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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Despite pay raises and sign-on and retention bonuses, vacancies have grown at law enforcement departments of all sizes. A frequently cited reason is low morale. In an era referred to as “post–George Floyd” by some law enforcement leaders, many police departments are finding that financial incentives aren’t enough to counter pervasive negative media coverage.
But most are also finding that the non-monetary rewards of policing—the sense of service, purpose, and nobility, as well as the exciting things they can do—remain strong motivators for recruitment and retention. Moreover, there are policies, programs and workarounds that can increase recruitment and retention despite negative media attention.
Said Bill Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), “Things that tie into the community policing model support recruitment and retention. Cadet programs, for instance, help bridge the gap between the community and the department and get young people interested. Hiring more officers from the community is important in gaining public buy-in. But requiring candidates to have a four-year college degree can be a hindrance to achieving that goal. Departments can create programs that allow individuals to become officers while working toward their education requirements. Other work experience can also be used to augment years in school, as is sometimes done for individuals who served in the military. Programs that provide funding to help candidate officers earn a degree are another way to recruit. An example is the Los Angeles Police Department Cadet Scholarship Program, which provides volunteer, leadership, and vocational opportunities for youth as well as scholarships.
“There are also some colleges which forgive student loans because of public service. You could approach a local educational institution and ask if you can work out a deal. The students could get associate degrees while they work in the department. Another option is to pay off some student debt every two years that the officer works.”
Johnson went on, “As for retention, it is critical to show that officers of all ranks are valued. We need to recognize exceptional service and do more officer appreciation activities. To get more positive media attention, do public awards events, such as an officer of the month recognition, or a Policewoman of the Year ceremony with a local Girl Scout troop. And, do these things at a high school or other public venue. Then invite the local press and community leaders. Meet with the local neighborhood watch, civic association, and business leaders on a regular basis too. I think what the rank-and-file need is to have a sense that political leadership, including their mayors and prosecutors, are supporting them. Right now, they don’t feel that way.
“And in prosecuting cases against police, these people shouldn’t be making disparaging comments to the media. Department leaders should take a proactive approach in gathering the facts after an incident and presenting them before another narrative is created. They should get in the habit of talking to the media and civic leaders, to build a reservoir of good will before a crisis occurs. We need the communities’ help, the support of faith groups, chambers of commerce, the schools, and others.
“We also have to do a better job of explaining what law enforcement does to protect the public. Let people know what your officers are doing, that they are working to reduce crimes in your area—that they recovered 16 stolen cars or found a person with dementia who wandered off, for instance. But try to acknowledge the problems too.
“If you’ve built good will, when something controversial happens, the initial public reaction is more likely to be ‘Let’s see what the facts are,’ not ‘There go the police again.’ Ultimately, the public perception of law enforcement has a huge impact on recruitment and retention.”
A similar message was heard at the Roundtable on How To Improve Officer Morale in 2022 held by Police1.
The online publication’s second annual State of the Industry survey, which was discussed at the meeting, found that officers and deputies wanted their supervisors to actively address the negative media attention, misinformation, and lack of public support for law enforcement.
Those at the meeting agreed that leadership should seize every opportunity to accurately communicate the realities of police work to the media and the public, noting that by improving their public image, officers would feel more respected, and recruitment would be less challenging.
But the survey finding that most surprised the meeting attendants was related to departmental management. Many survey respondents wanted stronger support from their first-line supervisors, chiefs and sheriffs, with better and more frequent communication from the top down. Though these officers liked their first line supervisors, they felt very removed from command staff. And there was an overall desire for more constructive and frequent performance feedback in weekly or monthly one-on-one meetings.
Another takeaway from the meeting was that agency leadership must keep everybody up to date on policy changes, as well as informed of the reasons for them. They should also request feedback on these changes, training requirements and human resources issues from those they supervise. Suggesting that command staff is often too far removed from the everyday realities of their officers’ jobs, one participant proposed that all appointed command staff answer calls in each shift three times a month.
The overarching conclusion at the end of the meeting was that law enforcement leadership can do a great deal to boost morale and change the narrative about police work—and in doing so can not only increase retention, but also enhance recruitment.
Said Bill Johnson, “One of the best recruitment pitches I’ve seen said ‘This is a tough job, but we support our officers.’”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
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