6 best practices that should be part of every agency’s retention strategy

From mobile bunkhouses for officers held over for court to comprehensive wellness programs, here’s a look at police officer retention strategies in action


As difficult as it is to recruit viable candidates into a law enforcement career, it can be just as challenging to retain personnel. Once an individual joins the organization, it is up to the agency to create attractive ways to retain that person.

Over 80 sworn and civilian individuals from 46 different police departments, sheriff’s agencies and corrections institutions convened at a conference hosted by the Insight Exchange Network (IEN) in San Francisco in November 2018. The event addressed the difficulties in recruiting and retaining viable candidates in a vibrant economy with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, the lowest number since 1969. In a previous article, I outlined six best practices shared at the forum that should be part of every agency’s police recruitment strategy. In this article I detail police retention best practices discussed at the forum to help retain staff during police academy training, subsequent probationary periods and beyond.

Usual strategies of enticing pension plans; medical, vision and dental plans; and salary increases continue. Other tried and true measures include rotating shifts, generous vacation and personal time off, and take-home cars. Some agencies that recruit lateral officers from other agencies may lure candidates with hiring bonuses and travel expenses.

Once an individual joins the organization, it is up to the agency to create attractive ways to retain that person. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Once an individual joins the organization, it is up to the agency to create attractive ways to retain that person. (Photo/PoliceOne)

However, the next generation may not be interested in a deferred compensation plan that comes to fruition 30 years down the road. They may also not be interested in working patrol duties or midnight shifts for the foreseeable future. Both enticing and retaining this generation requires thinking outside of the box.

The importance of wellness programs

Captain John Shaffer of the Great Falls (Montana) Police Department discussed his agency’s wellness program, which offers compensatory time off for participating in a fitness program and offers full body screening to detect hidden health hazards. Seasoned officers, as well as recruits, are encouraged to participate in the program to maintain health and fitness levels.

Other departments have similar fitness programs that test body fat, sit-ups, push-ups, short runs and flexibility. Mental health wellness should be addressed as well. Many agencies offer mental health resources to help personnel deal with everyday stresses and traumatic experiences that may occur over the course of their career. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that link members to mental health professionals may save careers and lives. Over time, programs that center on officer wellness serve both the agency and the officer. Captain Shaffer referred to an Office of Justice Programs (OJP) website – The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit -Tools for Law Enforcement – which offers an array of checklists for mental health wellness.

Supporting life outside of LE

Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant (Ret.) Cassandra Britt-Nickerson described the importance of educating recruits about how life continues alongside a law enforcement career. She tells male and female candidates alike they can still plan families as a cop. She described having two children during her career as a sworn member of the department and being able to take a year off from work with each of them with accommodations by the department, taking personal leave, vacation leave and extra-duty accumulated time off. The LAPD Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) is an incentive for those candidates with questions about long-term career planning. The plan allows officers to retire at the earliest age and to work for the same salary beyond their pension. This is a bonus that lures some candidates in a time where pensions are threatened in other jurisdictions.

The importance of mentoring candidates through the application and hiring phases was common among several of the agencies at the forum. Choose mentors wisely to model the behavior your agency is looking for in a new officer. The LAPD model goes a step further and follows candidates through the academy phase until completion of the probationary period.

Hosting meet & greet events

Human Resources Division Chief Antoinette Tull of the Richmond (Virginia) Police Department uses a modest budget to entertain potential recruits and welcome new recruits and their families at family meet and greet functions.

At these functions, family members and recruits share fellowship with department mentors and senior command staff to discuss the lifestyle benefits and challenges of being a new police recruit.

Chief Tull described five crucial retention stages:

  1. Recruitment;
  2. Selection;
  3. Academy training;
  4. Assignments;
  5. Promotion.

Stages one through three are aimed at retaining new personnel, while the stages of opportunities in assignments and promotion serve tenured personnel as well.

Rotating shifts and assignments based on merit give officers goals to strive toward.

Opportunities for promotions – even lateral moves – give personnel a desire to perform well and continue to stay with their department.

Six best practices for officer retention

Here are six best retention practices shared by participants at the forum:

1. Bridge the gap.

Stop labeling the next generation of law enforcement officers as millennials or Generation Z. Try to understand rather than criticize them. Only through understanding them will true integration into the agency occur.

2. Be transparent and inclusive.

Onboard new recruits and have them bring their families to understand the process, the organization and the future with their new family – their department. Have an open house with a program that introduces command staff and line officers to explain how things work and what to expect. Assign mentors to applicants to keep in touch between hiring segments, through hiring and the academy. Have the mentor assist recruits who may need remedial instruction through the academy and until the end of the probationary period.

3. Be determined, be swift and be decisive.

Neither backgrounds nor job offers should be made until the testing phases are complete. Still, agencies may consider a “qualifying job offer” should the candidate successfully pass through the background screening. Candidates may be lost to other agencies if the process drags on or if the candidate is left in the dark in regard to their status. A qualifying job offer says the job is promised and awaits them at the end of the process. This may be merely symbolic, but it also sends a message that your agency wants them.

4. Be innovative and creative.

Consider the needs of the agency and pair them with the needs of new hires. Is job sharing an option? Can shifts be rotated so new personnel are not relegated to midnight shifts for years on end? Are there incentives for night shifts? Can accommodations be made for personnel who live long distances from the agency? A California police chief told me he is exploring the use of CalFire mobile bunkhouses to serve as temporary housing for officers who may be held over for court, overtime, or for short periods between shifts. The trailers would be situated on department property.

5. Take care of the troops.

In addition to traditional medical, dental and vision health plans, incentives to maintain fitness levels benefit the organization, the agency member and their families. EAP programs can help identify and address minor problems with mental health, drugs, alcohol, marital issues and more before they become critical issues. Consider treatment over discipline to retain personnel as long-term, valued investments.

6. Share the vision and future with personnel.

Be fair with promotions and assignments. Represent personnel at government meetings to show their value. Maintain salary and incentives on parity with surrounding agencies. Maintain facilities, fleet and equipment. Keep training current and innovative. Share a mission statement that means something and model the behavior you seek.

Conclusion

Different strategies are necessary among large, medium and small agencies depending on the size of personnel, resources and budget considerations. Larger metropolitan agencies may offer more activity to police, better salaries and pensions, and the ability to promote or switch assignments within the agency. Smaller departments may offer incentives such as better individualized health benefits, affordable living and a slower pace that may be more conducive to community policing within the community. Traditional cookie-cutter recruitment and retention strategies need to be examined to address cultures and influences within and outside their departments.

Organizations should treat recruitment and retainment issues as real threats. Police command staffs and department leaders of all ranks should strategize on addressing the long-term problems with short- and long-term solutions the same way they would treat a serious enforcement issue. Human resources administration leadership outside the organization and police union officials are necessary to be included as stakeholders to address the issues.

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