Vol. 76, No. 3External submissions

Current trends in police retention

Strategies for keeping good talent


In the wake of the 2008 recession, uncertainty and volatility has had particular impact upon the contemporary workforce landscape, and even more so with regard to retention of police officers.

Forces outside the police manager's control, from changing generational preferences to budgetary strain, have produced an environment where workforce decisions, policy and potential solutions for long-term management are leapfrogged by shifting workforce dynamics that often render proactive planning obsolete.

How can a police leader manage an agency's workforce profile, while simultaneously forecasting and planning for a department's future, when the existing employee climate is so uncertain?

In a useful metaphor, employee retention has been referred to as the "hole" in the staffing "bucket" by which existing employees often escape (through voluntary turnover, or an employee's choosing to leave) or are released (as in involuntary turnover or termination) (Wilson et al., 2010).

In most recent research, employee turnover has been shown to negatively impact police organizational performance in controlling crime (Hur, 2013) and on long-term police organizational health by potentially stunting leadership development (Haddad et al., 2012). The disruption of career pathways caused by turnover may have a ripple effect on the entire organization and can be related to a number of organizational size, location and structural factors (Wareham et al., 2013).

Therefore, strategies for retention must be an integral part of a police organization's workforce management approach. Understanding the forces that cause attrition can assist police managers in envisioning longitudinal goals for an organization (Brunetto et al., 2012).

Instead of a "knowledge gap" with regard to police retention, there may be an "innovation gap" with regard to attempts made by police managers and leaders to put existing tools to use in order to mitigate the effects of employee attrition. Ironically, navigating the unexpected and managing for sudden change are strategies used by police managers in field situations, and the same energy can be used to combat the effects of turnover.

Retention today

Comprehensive studies of the extent of police retention issues are rare, but existing data coupled with recognized workforce trends can define three specific needs for police organizations related to employee retention.

United States Bureau of Justice Statistics figures for police employee retention, captured through the 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, indicate that during 2008, about seven per cent of state and local law enforcement officers in the United States either voluntarily or involuntarily left their agencies. This figure was much higher (20 per cent) for agencies with 10 or fewer officers than for larger agencies with 500 or more officers (five per cent) (Reaves, 2012).

Additionally, separations for nonmedical retirements appear to be the primary cause of turnover, as 52 per cent of attrition in state police agencies and 41 per cent of attrition in local police agencies with 500 or more officers can be attributed to nonmedical retirements (Reaves, 2012).

Finally, in agencies with fewer than 10 officers, voluntary resignations comprise 71 per cent of reasons for separation from the agency.

These statistics from the most recent U.S. law enforcement census, gathered just prior to the recession's negative impact on police budgets, suggest that forces that frame our discussion of retention were already evident prior to the most recent economic crisis. Specifically, the desire for employees to be promoted to perceived better positions (higher voluntary separations at smaller agencies than larger) and retirements of older members of the workforce (the large percentage of separations caused by nonmedical retirement) contribute to the retention climate.

In conjunction with specific workforce trends seen in contemporary literature (Wilson et al., 2010; Wilson & Heinonen, 2012), three basic needs emerge with respect to police employee retention:

The need to retain good talent. Much has been written of a hypothetical "brain drain," or loss of exceptional talent, as a result of voluntary turnover in police settings (Orrick, 2008). What is known is that in policing, as in other similar fields such as nursing and teaching, exceptional employees often leave for perceived better opportunities and potential mobility, better compensation and benefits, and improved facilities and equipment elsewhere (Wilson et al., 2010).

The impact of losing exceptional employees can be felt immediately, such as in staffing shortages, or in the long term, such as the reduction of potential future leadership and talent. This is often referred to as an "organizational plateau," or a situation where exceptional employees feel no sense of advancement or career mobility and thus abandon the agency (Wilson & Heinonen, 2012).

The need to properly invest training expenses. Training each new police officer carries an extraordinary cost borne by police agencies, and the risk of losing such individuals to voluntary attrition may be costly (Orrick, 2008).

Much of this investment is monetary, but it may also be counted in manpower hours required to train new officers, and in organizational cost devoted to building an applicant pool, such as recruitment drives at college campuses that result in better-educated applicants. But when an employee who has been the focus of such recruitment and training efforts leaves an organization, manpower and productivity are affected along with monetary cost (Wilson et al., 2010).

The need to build for the future. Contemporarily, much attention has been given in workforce management literature to "hiring for potential." In short, this means transitioning from hiring based on rote skillsets or competencies, and towards hiring based on other predictors of success, such as the ability to handle complex situations and the perception that the chosen career is a "calling" (Fernandez-Araoz, 2014).

While such a transition implies a certain risk, qualities such as motivation, determination and the ability to meet challenges creatively are increasingly being valued in police recruitment profiles. This approach represents an intriguing retention challenge as new generations of police officers, many of whom are interested in expressing creativity, insight and collaboration have chosen police careers. These generational differences have long been recognized as having accentuated importance in managing the police workforce (Batts et al., 2012; Orrick, 2008).

