particularly true for first line supervisors. Because agencies do not provide persons with the training needed before being transferred into these positions, most persons are ill prepared for assuming these responsibilities. The only guidance many have is their experience with their own supervisors. Unfortunately, many of these persons may not have displayed the desired leadership behaviors.

The cost of losing talent is too high for police agencies to continue this practice. A concerted effort should be initiated to teach leadership throughout the entire organization. Those persons who treat officers in a tyrannical, abusive manner must be identified and confronted. If their behavior does not cease, they should be immediately removed from their position of authority.

Problem managers can be found by tracking the supervisors who departing officers worked for. Other forms of networking and performance review may be instrumental in identifying offensive behavior by supervisors.

Focus on Core Values

Many police leaders feel the discussion of core values is too “touchy-feely” and has little to do with real police work. In reality, organizational values are the cornerstone upon which all of the department’s operations are based. These fundamental beliefs are established through time and affect every aspect of the department’s operations. Persons whose values are closely aligned with those of the organization are usually more engaged and are likely to be retained.

Individuals with values different from the organization’s often experience internal conflict that reveals itself in misconduct, poor performance and low morale. As a result, these individuals usually experience higher levels of turnover. Completing a facilitated process to articulate these values enables leaders to make them part of recruitment, selection, policy development, decision-making, training and conflict resolution.

Hire Persons Who “Fit”

Retention begins before the individual is ever hired. Just because an applicant can pass a written test does not mean they will work well with the department. This is not to suggest agencies should lower their employment standards. Rather, they should develop selection processes to identify persons who meet standards and fit within the organizational culture. To accomplish this, the selection process should include behaviorally based interviews, realistic job previews and thorough background investigations. These tools will help leaders to make more informed hiring decisions.

Provide Training and Development

One of the best ways to retain staff is to provide career development tools to help them succeed. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure officers are able to attend the training to keep their skills current. At the same time, it is the employee’s responsibility to make use of these opportunities. This development can occur in a variety of assignments, experiences and interests. This training is commonly provided through advanced and in-service training.

Other opportunities include cross training, job shadowing and mentoring. But every growth opportunity does not have to occur at work. Participating in volunteer activities, such as coaching a little league team, engaging in a PTA program or enrolling in a civic club can give employees a different perspective and unique opportunities to build organizational or networking skills.

Frequent Feedback and Recognition

While officers try to put on a front of being modest and not wanting to be recognized, everyone wants to be told they are doing a great job. At the same time, many law enforcement leaders are reluctant to compliment officers for fear of appearing weak or having it used against them.

In other cases, supervisors feel that officers should do good work because it is their job, or they may be accused of playing favorites. But recognizing good performance is key to anchoring officers to the organization. Because so many agencies do it so poorly, it is easy for an agency to distinguish itself with a culture of recognition.

To effectively recognize officers in a fair and consistent manner, leaders should seek out every opportunity to acknowledge officers who PROVE themselves. PROVE is an acronym for Problem, Result, Outcome, Values and Everyone.


Outline the Problem or issue the individual was faced with addressing. Then describe how the officer Responded to the problem. Having identified the problem and the response, explain the Outcome. To ensure this process is fair and consistent, include how the individual’s actions are in accordance with the organizational Values. Finally, tell Everyone what a great job your employees are doing.

There are an almost unlimited number of venues and mediums that organizations can use to communicate positive performance, including press releases, department bulletin boards, electronic bulletin boards, department and shift meetings, and public meetings like council meetings.

In addition to formal recognition programs such as Officer of the Year, sponsoring regular meetings with staff to recognize good work performance is an effective tool for fueling a motivated staff. In smaller agencies, the entire department can attend the meeting. In larger agencies, the shift or precinct can be assembled.

Held every 10 to 12 weeks, a typical meeting begins with leaders recognizing officers who have been recently hired, are being promoted in the career development program or have received certification for a specialization. Afterwards, leaders describe many of the great deeds officers may have accomplished since the last meeting.

For example, officers may have captured a burglary in progress or put a little extra effort in to working a case that resulted in an arrest. Meetings can also provide an opportunity for officers to showcase innovative techniques they have created to increase productivity.

In some departments, the officers are provided breakfast or lunch. To gain interest, some have a raffle for small gifts such as gift cards, hats or coffee mugs. When agencies begin these meetings, there may be some suspicion. But after a couple of meetings, staff will start to look forward to getting together and offer suggestions for recognizing officers.

Institute a Career Ladder

In the traditional police organization, career advancement was limited to becoming a supervisor. Officers would often be heard saying something similar to “The only way to move up around here is for someone to die or retire.” Throughout the years, larger departments have often exploited this vulnerable hot button and used smaller communities as a source for well-trained candidates.

By offering more opportunities for advancement, such as detective or traffic unit positions, larger agencies have been able to successfully poach great talent from these communities. In many cases, this has led persons in smaller departments to view themselves as inferior or as stepping-stones for other communities.

What about the individual who does not want to move to a larger community, become a supervisor or be given a different assignment? He enjoys being a street cop, wants to do a good job and has a tremendous amount of training and experience. To address this, many agencies are initiating career development paths that offer individuals increases in rank and compensation when they meet certain standards of experience, training and performance. These programs are a great way to prevent officers from being poached away by larger organizations that can offer more opportunities simply because of their size.

When individuals feel they have ownership in their jobs, they become engaged and put forth their best effort. Some ways to accomplish this is to allow them to participate in a variety of activities such as problem solving efforts, evaluating or establishing a new policy, or being responsible for creating a training program.

Make Work Fun

Being a police officer does not have to be strictly business all the time. There are a number of ways to make work fun. For example, making skill-based training and mandatory qualification testing more competitive is great for morale. Instead of a pass-fail score, record officers’ times for physical agility testing.

Similarly, annual firearms qualification scores are a great way to boost competition. Participating in police pistol competitions and police games allows departments to build on job-related skills. Intramural sports teams in softball, basketball and golf allow departments to interact with non-police personnel in a positive way.

Show You Care

Officers need to know leaders have their best interests at heart. Showing this could be as simple as standing up for an officer who has been falsely accused of misconduct. When employees suffer hardships, such as an injury, personal/family illness or loss of a loved one, supervisors should schedule a time to call or visit with them. If it is not scheduled, time has a way of getting away and the call is never made.

In other instances, agencies can support their officers’ health by initiating a wellness program or offering smoking cessation or gym memberships. Departments can also share their resources and expertise by offering defensive driver training for officers’ children who are starting to drive or CPR classes to spouses.

Employees are constantly weighing their current work situation with other alternatives. As conditions in the job market improve in the near future, the number of alternatives will improve, making it more difficult to retain talented staff. Leaders should be taking steps now to build a positive work environment and anchor officers to the department. Those who do not may see a mass exodus in the near future.

Dwayne Orrick is the Chief of the Cordele, GA, Police. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a past-presenter at the IACP convention. He may be reached via email at

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2009

Rating : 5.3

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