Police retention is one of the most significant challenges facing contemporary public safety organizations and a prime contributor to the modern-era law enforcement shortage. Agencies across the United States are struggling to recruit and retain a sufficient number of officers to meet the multiplicity of diverse demands of modern public safety. Progressive and forward-thinking agencies are embracing police technology, not only for crime fighting and public safety purposes but also as a crucial tool within a holistic officer retention strategy.
Attrition: A driver of the law enforcement shortage
High attrition rates are nearing crisis levels for organizations nationwide, regardless of size and geography. A series of surveys between 2019 and 2021 by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) illustrates these challenges empirically.1 PERF compared self-reported recruitment, retention and staffing data from 172 diverse law enforcement organizations across the United States. They found there were 42.7% more resignations and 23.6% more retirements over that period.2
One Mayor's Office reports that current staffing levels are "at their lowest in more than 30 years," exemplifying the police retention crisis. Since 2019, the agency has lost over 400 officers, including 180 in 2020 alone. These departing officers transferred to another agency, retired or left the profession altogether. In the interim, the agency increasingly relies on community service officers (CSOs) and non-sworn "crime prevention coordinators" to respond to calls for service that appear non-criminal in nature.
The law enforcement shortage has tangible and cumulative consequences for an organization that may not be adequately captured by the data alone. High attrition rates are likely to negatively impact morale, officer wellness and decrease the number of patrol officers who are able and willing to do proactive police work. According to a PERF respondent, morale can be impacted even when an agency enjoys stout community support.3
Factors affecting police retention
High attrition rates are driven by a combination of complex and overlapping factors. In the midst of a gun crime epidemic, one police department has 800 sworn personnel and professional staff committed to retiring in the next four years, exacerbating an agency already operating at critical staffing levels 20% below the agency's goal. Reportedly, low morale, high levels of scrutiny from the public and local leaders and potential abuse of medical leave programs are driving this law enforcement shortage. Similarly, exit interviews with departing Seattle PD officers reveal that dissatisfaction with the city council, poor leadership within the Department and the "general anti-police climate" were primary drivers of attrition.
The complexity of police retention dynamics is vividly illustrated by attrition at the one police department. In fiscal year 2021-2022, the PD lost 230 sworn personnel, including the pilot of their police helicopter. This was the highest figure in at least ten years. Roughly one-third of the officers who left the agency retired. This has resulted in officers from specialty units having been “pulled back to patrol so the department can keep up with 911 calls. The shortage has affected the special operations unit, which investigates violent crimes; the motor unit, which provides traffic enforcement; and the neighborhood policing division.” In 2023, the same PD reported 1,861 positions filled out of the budgeted 2,036 sworn officers.
These high attrition rates are due to common factors like continued scrutiny of policing policy, regular mandatory overtime and limited opportunities for vacation. Unfortunately, police callout data and internal communications reveal the department’s staffing issues are far from over and could linger for years to come.
How to respond to the law enforcement shortage
Characteristic of the resiliency in law enforcement, agencies will adapt and overcome. Many agencies are turning to technology to help address many of the issues causing the current shortages. In the modern law enforcement climate, police retention can be increased when officers feel they are supported, have the devices and tools to do their jobs and are accomplishing the mission of protecting public safety.
Police technology and officer wellness
The stresses and cumulative trauma experienced by our nation's brave men and women in uniform are well documented and have taken a toll on officer morale, wellness, and recruitment. Finding solutions to these challenges is an opportunity to show that your organization truly cares about its people and can have the dual benefit of reducing officer attrition, increasing productivity.
Increasingly, the law enforcement agencies are making an array of wellness resources available via secure mobile devices and applications. For example, the Cordico wellness application makes wellness resources, culturally competent pre-vetted therapists and peer support available right in the palm of an officer's hand any time, day or night. Additionally, leveraging technology to help respond to mental health crises can help reduce stress on officers.
Police technology for training
Technology can help address police retention through the provision of cutting-edge training and professional development opportunities. Continuous learning opportunities can help officers stay engaged and can help to demonstrate that leadership is invested in the careers of their officers.
Given the dangerous situations police officers can face, it is critical they receive adequate instruction to prepare them for high-stress emergency situations. Not only does this level of training require substantial investment, but it requires officers to take time to train, which can also further exacerbate the law enforcement shortage. Augmented reality (AR) is one option that can help provide a cost-effective and engaging training experience that can be tailored to the needs of individual officers and specialities. Virtual training reduces travel time and expenses while making it easier for officers to receive specialized training regardless of their location.
Police technology and operations
Internet of things (IoT) technologies allow officers to efficiently collect data that can help paint a more accurate picture of community trends and crime patterns, allowing police departments insights to better utilize their limited resources. Mobile high-speed connectivity can provide access to applications that can provide officers with near real-time incident information, allowing officers to do their work faster and more accurately. Faster speeds result in faster wanted and license checks which can help improve police officer safety.