The 'me generation' and the future of law enforcement

Differences between new officers and those with significantly more experience should be expected


In the last several years, law enforcement literature — both academic and popular — has been replete with articles on the hiring and training of new officers from the millennial generation. Millennials include somewhere between 70-80 million some say upwards of 102 million by 2025 young men and women born between 1980 and 2002.

By virtually all accounts, these officers may not be easily understood or accepted by older officers Boomers and Gen-X’ers who are currently in positions of authority in law enforcement. Some have characterized this generational gap as a potential law enforcement workforce crisis.

Whatever one’s personal opinion on the quality of the new generation of law enforcement officers, they are here to stay. Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 and older-Generation X’ers born between 1965 and 1979 should recognize the coming changes. In fact, differences between new officers and those with significantly more experience should be expected.

Inconsistent and Incompatible
Michael W. Frost pointed out the potential — but natural — conflict between law enforcement generations in his 2011 doctoral dissertation

“[I]t’s not unusual for the values and beliefs of one generation to be inconsistent and incompatible with those of others...[which could result in] some intergenerational disturbance...” These millennial officers, some of whom may now be reaching their 10-year mark in law enforcement, are being seen increasingly in leadership positions.

New millennial officers apparently have a number of job requirements that older officers would find either confusing or outright disrespectful of police institutional culture, to include its traditional rights of passage. Here are several examples.

Millennials are high maintenance. This generation likely wants a “constant stream of feedback.” According to an MTV poll the vast majority of Millennials want feedback and a “mentor,” not a formal boss. Remember, they were raised by “peer-ents” — overprotective “helicopter parents” who are, ironically, the same generation that now dominates law enforcement — so they probably expect something similar from their law enforcement trainers and leaders. 

Millennials don’t like hierarchy or readily accept another’s titled authority. The same MTV poll also suggests that that the majority — a full two thirds — want to “invent their own position at their jobs,” especially if they don’t like the one they have. This may have a lot to do with their desire to work in a flat organization, as few seem to respect hierarchy or authority.

Millennials may want to train the trainer. Again, the MTV study suggests that for the Millennials, training is “listening,” and not necessarily for them. Instead, they want their newly-selected “mentor” to listen to their “ideas and opinions.” The study found that approximately 76 percent of Millennials “think their boss could learn a lot from them.”

In other words, for Millennials, law enforcement leaders must value them “for what they have to offer, and their needs and concerns must be figured into the equation.” 

Millennials may be less concerned with privacy than current law enforcement officers.

Predictions from the World Future Society suggest that Millennials may not have many of today’s concerns toward privacy and security. Raised with social networking techniques that eschew privacy, the new generation of officers may be less concerned about “invasions of privacy” issues than current law enforcement officers. This may also explain why some millennial officers do not understand why their private lives can negatively affect their public responsibilities. Just look at the problem of how potential and current millennial officers use Facebook.

Millennials may not have the necessary people skills to immediately make them an effective officer and communicator. Their strong interest in technology, and their almost constant communication over this medium, suggests some may not have yet developed the one-on-one communication skills necessary to be successful in law enforcement.

Millennials may not find a public sector job to be particularly fulfilling. Public sector jobs may have too much “red tape and checks and balances.”

Instead, many might rather own their own business than meet the deadlines and follow the rules in what has become an increasingly cumbersome law enforcement bureaucracy. 

Millennials may be impatient for promotion and unwilling to wait for an opportunity. Unlike previous generations, Millennials may not want to “pay their dues” working, say, in patrol for a decade before they get a chance to move up the career ladder. Instead, should they not get the promotion they believe they deserve, they could move on after only a couple of years. Though Millennials have a desire to grow with their employer they are not above leaving if the job proves unsatisfying. Millennials can easily “network” themselves into another job or even a completely different profession if they find themselves dissatisfied with their current choice.

In other words, they may look towards a more meaningful and socially inviting work culture than just having a job and a paycheck. However, not all studies support this conclusion.

Millennials may want to collaborate with peers before making a decision. The public education system has stressed collaboration over individual decision-making for decades, and the Millennials are a product of that system. Instead of jumping right in and “taking charge” at a call, they may wait for others to arrive and then work on solving the problem collectively.

Millennials may be more about “me” than “we.” Despite the millennial self-assessment or delusion that they are altruistic and desire “meaningful” employment and a collaborative culture, it may really be all about them. In an otherwise crowded field of studies some show that the Millennials are more “me” than “we” focused. One author has concluded that the Millennials are “confident, assertive, entitled” and “miserable.”

Everything Starts With Recruiting
However, all may not be lost. Despite the negatives, other studies, such as one from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, suggest that new Millennial officers have high ethical standards and are willing to work hard. In other words, they are trainable, but maybe not in the way older officers would understand.

Leaders and trainers may be able to get a lot out of this “high maintenance workforce” so long as they “practice ‘in loco parentis’ management,” give the new officers “context” for decisions, and “teach them how to manage themselves.”

Most importantly, experienced officers must constantly and transparently model and emulate the desired traits in a police officer.
How, exactly, to do all this is more complicated. Law enforcement faces three challenges: recruiting good candidates; training them to understand their policing role and to do the job safely and effectively; and retaining the best officers in the profession.

Some authors believe that the Millennials will make excellent police candidates. However, departments and agencies need to explore new candidates’ personal and professional aspirations in some depth before hiring.

Shaping test and interview questions may be an important way to capture where a recruit stands on a millennial spectrum. Asking them what they expect from a job and making them prioritize, from a prepared list of possible answers, could be a good first step.

Departments should consider fine-tuning their FTO program to accommodate Millennials’ learning style — see herehere,  and here for example. Departments should also consider working closely with a local community college to help develop their training program. Community colleges typically spend a large amount of human capital helping instructors adapt to the variety of learning styles encountered with new students and should have the expertise and desire to help.

The last component is retention. If the profession wants to retain officers, department chiefs may have to accept that they are hiring a new recruit for the profession, and not necessarily just their department. To keep Millennials, some departments have found that offering them scheduling flexibility and opportunities for training and specialization has helped. However, these options would likely be more difficult for smaller departments that don’t have the number of officers necessary to make these types of accommodations.

Good News for Law Enforcement
Though Millennials apparently don’t like hierarchy, they appreciate structure. A more structured career path, and one that focuses on developing new law enforcement leaders, may be another way to retain good officers. Again, smaller departments may have a tougher time in this regard and may, instead, need to look for new officers that prefer to be generalists rather than specialists in their profession.

However, to believe that everyone in a particular generational cohort will display all the characteristics of that generation is naive. Even some researchers into the subject are rightly skeptical. Anyway, a career in law enforcement may not attract the most die-hard Millennials — the law enforcement stereotype won’t fit their self-image. A Pew Research Study shows that Millennials are attracted to “progressive” and “liberal” causes — characteristics that may be more conducive to social work than public order.

If true, that’s good news for law enforcement. Those who self-select into a police career will likely not have all the characteristics of the generational cohort, especially those that could prove disruptive to the profession. In the end, Millennials will perform their jobs just as professionally, but differently, as previous law enforcement generations.

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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