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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

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Washington, DC 20530

January 2022 | Volume 15 | Issue 1

The Dynamic Police Staffing Challenge

The need for police has changed considerably since the early 2000s.1 The terrorist attacks of 9/11 contributed to a larger law enforcement role in homeland security. The increased adoption of community policing has resulted in officers spending more time working collaboratively and proactively with residents. New crimes have emerged requiring police attention, including a wide array of technology-based offenses, such as online identity theft and fraud. Greater awareness of crimes and social problems that have long existed has also called for enhanced focus on issues such as human trafficking, product counterfeiting, mental illness, and homelessness. Further, the complexity of these activities requires greater coordination, information sharing, and partnership building, all of which take time. Together, these changes increase both the demand for police and the skills required of them to keep communities safe.

In the mid-2000s, agencies struggled to hire enough officers. This quickly changed with the economic downturn of the late 2000s, where budget cuts led to everything from hiring freezes and lay-offs to the consolidation and even disbanding of entire police departments.2 As the economy has picked up over the last decade, police agencies have again been struggling to hire enough officers. While some of this difficulty is due to more opportunities in the private sector and even federal law enforcement, other less visible trends are also in play. Fewer people want to apply because of changing career-lifestyle preferences. In addition, fewer people are qualified to meet the rigid standards of becoming a police officer, such as those relating to drug use, debt, obesity, and even tattoos and facial hair (standards some agencies are now starting to relax). Such issues are in addition to police legitimacy concerns affecting interest in the profession, which no doubt have become increasingly acute as a result of the George Floyd protests and subsequent calls for police reform. Further complicating matters, officers are leaving agencies in increasing numbers because of baby-boom generation retirements, concerns raised about police legitimacy and reform, and by younger officers with greater interest in and opportunity to career hop to other police agencies or private organizations, particularly where better offers can be found. These departures can further magnify staffing challenges by increasing the workload among the remaining staff. Negative community sentiment and increased workload can incite even more turnover, especially when left unmitigated or among younger officers who haven’t experienced such cycles and don’t see an end in sight.

These trends have increased the demand while reducing the supply of police staff, leaving law enforcement in many communities on the brink. While few timely and robust data sources exist to assess police staffing issues (which further impedes the development of important lessons), a 2019 survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reveals that 86 percent of police agencies report a police officer shortage, and over three out of four of these agencies claim the situation has not improved over the last five years.3 A PERF survey from early 2021 revealed little progress: across agencies of all sizes, the typical hiring rate fell by five percent while resignation and retirement rates increased by 18 percent and 45 percent, respectively.4 This has led many agencies to fall well below their allocated levels, contributing to community perception of a public safety crisis and a feeling among police staff of being overworked and underappreciated, thereby fueling both morale concerns and more turnover. Additionally, this has contributed to fierce competition among agencies for officers, and, in many communities, a lowering of standards on prior drug use and criminal charges, education, physical fitness, and other areas to encourage more people to apply.

Enter the coronavirus. The current pandemic has hit police agencies when their abilities to maintain their strength were difficult at best and a crisis at worst. For example, over the last 18 years, the Baltimore (Maryland) Police Department has lost more officers than it hired in all but four years, with the typical year ending with 47 fewer officers than when it started.5 The pandemic is now creating challenges of its own. Along with the public health risk aggravating recruitment and retention, the pandemic has created resource concerns that have fueled these challenges, with nine in ten cities expecting budget shortfalls and over half predicting cuts to public safety due to it.6 This will undoubtedly hurt many local communities and further diminish their ability to build and maintain their police workforces. To help counteract these challenges, there have been various proposals to support police staffing. For example, the Michigan House of Representatives recently passed a public safety funding plan that includes over $80 million to help Michigan communities recruit and retain police officers with bonuses and marketing, and another $40 million for police academy scholarships and stipends.7

Confirm the Agency is Understaffed

When any agency is thought to be understaffed, but particularly when so many are, it is important to ask, “How do we know?” Typically, understaffing is thought to occur when the number of police officers falls below the agency’s allocation level. However, these levels are frequently determined by factors other than the actual workload of the agency, such as funding availability, historical precedent, staff-per-population rates, minimum staffing levels, or comparison to peer agencies. In other words, falling below an allocated level can reveal very little about the extent to which an agency is understaffed and unable to meet its specific public safety obligations. Instead, workload-based assessments should be used to help empirically determine the number of officers an agency needs to meet both its demand (e.g., respond to calls for service) and its performance objectives (e.g., quality of service, proactivity for community policing).8 Comparing this estimate to existing staff levels can more objectively gauge the extent to which the agency’s current staffing is appropriate (or not) based on its needs, circumstances, and approach.

