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As 2022 winds down, the challenges agencies face in recruiting and retaining officers remain an urgent issue for law enforcement leaders. Macroeconomic factors such as generational shifts and changing expectations of work in general, combined with the unique pressures of recruiting and retaining high-performing officers, contribute to severe staffing shortfalls in law enforcement.

Recruiting and RetentionWith violent crime rates on the rise, recruitment and retention rank among the top issues for law enforcement leaders – so much so that the upcoming IACP Conference in Dallas is scheduled to have numerous experts speaking on the subject with discussions exploring topics like the impacts of workplace culture and leadership development programs, to list just a few. The shortfalls have become so severe that five-figure signing bonuses are now typical across the country. Underscoring the crisis further, some jurisdictions are even considering hiring non-sworn civilians to handle non-emergency calls.

In this article, we’ll look at the root causes contributing to the staffing crisis while examining how a fresh approach to recruiting and an emphasis on data and analytics to understand what’s working can move the needle when confronting shortfalls.

What’s Causing Recruitment and Staffing Shortfalls?

The most recent research from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) speaks to the magnitude of recruitment shortfalls. From April 2020 to March 2021, resignations rose by 18%, while retirements jumped an impressive 45%. Adding to the urgency created by staffing shortages, these statistics show how large agencies (500+ sworn officers) are likely feeling the effects more intensely than smaller departments. The report showed that “large” agencies faced a 36% reduction in recruitment numbers over the same period.

Understanding the magnitude of the problem is generally easier than understanding the underlying factors contributing to it. The COVID-19 global pandemic has upended and realigned industries throughout the country, including law enforcement. Making its way into headlines is the notion of a Great Resignation and so-called “quiet quitting”,  which are both characterized by workers reprioritizing work-life balance and seeking higher wages in a job seeker’s market, the likes of which have not been experienced in at least a generation. Though there’s evidence this wave of resignations may have hit its peak in 2021, the ripple effects continue to contribute to major staffing shortfalls across the country – especially in law enforcement.

The issues driving this wave of resignations – working hours, conditions, and compensation – are particularly prevalent in law enforcement. Shiftwork is especially difficult for law enforcement officers where inconsistent scheduling and unpredictable overtime can create acute problems for an officer’s health and wellness. The national average annual pay for law enforcement officers remains above the salary of the average American worker. This is not always true in some parts of the country, especially those with booming technology sectors. The draw of higher-paying and less-dangerous work puts law enforcement at an inherent disadvantage regarding recruitment.

Lastly, public perception of police and policing strategies creates barriers to more robust recruiting across the profession. The Pew Research Center conducts longitudinal research on public perception of law enforcement and has charted notable declines in survey participants’ views on how police treat the public and how effectively investigators pursue misconduct cases. The results of these surveys tend to be most visible along with race and political lines though there’s been some softening of positive views across the board. These broader cultural attitudes create an issue for recruiters where a sociological concept known as social desirability bias — the desire to present one’s attitudes, behaviors, and occupation in a positive light – steers potential recruits away from a profession with a perceived negative social stigma attached to it.

Gender Parity in Recruiting

For as long as women have been working in the law enforcement field, social scientists and academics have taken a keen interest in designing research to help us better understand what they bring to the job and how they compare to their male counterparts. Studies have confirmed intuitions about unique skills women bring to their agencies and communities as well as cast serious doubts on outdated assumptions surrounding their capabilities and job performance.

Social scientists and researchers have studied the impacts of a gender-diverse police force since the 1970s. A landmark study in 1987 and many subsequent studies have contributed to the strong argument that diverse police forces benefit the communities they serve.

Research suggests female officers are less likely to be involved in incidents involving excessive use of force than their male counterparts. Though a correlation has not been conclusively established, women also tend to show, on average, more advanced interpersonal communication skills, which suggests they may be more likely to practice de-escalation tactics, further reducing the incidence of excessive force.

Women officers tend to be highly skilled at addressing crimes involving violence against women and sex crimes. Sexual assault is a sensitive issue, and it is thought that more significant numbers of female officers may help break down some of the barriers to reporting such crimes. Studies have shown a correlation between increased female representation in police forces and declines in intimate partner murder rates and rates of repeated domestic abuse, as well as higher clearance rates in these cases.

Making Data Work

From simplifying the paper shuffling of applications and background checks to generating actionable insights from candidate pools, data has the power to make a measurable impact on recruiting efforts. It also contributes to substantial cost savings. According to a recent paper published by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard, every one dollar of the cost associated with data analytics has the potential to return up to nine dollars in value to agencies.

