Back of the Book
Solving recruitment and retention issues in law enforcement
September 6, 2023 By Tom Wetzel
Instead of the iconic saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” we may want to start saying “North America, we have a problem” regarding the police recruitment and retention predicament we are currently experiencing.
When I took the police entrance test over 35 years ago, there were approximately 400 people who participated. From that large group, only three were selected for positions. As a chief directly involved in our last lateral exam, which allowed police officers from other departments to apply at top pay instead of starting at a probationary rate, only five initially applied. From that group, three were selected for positions. This is extremely low turnout for a job that has never paid better and has an excellent retirement package.
Our department experienced what nearly all police agencies are going through, which is a frightening lack of interest. This is an unquestionable crisis and if it worsens, we can expect a radical reduction in the services we have grown accustomed to, as well as less security overall.
One of the most important tasks of a police officer is gathering information from a complaint and writing a police report. Report writing for matters small and large is the meat and potatoes for so much of what we do. Our communities should get ready to become personal report writers for small issues like thefts or motor vehicle accidents with our current recruitment rates. They may end up being handed self-reporting forms, which will essentially be for documentation purposes only because no officer will have time to do any meaningful follow-up of their complaint, regardless of how important it is to them personally. Worse yet, members of our communities may need to drive to the police station to get the form as no cop will be available to deliver it.
Less cops per shift equals less service and safety. It’s not a complicated formula.
The staffing of police departments involves manpower minimums that should be based on call volume and city-specific needs. If a department has determined that a minimum of 20 police officers is necessary for a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, 20 officers will be scheduled, even if it involves forced overtime or denial of earned vacation time. Overtime pay is a nice way for a cop to make some extra money, but there is a threshold where it begins to burn an officer out physically and mentally, and resentment sets in as they are forced to miss their children’s birthday parties and family holiday dinners. Eventually, departments will have little choice but to reduce these manpower minimums based on hard numbers as well as officer wellness needs. Less cops per shift equals less service and safety. It’s not a complicated formula.
Safety will also be adversely affected by officers’ apprehensions to engage suspects due to an outrageous expectation of perfection involving use-of-force decisions. Keep in mind that these decisions are made in tense, dangerous and rapidly evolving situations and sometimes the choices are decided in the blink of an eye. In the past, society has given the benefit of the doubt to their paid guardians when they used force as they were the ones facing the danger. Increasingly, to some, it may feel like the suspect is given the benefit of the doubt in a perverse attempt to make up for the past sins of other officers who misused force.
What cops fear today is not just getting killed by a bad guy, but going to jail for a split-second decision that was created by a law breaker. One thing you can almost always count on is the offender’s non-compliance to begin with, but today, the suspect’s behavior is just an afterthought. So, would you want to sign up to be a cop in this type of environment? Novelties like signing bonuses will not change this reality.
This recruitment crisis needs to be addressed head on and as soon as possible. On our end, we need to do a much better job of branding and marketing our time-honoured profession. We have allowed others to create a false narrative about policing that was built on inflammatory irrational rhetoric, that allowed ideas like defunding the police to take hold in some places. The damage that was done from this had a detrimental effect on recruitment and grossly shrunk our hiring pool. It may take years to fix, if not longer. Although we are playing catch up, we have our honour along with empirical evidence and a mountain of good will to reshape the narrative about policing with facts. We need to better educate those we serve so they understand the crisis we are in and look for solutions to address it. They need to realize that it won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap for them. If not, our society as a whole will be much worse for it. Crime will thrive and lives will be lost. This too is not a complicated formula.
Tom Wetzel is the recently retired chief of police in Richmond Heights, Ohio, and a former SWAT commander. He is also a certified law enforcement executive, adjunct professor in community policing and internationally published author on police topics.
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