A workload-based assessment helps advance a conversation about what an agency or community needs versus what it wants (and can afford). This reframes the problem in two important ways. First, it introduces objectivity, evidence and analysis to ground discussion, moving discourse beyond assumptions, anecdotes, and overly simplistic and ineffective benchmarks. Second, it changes the focus of the problem from the singular issue of staffing to the multidimensional challenge of meeting workload demand, where staffing is but one of several solutions. In other words, instead of assuming staffing is the problem, we can think about the problem being meeting workload demand. While staffing nonetheless remains a challenge and a key means to meet workload obligations, this reframing encourages us to think more broadly and creatively about what else might be done to help police organizations accomplish their goals.

When the Agency is Understaffed for Its Workload
Boost Staffing

When a workload-based assessment determines an agency is understaffed for its service obligations, it is important to consider the strategic approaches the agency can take to optimize performance. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to hire and retain more staff. In the current environment, this is obviously more easily said than done. Nonetheless, there is much agencies can do in this regard by formally assessing their current circumstances and strategies in light of promising practices. Simply recruiting as usual (i.e., post a position and wait for applicants) no longer works for many agencies. Rather, recruiting must be more purposeful and targeted in its approach. Agencies also tend to focus on recruitment, but it is far more cost-efficient to retain an officer, which can help stabilize loss and relieve the need for recruitment. Additionally, for those willing to take advantage of it, there is a growing foundation of evidence-based and field-tested strategies, guidebooks, technical assistance programs, and other helpful resources available to the law enforcement community.9

It is important to be mindful that staffing strategy is far more than just numbers. Not ends in themselves, recruitment and retention are tools for managing the workforce over time, not just in levels but attributes. For example, when developing recruitment and retention strategies, an agency must be mindful of how its approach will affect other organizational staffing goals, such as diversity among the workforce, requisite skill mix to meet police environment and service objectives, and efficient distribution among seniority cohorts (e.g., imbalances among junior and senior officers).10 Failure to meet these goals can undermine organizational performance and lead to further staff turnover. All these factors and more must be considered when looking to bolster staffing to meet service obligations.

Increase Efficiency

The second major option to meet workload demand is to assess the way work is conducted to see if there are ways to accomplish more with existing resources. As we have learned from decades of police-researcher partnerships, some practices are more effective than others. Dealing with problems instead of incidents and strategically targeting crime instead of employing random patrol are just a few examples of approaches police agencies can make to reduce crime and alleviate call volume—both of which, in turn, generate workload demand.

Work schedules have tremendous implications for efficiency as well. For example, 10-hour work schedules are often very popular among staff, and therefore may assist recruitment and retention. They have been associated with a higher quality of work and officers getting more sleep than those on 8-hour shifts, and lower amounts of overtime than for 8- and 12-hour shifts.11 However, 10-hour shifts typically require more personnel to implement than these other shift lengths. This schedule can also result in more staff when calls for service are lower and less staff when they are higher.12 Work schedules can further interact with minimum staffing levels, making it difficult to deploy officers where needed. In short, agencies need to consider which work schedule best meets their needs.

Additionally, there are many tasks in police agencies where non-sworn staff can not only be hired more quickly and inexpensively but may have advanced skills and more effectively serve the public.13 Examples of positions commonly held by civilians include administrative support, uniformed first responders to nonviolent calls, crime scene processors, forensic lab staff, field-based crime victim service providers, analysts, planners, community liaison and public information employees, and command staff and strategic leaders. In other words, when dealing with workload demand, it’s not just the number of officers that matters, it’s also what they do and how they do it. In many situations, increasing the efficiency of agencies can offset perceived or actual staffing shortages. Field studies summarized in the research literature can provide practitioners many ideas for improving efficiency.

Employ Alternative Delivery Systems

One last way to meet workload demand is to reprioritize or re-envision what work is performed and how through alternative delivery systems. Some of these approaches are more contentious than others, but they have been implemented in some agencies and have helped in many ways. One example agencies have implemented around the country is nonemergency call systems, such as 311. These allow citizens to report minor issues through a separately managed system, minimizing the burden on the 911 system and officer response. Such systems can also ease pressure on dispatch staffing, which is among the most challenging for many agencies. Baltimore was one of the first cities to implement a 311 system. Its first year of operation resulted in a 25 percent drop in 911 calls (about 5,000 per week), while providing the police a better opportunity to tailor their response to the calls, thereby facilitating community policing.14 More recently, we’re seeing greater discussion and alternatives around mobile mental crisis teams, which can, in some circumstances, also lesson the workload of patrol officers.

