I think it goes without saying that one of the greatest concerns in law enforcement these days, aside from officer safety, is officer retention. It almost seems like there have been as many articles written on the subject as there have been on the topic of officer safety. One source refers to a “recent survey by the National Police Foundation that showed the average police department in the country has a turnover rate of 14%, with some departments having rates as high as 20%.”
Many of you who are reading this can relate to the point I will be making in this narrative because you, too, have been with the same agency most of your career. A lot of you have retired from the department with which you started your career only to start working for another one. And then some of you are just getting started in law enforcement and with the agency that hired. It is you that I hope that I hope to help you think about staying where you are for the long haul.
I recently retired from 18 years of law enforcement service, by the grace of God I might add, and all 18 years have been with the same agency. Over these past 18 years, one of the things I have been astutely aware of is the phenomenon of officer retention. I have always been intrigued by the number of officers who have been hired by an agency and decided to leave within 2-5 years or less. Mind you, some of those losses reflect ones who were either terminated or decided to leave law enforcement altogether. I tend to have more respect for the latter than I do the former. But many of the ones who left did so to join another agency. What is even more intriguing is the number of officers who left the agency that hired them, came back, left again, and some even came back again. You have heard it said that the grass is not always greener on the other side and it really isn’t. So if that’s the reason you have decided to move your career down the road to the next town or county you might find yourself being disappointed.
So with all of that said I pose the question, “What has happened to the quality of longevity in law enforcement or any other place of employment?” I’m talking about the length of time one remains with the same employer; more specifically, a law enforcement agency. Why is it that some agencies seem to have a revolving door when it comes to officers coming and going? Why is it so hard for some officers to establish roots in one place and make up their minds to stay there? This has been a genuine concern of mine for much of my career in law enforcement. I don’t know all the answers to this issue but I would like to offer some opinions and perspectives and make an argument for longevity.
One of the first things I believe we have to ask ourselves is why we are doing what we are doing. Why are we doing this work that few people are willing to do and why are we doing it with the agency wherever we are? The answer to these questions can sometimes make a difference in our decisions to stay when others are leaving. When we believe that what we are doing is a calling, maybe even a divine calling, it should put a whole different perspective on what we are doing and even where you are doing it.
It is also true that there are times when an exit is legitimate and maybe even necessary. Who can blame someone for leaving an agency where there is blatant corruption, unethical practices, and a total disregard for the well-being of the rank and file? Several examples come to mind but I will leave it at that for now. Some would be justified in making a change if the amount of money coming into the bank versus the amount of money going to pay bills just isn’t cutting it. And if this is a common denominator within any given agency maybe the powers that be should take a long hard look at how they are taking care of their officers. But whatever reason there may be for making that exit hopefully it is one that would not be made on a whim. And what is kind of scary is that most departments are so short-staffed that you could up and quit your agency tomorrow and probably have a job at another agency in a week.
Another thing I have come to realize over the last 18 years is that it seems like many agencies, especially smaller ones, are nothing more than a gateway agency to other “greater opportunities.” This is especially true for the non-certified officer who wants to “get his or her foot in the door.” So you find this police department that will have you sign a two-year contract, send you to the academy and after that two years is up you are already planning an exit strategy to go to that larger and more progressive agency. Please forgive me for being blunt but if that is you and if that is your sole purpose for going with that smaller department, I wonder what that says about your work ethic. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to better ourselves but why not just try starting with that larger, more progressive agency? And if you make it past that two-year contract, also known as a probationary period, why not just stay there and make a career with that agency? It’s been known to work.
One of the greatest challenges I have seen is when more than two or three officers decide to make that exit within a short period of time. One department I know of lost several officers within a matter of four months for reasons that are best left unsaid. Some went to other agencies. Another decided it was time to step away from law enforcement altogether. Be that as it may, one of the problems this creates is a heavier workload on those who have chosen not to leave and to stick it out. And it doesn’t matter what the size of the agency is because the same work has to go on in spite of the ones who have been left to do it.
Now to be fair, longevity at one particular agency can be very challenging. But if you make up your mind that you are committed to that agency that hired you and invested all kinds of money in you to make you a better cop; and if you just refuse to give up on that department that hasn’t given up on you, let me share with you some things I have learned.
- You’re going to have to put up with a lot of manure. I don’t care who you work for or how long you have worked there, there are some things you cannot get away from like politics, power struggles, conflict, etc.
- There will be policy changes that you might not agree with but you know you have to abide by.
- There may be leadership changes (at all levels) that sometimes put certain individuals in positions that you know are not qualified to be in that position.
- There may also be times when you are passed over for a promotion.
- You may not always get what you want.
- If your colleagues start leaving because of any of the things mentioned above you might end up working a lot of overtime.
But I believe that those who do stay with that agency through all of the muck and mire and remain faithful and dependable, speaks volumes of the person’s character, integrity, and work ethic. And one never knows how all of that will pay off in the future. Sometimes it is true that good things come to those who wait.
I realize there are no easy answers to this problem. Some of it has to do with recruiting, which is another challenge within itself. It is certainly something that leadership within these agencies need to take a good hard look at and find out what it is that is causing these officers to leave. And maybe, just maybe, it might help for each and every officer or deputy to put some positive peer pressure on their colleagues to reconsider making such a move.
On a personal note, I have been through a lot of all that I just mentioned but I am proud to say that I never quit. I have been written up but I never quit. I have been suspended a few times but I never quit. My agency never gave up on me and I never gave up on them. And by God’s grace, my services were never determined to be no longer needed. And I am still with the same agency, working in a part time civilian role as the evidence custodian.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
Be safe and be blessed.