From a practical standpoint, data analysis can be a catalyst for improvements across the recruitment process. A 2018 survey indicated that 30% of law enforcement professionals simply did not know how effective their recruitment strategies were. Through data analysis, law enforcement leaders can take a step-by-step look at their recruitment programs by isolating and testing various aspects of their policies and making improvements guided by these insights.

The San Jose Police Department demonstrated one example of this granular, data-informed approach to recruitment. Attrition in recruiting is something nearly all departments experience — with many highly motivated applicants already in the pipeline dropping out of the process. Recognizing this missed opportunity through data analysis, the department asked those recruits who had left the process to provide feedback to address any bottlenecks or pain points in the process. In addition to generating data points on why recruits left, the solicitation also invited applicants to reapply. As a result of this experiment, 125 recruits reactivated their applications.

What’s Next?

Recruiting and retention issues in law enforcement aren’t likely to be solved immediately, as the scale and scope of the problem mean it affects agencies of all sizes throughout the country. Evidence points to the value of prioritizing the health and wellness of recruits and existing officers while building a renewed focus on seeking qualified candidates that may not fit the traditional mold of law enforcement officers. It is clear that rigorous analytics, based on data science, is well-spent and can provide law enforcement with the insights they need to maximize the effectiveness of their recruitment and retention efforts.

 

Many dangers confront corrections officers in the course of their duties. Inmate interactions and otherwise physically challenging work environments contribute to high rates of injury and a constant need to be vigilant. Those inherent stresses to the profession combined with a constant staffing churn, top-down organizational structure, and resource shortfalls form a lattice of conditions that make burnout a significant issue in corrections agency personnel management.

What Burnout Looks Like

The simplest explanation for this complex problem is that burnout is the product of prolonged and repeated workplace stress. The notion of burnout as a distinct concept from daily stress was introduced into academic discourse in the early 1970s by Dr. Christina Maslach, who characterized it as a “psychological syndrome involving emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment that occur[s] among various professionals who work with other people in challenging situations.” Symptoms manifest primarily as exhaustion, growing cynicism, and inefficacy.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for burnout are especially prevalent in corrections settings. In a general work environment, a lack of control over assignments and working hours, extremes in activity levels, and a poor work-life balance are significant contributors to the stress levels leading to burnout. It isn’t difficult to see where a corrections environment has many of these pitfalls. A paper published by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center outlines four types of workplace stress and the factors that make corrections work uniquely difficult.

Inmate-Related Stressors

By nature, the corrections workplace environment is dangerous. Corrections officers face a nonfatal incident rate of 216 for every 1,000 officers. By that measure, the only more dangerous profession is policing. They also encounter a complex threat environment in which improvised weapons, drug use, sexual assault, and an uncooperative inmate population….

Occupational Stressors

These are stresses inherent to corrections work. By its nature, the work environment is confined and secure, with little availability of natural light and exposure to the outdoors. Heavily lifting and long hours on one’s feet contribute to a high rate of chronic injury. The danger of the job often demands a state of hypervigilance, a marker for PTSD, which is a significant driver of workplace burnout in law enforcement and corrections.

Administrative/Organizational Stressors

These are factors related to how corrections institutions are managed like overcrowded facilities, fluctuating shift schedules with mandatory overtime, workplace “politics,” and administrators’ perceived lack of support. There is also a documented correlation between correctional funding and employees’ stress levels.

Psycho-Social Stressors

Examples can be home-life stress due to shift work and blurring the home/work barrier related to the job — which builds a compounding cycle of stress for correctional officers. Negative media portrayals and cultural attitudes also substantially impact corrections officers’ self-esteem and job satisfaction.

How Burnout in Corrections is Different

Many of these root causes of burnout are more broadly similar to those in law enforcement and the general workforce. However, corrections officers often experience these contributing factors more intensely than other professions, building to a cumulative effect where symptoms of burnout amplify and contribute to one another.

Staff turnover is understood to be related to both occupational and organizational stressors. Given the diversity of correctional facilities in the United States, both in terms of scope and mission, it is difficult to assign a precise figure to annual turnover rates. Some of the most recently published research cites a range between 12-25%. Contrast that with a turnover rate of about 8% in law enforcement, and it becomes clear just how this instability in staffing contributes to the challenging working conditions that create conditions ripe for burnout.

The prevalence of PTSD, an important predictor of burnout, among correctional officers compared to law enforcement officers is also striking. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has published research indicating approximately 15% of law enforcement officers experience PTSD symptoms. Research involving PTSD in corrections officers showed a marked jump, with 53.4% of the survey respondents screening positively for symptoms. Notably, this figure rose to approximately 59% for female corrections officers and as high as 78% for African American corrections officers.