Agencies can also re-envision their work by not responding to nonemergency calls for service. Citing a loss of 94 officers since the start of 2020, the Asheville (North Carolina) Police Department recently announced it would no longer physically respond to ten types of calls, including minor thefts or property damage where there is no suspect information; fraud, scams, and identity thefts; simple assaults reported after they occurred, and funeral escorts.15 While these approaches may be perceived as interfering with perceived quality of service, programs geared toward handling nonemergency calls have existed for some time and with noted success. In a study of differential response in three communities, including walk-in, mail-in, officer response by appointment, and telephone reporting units, citizens overwhelmingly supported these approaches, and evidence suggests such approaches could reduce patrol workload by as much as one-fifth.16 The Rockford (Illinois) Police Department’s Crime Reporting Unit, which has nonsworn staff take reports via walk-in and phone, handles about 25 percent of the agency’s call volume, while the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau’s Telephone Reporting Unit handles about 11 percent of the agency’s call load and 17 percent of the bureau’s written reports.17 It is not hard to imagine that alternative ways of handling reports could also provide added convenience to some, such as those simply wanting a report for insurance purposes or who prefer to file a report at their convenience as opposed to waiting indefinitely for a uniformed patrol response.

When the Agency is Not Understaffed for Its Workload

Experience suggests there are many agencies that feel overextended, and perhaps that officers are running from call to call, yet a workload-based assessment will reveal they have enough staff to meet their demand. This suggests greater attention needs to be given to strategies and activities that place more staff in patrol or otherwise free up officer time. Too many officers may be allocated elsewhere in the department, and they may need to be deployed more efficiently—or there may be more efficient ways of accomplishing organizational goals. Just like agencies that need staff but have trouble building and maintaining their levels, agencies can once again look to non-staff options for meeting their demand, such as by increasing efficiency or implementing alternative delivery systems.

Concluding Thoughts

Police staffing challenges are both acute and systemic. Those seeking to address police staffing shortages, whether for one or many agencies, must ask, and have answered, some challenging questions about the actual work the agency needs to complete, its desired approach to accomplish it, and the extent to which it is doing so most efficiently. While personnel are critical to any organization, staff is only one way to address the workload of police agencies. This discussion has introduced some examples of non-staff options, but they are by no means exhaustive. In today’s dynamic environment, all forms of accomplishing work accessible to an agency must be considered as part of a holistic strategy for maximizing organizational performance. Simply, it’s not just the number of staff that matters, but what they do and how they do it. Drawing on evidence and analysis, as well as examples from the field and research literature, can help decisionmakers manage their police workforces and work over time so that the law enforcement demand can be met by the most efficient combination of strategy, staff, and process.

Jeremy M Wilson, Ph.D.
Michigan State University


1. J. Wilson, “Articulating the Dynamic Police Staffing Challenge: An Examination of Supply and Demand,” Policing: An International Journal 37, no. 1 (2014),

2. J. Wilson and C. Grammich, Police Consolidation and Shared Services: Identifying, Developing and Sharing Lessons (Washington, DC: COPS Office, 2016),

3. PERF, The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It, (Washington, DC: PERF, 2019),

4. PERF, Survey on Police Workforce Trends, last updated June 21, 2011,

5. Baltimore Police Department Staffing Plan (Baltimore, MD: Alexander Weiss Consulting LLC, 2020),

6. S. Durr, “Cities Report Pandemic Creating Painful Budget Shortfalls, May Force Furloughs and Layoffs,” United States Conference of Mayors, Press Release, April 14, 2020,

7. A. Nichols, “Michigan House Passes $368.5M in Public Safety Funding,” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 2, 2021,

8. J. Wilson and A. Weiss, A Performance-Based Approach to Police Staffing and Allocation, (Washington, DC: COPS Office, 2014),

9. For examples, see J. Wilson, E. Dalton, C. Scheer, C. Grammich, Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium: The State of Knowledge (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Center on Quality Policing, 2010),; J. Wilson and C. Scheer, Recruitment and Retention for Workforce Diversity: Resource Guidebook (Washington, DC: COPS Office, 2021),; and the CRI-TAC Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center at

10. J. Wilson and J. Heinonen, “Police Workforce Structures: Cohorts, the Economy, and Organizational Performance,” Police Quarterly 15, no. 3 (2012): 283–307

11. K. Amendola, D. Weisburd, E. Hamilton, G. Jones, and M. Slipka, The Shift-Length Experiment: What We Know About 8-, 10- and 12-Hour Shifts in Policing (Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 2011),

12. Wilson and Weiss, A Performance-Based Approach (see note 8).

13. W. King and J. Wilson, Integrating Civilian Staff into Police Agencies (Washington, DC: COPS Office, 2014),

14. L. Mazerolle, D. Rogan, J. Frank, C. Famega, and J. Eck, Calling 311: Guidelines for Policymakers (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2005),

15. “Asheville Police Suspend Responses to 10 Kinds of Calls”, CBS17 News, June 4, 2021,

16. J. McEwen, E. Connors, and M. Cohen, Evaluation of the Differential Police Response Field Test, (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 1986),; D. Kennedy, “The Strategic Management of Police Resources,” Perspectives on Policing 14 (January 1993),

17. Wilson and Weiss, A Performance-Based Approach (see note 8).

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