It Starts at Home: Internal Actions Police Agencies Can Take to Improve Staffing

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Mark Haynes


Employees, citizens, and policymakers all depend on police department leadership to chart a course through chaos. While many of the challenges police departments face in 2020 are external, coping with them requires leaders who can be flexible and who know how to make decisions within the department. For example, the rise of the millennial generation has changed the hiring environment; millennials are more likely than members of past generations to leave employers who do not meet their professional needs.[1] Policing as a field has changed as well, moving from a strictly law enforcement environment to one that involves social work, especially in the area of mental health.[2] The public perception of policing has also changed as the result of high-profile, negative incidents that have led to civil disturbances.[3] These external factors have affected potential applicants’ interest in the field of law enforcement, and departments’ future ability to recruit and hire staff may depend on the decisions they make during these times.

Police staffing has reached crisis levels, and the solution is linked to the internal actions police leaders can take toward recruiting, retention, and force management.[4] To recommend specific actions, this research considers the armed forces’ recruitment methodology and the private sector’s use of analytics to address strategic problems. In the 1990s, the armed forces struggled to fill their ranks.[5] To attract more service members, the forces determined they needed innovative recruiting methods, improved messaging to connect with prospective enlistees, new methods of advertising that could deliver their message to the right audiences, and a new selection and training program that identified the best recruits.[6] In the private sector, organizations have taken advantage of technology and data analytics to retain their qualified workforce.[7] Analytics have allowed organizations to identify problems, collect data on the potential causes, and develop solutions. Google, for example, used analytics to improve its hiring process, and IBM used analytics to improve overall retention.[8]

Additionally, two police departments—the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Chesterfield County Police Department (CCPD) in Virginia—have been able to fill positions through an integrated approach to recruiting, retention, and force management. To improve recruiting, they provided more flexibility for testing dates; utilized technology to improve the background packet and interview panel processes; expanded advertising, messaging, and branding through digital media; and implemented a new approach that kept applicants informed about their progress throughout the hiring process. For retention, the departments increased compensation, used technology (for example video production networks) to improve internal communication between leadership and line employees, and improved employee engagement through interactive councils and innovation committees that allowed employees to share their input on department matters. Both departments also used force management to provide better service while reducing their need for more sworn officers. SPD decided to fill their digital and video forensics unit with civilian positions rather than detective, allowing the department to place more officers on the road. CCPD similarly converted their forensic and crime scene detective positions into civilian positions to provide greater stability and specialization to the work. CCPD also created a public service aide position to handle such tasks as traffic direction, mail runs, and information exchanges, freeing up sworn officers for more serious calls.

Police departments that face staffing challenges must first consider how they recruit for both current and expected future openings. For example, departments can use Twitter, digital streaming, and billboards, to expand their reach. Departments must also continue to evaluate the recruiting environment, making changes as needed, and should leverage their current employees to help recruit others; this requires department leadership to be engaged with employees and to provide a positive working environment.

Departments can improve retention by communicating and engaging with their employees. This means that police leaders must give employees access to the decision-making process; while the leaders are still the final decision-makers, employees must be able to communicate their concerns. For instance, a department can improve engagement and officer development through an internal apprenticeship program that allow employees to temporarily serve in other units before returning to their assignment. Additionally, because inequities between employees can increase turnover, leaders must look beyond salary when reviewing compensation.

As crime becomes more complex, departments can consider which sworn positions would be better filled by civilians. For example, civilians with training in cybercrime and computer science can better investigate areas of crime that involve the internet, thereby reducing the need for additional officers. Departments can also address internal problems by forming problem-solving partnerships with other areas of government or the private sector. For instance, departments might pair police officers with psychiatric professionals to respond to mental health calls. This partnership alleviates the burden on officers while providing a higher level of service to the community, without jeopardizing safety.

These actions, exemplified by SPD, CCPD, the armed forces, and the private sector, can help police departments around the nation address their staffing challenges. Critically, this requires the ability to adapt to a continually changing environment. As 2020 saw a pandemic and civil unrest around the nation, police leaders must be willing to adapt if they want to staff their open positions and serve their communities effectively.



[1] Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing about It (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2019), 22,​assets/​WorkforceCrisis.pdf.

[2] “Why Police Officers Are Taking on Social Worker Responsibilities,” Tulane University, January 19, 2019,​blog/​why-police-officers-are-taking-on-social-worker-responsibilities.

[3] Ashley Gold, “Is Ferguson Unrest Behind Murder Spike?” BBC News, June 5, 2015,​news/​world-us-canada-32995911.

[4] Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis.

[5] Paul R. Sackett and Anne S. Mavor, eds., Attitudes, Aptitudes, and Aspirations of American Youth: Implications for Military Recruitment (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2003),​lib/​ebook-nps/​detail.action?docID=3375169.

[6] Sackett and Mavor.

[7] Alec Levenson and Gillian Pillans, Strategic Workforce Analytics (London: Corporate Research Forum, November 2017).

[8] Levenson and Pillans.

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