Thin Blue Line: Improving Job Satisfaction to Increase Retention in Law Enforcement

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Lisa Barnett


Recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers are constant challenges for law enforcement agencies. The ability of agencies to retain officers determines whether the public is served by experienced and motivated officers or inexperienced officers who only wish to provide the minimal level of service required. Low job satisfaction is a strong predictor of the likelihood of agencies losing officers. This research study on the current level of job satisfaction and intentions of U.S. law enforcement officers to quit contributes to understanding how officers view their agencies overall and in relation to specific factors, and the relationship between satisfaction and intentions to quit.
After reviewing the current literature on job satisfaction and intentions to quit, as well as previous measurement methods, this research administered its own survey to collect the desired information. As a form of human subjects research, the Institutional Review Board approved its design. This study distributed an anonymous online survey through LimeSurvey to current law enforcement officers between the ranks of line officer and lieutenant in 21 police departments, eight sheriffs’ offices, and six state agencies in 14 states. The survey sample was a convenience survey determined by contacts through the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center of Homeland Defense and Security alumni directory and Florida Highway Patrol law enforcement contacts. The survey collected demographic information, such as age, race, gender, years of experience, education level, rank, agency size, and jurisdiction. Additionally, the survey contained 79 statements that used a five-point Likert scale to measure satisfaction and intentions to quit related to pay, opportunities, co-workers, immediate supervisor, work conditions, work and family conflict, and public perception. The results were analyzed using differential statistics in relation to the mean and measures of variability and association.
Nine hundred thirty respondents provided results for analysis. Although based upon a convenience sample, the sample was representative of the national law enforcement population despite a lower representation of city officers and greater representation from state officers. Officers reported being most satisfied with immediate supervisors and co-workers and being least satisfied with pay and opportunities. The satisfaction results corresponded to the officers’ reported intentions to leave their agencies, which reflected the highest desire to leave was because of pay and opportunities and the lowest desire to leave was because of immediate supervisors and co-workers. With the exception of the facet for public perception, the results correlated at the 99% confidence interval, implying the interrelationship between facets of satisfaction and intentions to quit. This study also evaluated the responses in relation to specific demographic aspects and found statistically significant results in relation to different facets for different groups. The demographic aspects with statistically significant responses were gender, race, rank, agency size, jurisdiction, and years of experience.
Overall, law enforcement officers report being satisfied with their agencies and planning to stay with their agencies. The most satisfied officers were county officers, officers in agencies with 100–500 officers, and officers with 1–5 years of experience. County officers and officers in agencies with 100–500 officers also responded as the least likely to leave their agencies. Most of these indicators support previous research, such as Dantzker’s findings that a significant relationship does not exist between gender and overall satisfaction and Orrick’s findings that pay and career opportunities elicit the highest responses for intentions to quit. This research differed from previous research findings by identifying immediate supervisors as having a low impact on intentions to quit, in contrast to Orrick’s findings on this facet. Likewise, this research contradicted Dantzker’s finding that officers in agencies with 100–500 officers were the least satisfied by finding, instead, that these officers were the most satisfied.
Law enforcement agencies should recognize that officers’ satisfaction relates to retention and consider monitoring the satisfaction of their officers to increase retention. This process should include conducting exit surveys on officers who do leave the agency to ascertain the reasons for leaving as well as demographic information to identify any trends that may indicate areas for agency improvement. Agencies cannot view single factors, such as pay, as the only factor affecting satisfaction and retention. This research concludes that the facets of satisfaction are interrelated, which means that focusing solely on one factor to increase satisfaction or retention may come at the cost of increasing dissatisfaction in factors possibly neglected by the agency, such as opportunities for training and education or time off. Additionally, agencies may be able to make minor improvements over several facets to increase satisfaction rather than focusing on one facet only.
The views of the different demographic groups included in this research may assist agencies concerned with retaining certain demographic groups by identifying areas more significant for them to hone their attention and policies. Job satisfaction and retention will remain important to law enforcement and other professions; therefore, researchers should continue to expand on this research. Considerations for expanding this research include expanding the statements measuring satisfaction with immediate supervisors to include distinguishable statements measuring the entire chain of command. Additional considerations include measuring satisfaction after significant changes in policies or procedures within an agency, as well as after significant national events, such as protests against law enforcement or a pandemic. In addition, the study of satisfaction and retention would benefit from long-term studies of satisfaction and retention with regular satisfaction surveys and comparing satisfaction levels with performance evaluations.

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