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.
With 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.
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.