These three needs present interesting challenges to police leaders seeking to build, sustain and preserve workforce integrity, and only recently have potential answers begun to emerge to confront these challenges.

Strategies and approaches

To date, few comprehensive evaluations of existing programs that target police employee retention have been conducted.

Statistically, in 2008, 19 per cent of police agencies surveyed in the U.S. law enforcement census used service contracts for employment; 65 per cent offered employees uniform allowance or compensation; 55 per cent offered graduated pay increases; and 46 per cent offered take-home vehicles as a perk.

These strategies show potential as workforce management tools, and their use in other fields similar to policing broadens the spectrum of approaches police managers can consider.

Has your department outlined specific retention needs? Consider the importance of data collection and analysis, identified needs through exit interviews and surveys, existing workplace climate surveys, and other techniques to identify specifically where retention issues may crop up in your department (Orrick, 2008; Wilson et al., 2010).

Has your department identified existing employees at risk for leaving? Multiple factors can be gleaned from simply knowing your workforce profile, and the answers to simple questions can direct your attention to attrition problems before they arise. Life transitions such as education, childbirth, divorce and separation, caring for elderly parents, approaching retirement of a spouse, and more routine events such as employees seeking more flexible schedules may indicate the need for proactive intervention (Wilson et al., 2010).

Has your department prevented retention issues with creative recruitment? Multiple strategies at the front end, such as assessment centre testing, the hiring of pre-trained or pre-certified candidates, pre-academy field training, job shadowing and realistic job preview have been shown to combat future turnover in other fields (Wilson et al., 2010). By acclimating employees to a more realistic view of their expected career with your agency, you are presenting an honest impression of career expectations, which may lead to greater commitment over the long term.

Has your department carefully considered the pros and cons of service contracts? Today's employees value career flexibility, and service contracts protect organizational monetary investment at the risk of reducing feelings of flexibility and mobility (Orrick, 2008). Consider the message that's sent to potential employees over the long term by using such measures: it may inhibit trust between the employee and your department.

Has your department created an inventory of requirements beyond traditional police competencies? Often times, the skills that police organizations look for in employees — insight, creativity, goal-setting and the ability to process feedback, to name a few — are present in newly hired employees, but these qualities go unassessed.

We often base our hiring on specific skillsets and competencies with little attention to the complexity of police tasks and the potential of employees to navigate them. Consider building an inventory of competencies reflecting employee potential, and identify ways you can hire individuals who display leadership qualities that your department seeks to promote. Creating a workplace culture that values such skills in all employees will further expectations and create a desirable place to work — and remain.

Charlie Scheer is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Southern Mississippi with research specializations in police workforce management, police training and organizational development. He has worked as a sheriff's deputy prior to his academic career, and has publications on police recruitment and retention strategies, police civil liability and a national assessment of police training capacities.


Batts, Anthony W., Sean Michael Smoot, & Ellen Scrivner (2012, July). Police Leadership Challenges in a Changing World. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Brunetto, Yvonne, Steven T.T. Teo, Kate Shacklock, & Rod Farr-Wharton (2012). "Emotional Intelligence, Job Satisfaction, Well-Being, and Engagement: Explaining Organisational Commitment and Turnover Intentions in Policing." Human Resource Management Journal, 22 (4), 428-441.

Fernandez-Araoz, Claudio (2014). It's Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself With the Best. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Greene, Jack R. (2014). "New Directions in Policing: Balancing Prediction and Meaning in Police Research." Justice Quarterly, 31 (2), 193-228.

Haddad, Abigail, Kate Giglio, Kirsten M. Keller, & Nelson Lim (2012). Increasing Organizational Diversity in 21st Century Policing: Lessons From the U.S. Military. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Hur, Yongbeom (2013). "Turnover, Voluntary Turnover, and Organizational Performance: Evidence from Municipal Police Departments." Public Administration Quarterly, 37 (1), 3-35.

Orrick, Dwayne (2008). Recruitment, Retention, and Turnover of Police Personnel: Reliable, Practical, and Effective Solutions. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Reaves, Brian. (2012, October). Hiring and Retention of State and Local Law Enforcement Officers, 2008 – Statistical Tables. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Rinke, Carol R. (2014). Why Half of Teachers Leave the Classroom: Understanding Recruitment and Retention in Today's Schools. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Smith, Brad W., Jennifer Wareham, & Eric G. Lambert (2013). "Community and Organizational Influences on Voluntary Turnover in Law Enforcement." Journal of Crime & Justice.

Wareham, Jennifer, Brad W. Smith, & Eric G. Lambert (2013, December). "Rates and Patterns of Law Enforcement Turnover: A Research Note." Criminal Justice Policy Review, 1-26.

Wilson, Jeremy M., Erin Dalton, Charles Scheer, & Clifford A. Grammich (2010). Police Recruitment for the New Millennium: The State of Knowledge. Santa Monica CA: RAND Corporation.

Wilson, Jeremy M. & Justin Heinonen (2012). "Police Workforce Structures: Cohorts, the Economy, and Organizational Performance." Police Quarterly, 15 (3), 283-307.

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