Amid a recruiting and retention crisis in law enforcement, attention and resources have been devoted to shoring up staffing numbers in policing. Though the problem is arguably more severe in corrections departments, comparatively little specialized research and few support organizations exist. It is clear that corrections officers have unique needs derived from the profession’s demands. Yet, it remains a niche area of inquiry in academia, further limiting targeted wellness and support resources available.

Confronting Burnout in Corrections

First and foremost, both general and targeted resources are needed to make serious progress in addressing burnout among corrections officers. On the macro level, this looks like providing adequate funding for correctional institutions and staff. More granularly, a similar approach to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) shows real promise in improving officer resilience to conditions unlikely to change in the near term. A recent survey produced by the American Corrections Association (ACA) looked at staff wellness and found that as many as 71% of agencies reported not having the funding they require for effective EAPs – with the smallest agencies reporting the most prominent funding gaps.

Though funding resources are frequently allocated at the legislative level, there are low-to-no-cost options to improve the experience of corrections officers. Culture shifts that emphasize open lines of communication, recognizing accomplishments, and incorporating proven change management and resilience-building strategies have been shown to help address organizational stressors that contribute to burnout. Many aspects of the corrections work environment are difficult to change but improving the organizational side of the profession offers leaders a viable option for reducing the prevalence of burnout.

Benchmark Analytics specializes in personnel management, partnering with agencies to implement research-based, data-driven software tools for corrections administration. For more on how our top-to-bottom corrections management system can help your agency, click here.

This is the third installment of a three-part series that explores the intersections of professional standards, personnel management, and data in law enforcement.

Use of force incidents, often involving weapons discharges, have taken center stage in propelling policing into this new era of reform and renewed emphasis on community relations. Smartphones and social media saturation mean that use of force instances can be documented and transmitted worldwide, often permanently shaping the public narrative long before any investigation is completed. What isn’t new is the principle that transparency and accountability are absolutely critical to rebuilding public trust – areas in which data and personnel management play a vital role.

Documenting and reporting the use of force is critical to giving the public and policymakers a window into how force is applied and in what circumstances. Researchers and policymakers use this data to understand better the conditions leading to a deterioration of public trust – and what strategies can contribute to restoring faith in policing. For these efforts to be effective, this data must be verifiable and trustworthy . . .  free from questions of influence . . .  and withstand the test of three key measurements:

Impartiality

The success of transparency and accountability efforts hinges on the public and policymakers trusting that the systems and providers they use are impartial when collecting and analyzing data. The demands for transparency and accountability are driven, in part, by distrust in the disclosure of use of force statistics, Internal Affairs investigations, and inconsistencies in misconduct reporting. Impartial reporting can help reshape the narrative around policing – emphasizing the consistent application of policy and professional standards as well as demonstrating positive policing outcomes.

Can a weapons company be genuinely neutral and meaningfully impartial when building systems that document their use?

Transparency

Due partly to the prevalence of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, high-profile incidents involving the use of force significantly contribute to growing calls for transparency into police operations. Whether justified, outside of policy or accidental, weapons discharges are often at the center of these incidents that contribute to the erosion of public trust in police amidst rising crime rates.

There is a fundamental conflict with a company that markets both weapons and software aiming to enhance accountability and transparency. How could a company that benefits from weapons sales be trusted to be transparent with its data management software? They’re on both sides of the issue, creating a problematic public perception.

Trust

Use of force incidents contribute to a breakdown in community/police relations. There is an inherent tension in marketing weapons, whether they’re lethal or “less-lethal,” to increase community trust in police. As the old saying goes, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” and it seems that weapons are unlikely to contribute to a solution for the problem their misuse has caused.

How will your community respond when they learn a company that manufactures weapons is providing software that attempts to increase trust and transparency? Will this do anything to promote community policing objectives or de-escalate anxiety about incidents of use of force?

Analytics for Change

At Benchmark Analytics, our purpose is guided by data science and evidence-based analysis. We specialize in public safety personnel management – it is our area of unique expertise. When we gather and analyze data sets, we use the product of that work for personnel management, professional standards, and early intervention. Taking this a step further, we work in partnership with our academic research consortium and use this data to contribute to a broader understanding of policing for the public good. We do not use it to market weapons systems or other unrelated products.

