Leadership Development as a Tool for Officer Retention

Police officer retention is perennially a hot topic in both the practical and scholarly discussion of policing. Departmental leaders have plenty of reasons to want to retain good officers. It saves on recruiting and academy training costs. Experienced officers have good relationships with the community they serve as well as their fellow officers. They tend to pass their experience along with other positive traits to their more junior colleagues. In the ideal case, they model the professional standards policing leaders and the communities they serve want.

leadership growthOur previous article took a broad view of the issue, looking at why officers leave their departments or the profession entirely. This article will look more closely at how a department’s leadership affects officers’ job satisfaction. As one might expect, this is a substantial predictor of an officer’s likelihood to stay on the job. We’ll also explore how departmental leaders view leadership in a more modern light and, using these new leadership ideas, train and advance the leaders of the 21st century.

Job Satisfaction Factors

Common sense suggests that workers who think highly of their workplace leaders will often have a generally positive outlook on their job and at least a modicum of job satisfaction. Recent research from 2020 suggests that, among police officers, the perception of the internal work environment of a department is significantly correlated with high job satisfaction. Factors like strong supervisor support were linked to job satisfaction to a similar degree as citizen treatment of police.  The same study suggests that a positive internal work environment with good leaders can help mitigate some of the external stressors of the job, like community relations, that lead to low morale and poor job satisfaction.

While many of the factors influencing job satisfaction among officers are outside of the direct control of police executives — such as the inherent dangers of the job, budgets, and community perceptions influenced by national news stories — upper management does have a substantial role to play in the selection, training, and continual improvement of direct supervisors.

What Officers Want in a Leader

Another often-cited study of research on police workplace concerns offers critical insights into how officers feel about the leaders of their departments. Officers were asked to rank ten responses to various questions concerning leadership development and performance and factors perceived to constrain the efficacy of leaders. Here are a few of the most illustrative examples:

  • Achieving key tasks, goals, and missions was important, with roughly a quarter of the participants ranking it as their #1 response and 72% ranking it in the top five responses.
  • Inadequate leadership development systems were cited by 47% of officers as being a top three constraint to the effective leadership in their department.
  • 69% of officers rank a leader’s interest in and ability to manage the “growth or development of [officers]” as one of their top five concerns.

It may come as unsurprising to most familiar with the profession that it is “dedication and effectiveness in fulfilling the mission” that registers as the topline-reported concern of officers in the field. What is especially interesting in this set of survey data, however, is that officers place a high degree of importance on the so-called “soft skills” of their leaders – the ability to support officers with feedback, recommend leadership and professional development opportunities, and generally showing care for the needs of officers. This speaks to a desire among officers for a more modern approach to leadership techniques and the necessity to take a more holistic and research-driven to leadership development.

21st Century Leadership Development

The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released in May of 2015, continues to help set the plan moving forward for police training in the 21st century. The report calls for agencies to “provide leadership training to all personnel throughout their careers,” among many other recommendations and action items. A key example cited in the report is the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Leadership in Police Organizations training course. The coursework uses research-driven behavioral science and leadership theories in a framework designed to “inspire a lifelong commitment to the study and practice of effective leadership.” It also addresses a critical action item calling for a “national curricula and instructional methodology” movement.

These efforts stand in contrast to some of the more traditional approaches to police leadership training that emphasize seniority and a more military-style order and discipline when selecting future leaders. Instead, this more modern way of thinking reflects practices seen commonly in the private sector and helps satisfy officers’ needs for professional development and career advancement opportunities. It is hoped that training every officer in leadership skills will promote a culture that “values ongoing education and the integration of current research into the development of training, policies, and practices.”

“It’s complicated. It’s complex, but it’s fixable. It’s going to really take an effort to really get serious about leadership development in police agencies…” Benchmark IACP Leadership Series Conversation with Chuck Ramsey.

Reimagining leadership development and training by moving in a direction guided by data and research first and foremost addresses the needs of the communities that departments serve. Importantly, it also addresses what the study suggests the needs of officers are – to be supported, shown compassion, and offered real opportunities for growth and advancement in the profession. By responding to the needs of officers and by incorporating science and the latest research in their approach, police chiefs and department executives can foster an environment where officers feel valued, have a greater sense of job satisfaction, and are less likely to leave their job.

Departmental leaders use tools like First Sign® Early Intervention (EIS) to help spot off-track officers and identify additional training opportunities to get them back to a positive career path. Benchmark Management System® (BMS) similarly harnesses the power of a department’s data to track an officer’s progression, training status, and performance, ensuring they are both in compliance with the latest training requirements but also being offered the right performance-based opportunities for career development and enrichment.