Setting the record straight on law enforcement retention

Are officers really leaving your agency in droves?


This is the fourth in an ongoing series providing tips and best practices law enforcement agencies can deploy to improve police officer recruitment. In the last article, we reviewed how to recruit at colleges and military bases (it’s not what you think). Email your police recruitment tips to editor@policeone.com.

Retention is one of the most contentious issues facing law enforcement that everyone has the answer to. Unfortunately, most of the solutions I keep hearing are little more than attention-grabbing one-liners. It’s time to stop bickering among ourselves and reapproach retention with open minds. 

What do the numbers say?

I hear the statement “people are leaving in droves” almost as much as “unprecedented times.” Are officers really leaving your agency in droves? Whenever I can get the rest of the story, “leaving in droves” usually becomes “a few officers quit.” If your department is 300 strong and 10 people voluntarily left last year, that’s a 3% turnover rate. Is that really “leaving in droves?”

If your department is 300 strong and 10 people voluntarily left last year, that’s a 3% turnover rate. Is that really “leaving in droves?” (Photo/Pixabay)
If your department is 300 strong and 10 people voluntarily left last year, that’s a 3% turnover rate. Is that really “leaving in droves?” (Photo/Pixabay)

Even further investigation often reveals that some of those 10 quit for reasons out of anyone’s control. Some turnover is inevitable, and making even large changes such as raising pay, changing policies, or removing a toxic leader won’t solve it. The point is, let’s be honest about how many officers are really leaving and start acknowledging that not everyone leaves because of pay and unpopular policies. 

It’s not just the numbers

Even though retention numbers themselves are important, how many quit doesn’t matter as much as who quit. If a team only loses one player, an all-star Michael Jordan type, no one’s thinking, “Oh well, we only lost one.” To make matters worse, if a good cop leaves your agency, others may follow. 

Dr. John Sullivan has written over 1,200 articles and 10 books on recruiting, retention and talent management. Dr. Sullivan told me that all turnover should be categorized as either regrettable or non-regrettable.

Non-regrettable turnover occurs when officers voluntarily leave who weren’t a good fit or were making the agency look bad, thus possibly putting your agency in a better place. Maybe it’s time to examine how they got hired in the first place.

Regrettable turnover, on the other hand, occurs when involuntary forces pull someone away. Did anyone leave to follow a spouse’s career or move closer to family? The Topeka Police Department has lost good officers for these and similar reasons. This type of turnover maybe can’t be avoided, but instead needs to be navigated as an ongoing recruitment issue.

Did good cops get recruited elsewhere, or join federal or much larger agencies? Dr. Sullivan compares this to a minor league player being called up to the majors. It would be more alarming if your officers were traveling the country for training and no one tries to recruit them, while at the same time other officers were applying to different agencies but no one would hire them.

Some regrettable turnover may be due to toxic leadership and low pay. Your agency and governing body will have to decide what approaches are most cost-effective and what they think the community deserves. Is it cheaper to keep pay and benefits stagnant, and just hire and train replacements? Is the pride of retaining a toxic supervisor or manager worth losing good officers? Does the community deserve to be policed by good officers? Your leaders should have the answers.

Forget exit interviews – Conduct Stay Interviews

Research and opinions are mixed on the accuracy and usefulness of employee exit interviews. Is the separating employee being candid? If a reason is provided why they left, are there other reasons not being divulged? Will their answers be the same six months later? What if we stopped worrying why 10 people quit and instead focused on why 290 stayed?

Dr. Sullivan suggests that asking employees why they stay with the agency can be more powerful and enlightening than asking one person why they left. Stay interviews can shed light on what motivates the employee, and give leaders the knowledge and tools to reinforce that motivation. If an officer loves her job because of overtime opportunities, I would certainly forward any and all her way.  

Dr. Sullivan also says showing organizational appreciation and communicating how each employee is making a difference can dramatically influence the odds an employee will stay. Think about the power of an officer receiving a thank-you card in the mail. Imagine showing an officer the positive impact his police protective custody case has had. Dr. Sullivan believes agencies that reinforce employees’ motivation, display appreciation and show individual officers that they are making a difference will have less regrettable turnover. Why are these gestures unpopular? Too often, egos interfere with fostering this type of environment, and politics prevent what’s best for the agency. Maybe it’s time for a culture shift.

Can your agency’s retention problem be solved?

Consider that as you’re reading this, officers across the country are resigning and retiring early due to the climate of our career field today. There may be ways to prevent some regrettable turnover, but certainly not all. Recruitment still remains the solution to retention, but it’s the constant denominator that gets little suggestion because it doesn’t excite anyone.

If 10 cops quit, you need at least 10 highly motivated, squared-away candidates ready to replace them. This doesn't just mean knowing where you might be able to find 10 over the next several months but having 10 with final offers of employment. Think of them as the star high school and college players eager to go pro. If your Michael Jordan quits, you need Larry Bird. The next article will discuss how to pull that trade-off – it’s not that complicated. 

NEXT: How front-line supervisors impact police officer retention

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