Use of force incidents and how the public perceives them are transforming policing. A rising national crime rate, combined with the policy pushes for reform, has created an environment in which a commitment to transparency and accountability are paramount to the success of law enforcement leaders and their agencies. Simply, maintaining the public’s trust is critical. When selecting a personnel management system, don’t open the door to doubts about impartiality, transparency, and trust.

This is the second of a three-part series that explores the intersections of professional standards, personnel management, and data in law enforcement.  

Modern policing and data management are now inextricably linked. Policing leaders use data analysis to gain valuable insights into patterns derived from crime statistics. Internally, data can point to officers excelling in their roles and ready to take on new responsibilities, as well as those in need of additional support.

A rising tide of crime across the country coupled with public demands for accountability and transparency are propelling law enforcement agencies to adopt new – but inherently very different – data management strategies. Manufacturers of police hardware, CAD systems, and other crime-side systems are entering the personnel management space at this pivotal moment, attempting to offer “one-stop” solutions that house wildly different types of data within the same systems.

Law enforcement personnel data management is a highly specialized field. As experts in this field, we at Benchmark Analytics know that criminal and officer personnel data should never be stored together.

The Importance of Offender Data in an Era of Rising Crime

By analyzing data – suspect profiles, crime scene evidence, victim and witness statements, and other crime data – investigators can gain valuable insights needed to combat rising crime rates. At their core, these data points are striking evidence of the breakdown of law and order in the communities police are sworn to protect.

Officers Make the Difference – and Their Data Matters

Data science also plays a vital role in law enforcement personnel management. An officer’s personnel file is a window into their career in policing. It can open doors to new opportunities for advanced training, specialization — and, importantly, advancement through the ranks.

Well-managed personnel data gives a complete and balanced picture of an officer’s career in service, with use of force incidents, internal affairs data, as well as positive policing outcomes, all contributing to that holistic portrayal of an officer’s service. These same data points also feed into early intervention systems and other efforts to increase transparency, accountability, and, ultimately, community trust.

Why Would You Conflate the Two?

Rigorous analysis of offender data and officer data serve an agency in distinctly different ways.

Offender data details crime incidents within the larger scope of current rising trends, whereas officer personnel files capture performance data within (or outside of) established standards and practices. The data points in criminal records and personnel files are entirely different, and the users of these two systems have fundamentally different needs.

Bearing these facts in mind, one system should never handle officer personnel data and criminal records – it is inherently fraught and invites problems. On a moral level, it goes against everything the badge stands for.

“…[agencies should] Develop appropriate and reasonable technology controls with common sense supporting procedures and guidelines.” – IACP Technology Policy Framework.

What need is served by storing disparate data types in the same system other than that of the company providing such a product? Common sense suggests these two types of different data should be kept apart.

How Will Your Officers Respond?

How do you expect your officers to respond when they learn records of their commendations and career progress are stored alongside offender data? This sends a problematic message to the officers in your department.

Though some may claim there are “firewalls” to segregate these two types of data, at the end of the day, they’re still in the same system and your officers will know this fact. Officers are rightly sensitive about internal affairs investigations and the data they generate. Any claim, whether sustained or dismissed, can seriously affect an officer’s future career progress and opportunities.

What impact will it have on your officers when they realize their personnel information is stored in the same system as criminals? What message will that send throughout your department?

At a time when crime is rapidly on the rise — and the public and politicians demand results — you need your officers to have a sense of buy-in and purpose with a system designed to support accountability and transparency.

The Hazards of Sending a Bad Message

Grouping internal affairs and personnel data with criminal data sends, at best, a mixed message to your officers.

In the case of internal affairs investigations, it can engender a perception of bias and guilt before an investigation is even initiated. Evidence shows that most internal affairs investigations are concluded with a non-criminal outcome.

A perception of unfair treatment – which is known to contribute to a culture of discord and internal distrust — is the last thing any department needs at this crucial time.

Law Enforcement Personnel Management is a Specialized Field

Benchmark Analytics focuses on law enforcement personnel management – we intentionally leave criminal data storage and analysis to specialists in that area of data science. Put simply, archiving data on police officers and criminals in the same systems is inherently problematic.

Why would these two data types ever need to be stored in the same system? There’s no practical or otherwise compelling reason to do so.

Amid rising crime rates affecting communities of all sizes across the country, data can and will play a critical role in reversing the trends. Department personnel are equally important in this fight, acting on data insights. Their work-related data should never be put side-by-side with that of the criminals they confront on patrol.

At Benchmark, our real-world experience in law enforcement makes this concept intrinsic to everything we do. It is our unique background at all levels of policing that informs our products, our philosophy, and how we evolve to meet the changing needs of law enforcement agencies.