Moving into 2022, a lot is changing in the world of law enforcement — legislation is reshaping policies and tactics while enhanced data collection and reporting is giving new insight into officer performance metrics and crime statistics. Police recruitment remains an issue facing law enforcement leaders in 2022, changing only because the need is growing as trends in retirement and resignation continue. This article looks at how cultural and employment trends affect staffing levels and recruitment levels in law enforcement with an eye towards the future.
What’s Causing Recruitment and Staffing Shortfalls?
For decades, social sciences researchers have been studying police recruitment efforts and documenting the pivot in the profession to a more highly skilled and technically proficient workforce needed for the 21st century. Despite a whole field of research devoted to law enforcement recruitment and retention, the problem persists to such an extent that even mainstream national news outlets are taking note. Both CNN and the Wall Street Journal have covered the topic in recent weeks, highlighting interviews with law enforcement leaders about their experience with staffing shortfalls and speaking to officers about why they left the profession.
It is too soon for comprehensive reporting from 2021 to be available, but the most recent research from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) speaks to the magnitude of recruitment shortfalls. From April of 2020 to March of 2021, resignations rose at 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 as of late is the notion of a Great Resignation which has seen 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 are likely to affect staffing levels well into 2022.
The issues driving this wave of resignations – working hours, conditions, and pay – 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.
Effects of Staff Shortages
The numbers surrounding staffing shortfalls in law enforcement are easy to understand. However, the effects of the issue are more profound than can be conveyed in spreadsheets of survey results. Staffing shortfalls create real hardships not only for departments struggling to recruit new officers but for the officers themselves who struggle with long hours and difficult working conditions.
Low recruiting numbers create financial challenges for departments that turn to signing bonuses to attract potential recruits. In Washington State, law enforcement leaders offer bonuses of as much as $25,000 to help lure recruits. Other counties in the state, like King County (Seattle), seek outside help from recruiting specialists to boost their numbers. These signing bonuses and recruitment consultants come at a cost when growth in spending on policing is under increased and intense public scrutiny in many areas of the country. Additionally, though municipal and state legislative bodies provide funding for bonuses and contractors, there is no guarantee these funding packages will become permanent parts of the law enforcement budget, with many being framed as one-time expenditures.
When officers resign or retire, their shifts don’t leave the department with them. Though the public perception of crime rates doesn’t always match reality, the facts are that property crimes like carjacking are on the rise. Murder rates are jumping year-over-year while clearance rates are dropping. These trends create a greater need for officers on patrol, but the shortfall requires extra shifts and potentially unwanted overtime. These factors contribute to a cyclical effect of long hours and stressful work driving increased burnout, leading officers to pursue careers in other fields.
A Complex Problem
For generations, law enforcement agencies have experienced shortfalls in their recruitment efforts. The profession, to many, is seen as a higher calling to public service that requires rigorous ethical and performance characteristics of its recruits – qualities not found in just anyone. In recent years, recruitment shortfalls have been compounded by broad, societal trends set into motion by high-profile policing incidents and a global pandemic. While agencies can turn to incentives and outside consultants in the short term, investments in systemic change to the profession are most likely to create lasting change. Leadership development and technical training are shown to move the needle somewhat. Still, most experts agree that the hard work reforming the public perception of policing and the nature of the profession will go a long way to improving recruitment shortfalls.