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Back to Archives | Back to March 2004 Contents 

Analyzing Concerns among Police Administrators: Recruitment and Retention of Police Officers
in North Carolina

By Douglas L. Yearwood, Director, North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center, and Stephanie Freeman, Training Specialist, North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Division, Raleigh, North Carolina

In early summer 2000 the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission in conjunction with the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the North Carolina Sheriffs' Education and Training Standards Commission identified four major emerging issues facing the state's criminal justice system and its public safety personnel. As part of this endeavor the three commissions formed four teams to focus on professional development, public policy, funding, and recruitment and retention. Each team reviewed its assigned issues, identified obstacles to be overcome, outlined a series of future goals and objectives and concluded by formulating a specific plan of action to attain their stated goals.

This article focuses on the work of the recruitment and retention focus group.

Although the information contained in this article is specific to North Carolina, there are common issues applicable to other jurisdictions. Many police administrators will benefit from the study's findings and perhaps be able to generalize, or verify, these findings in their own departments' recruitment and retention efforts and bring about refinements to their programs, policies, and initiatives.

Study Results
Details of the survey methodology are contained in the sidebar accompanying this article and the data is reflective of the employment conditions in North Carolina during the study years 1998-2002. To establish the validity and reliability of the information, readers will be interested to know that of the 205 agencies receiving the survey, 124 questionnaires were completed, producing an aggregate return rate of 60 percent.

Recruitment Strategies: Survey participants described their recruitment strategies on a continuum ranging from passive to neutral to strongly aggressive. Responses were fairly evenly distributed with 35.2 percent of the agencies having a passive recruitment strategy, 33.6 percent describing their strategy as neutral, and the remaining 31.2 percent reporting an aggressive strategy.

Table 1 depicts the recruitment techniques identified and the perceived effectiveness of these techniques. The most frequently employed recruitment technique was word-of-mouth, with 95 percent of the respondents indicating that this was the preferred method to recruit potential officers. The second most common recruitment technique was newspaper advertising (83.1 percent), followed by recruiting through the local community colleges (71.8 percent) and the use of the Internet (62.9 percent).

Table 1 also depicts the average effectiveness rating for the nine recruitment techniques that were listed in the survey. The respondents were asked to rate the effectiveness of each technique on a scale from zero (not effective) to nine (highly effective). The top three most effective techniques were word-of-mouth, local community colleges, and newspaper advertising.

Backlog of Qualified Applicants: A majority (67.5 percent) of the police agencies that were represented in the sample of returned questionnaires did not have a current waiting list or backlog of qualified applicants. The rest (32.5 percent) did note that they currently maintain a waiting list of applicants. Of those agencies possessing a waiting list, the number of applicants ranged from two to 36, with the average waiting list containing seven applicants. The number of applicants, per sworn position, demonstrated a greater degree of variance and ranged from one applicant for each vacant sworn position to 150 applicants per sworn position. The average number of applicants per sworn position within those police departments represented in the survey was 9.9.

Improving Applicant Pool: The survey asked for comments and specific recommendations on what policies, standards, and programs should be implemented in order to improve the quality of future applicant pools. Advice on how to recruit more highly qualified police officers was clustered in three primary areas:

  • Salaries
  • Improving screening criteria

  • Raising or establishing new minimum standards for applicants
Not surprisingly, the majority of the suggestions dealt with the low or inequitable salary and compensation packages that deter and discourage many excellent candidates from applying for entry-level positions. Frustration at the inability to compete with not only the private sector but also local and state law enforcement agencies was a common theme among the respondents.

Respondents often commented on the current screening criteria that are used for hiring officers and for selecting basic law enforcement training candidates. Suggestions were offered to either raise existing minimum requirements or establish and implement new recruitment standards. The majority of these comments dealt with the existing educational standards.

Barriers to Recruiting: The research identified the most common barriers to recruiting were competition with other criminal justice agencies (80.6 percent), agency budget restrictions (72.6 percent), agency size (37.9 percent), and competing with the private sector (34.7 percent). Fewer agencies reported that the current cost of living (25 percent), applicant criminal histories (21 percent), and agency location (15.3 percent) were common barriers.

Other barriers included the lack of equipment or equipment in disrepair, the lack of career advancement opportunities and a negative city reputation. The survey also detected a general misunderstanding about the image of campus law enforcement officers. A reported barrier included the view that campus police officers were not considered as being fully sworn law enforcement officers and vested with the same powers as city police, thus hindering recruitment.

Attrition Issues
Turnover rates for sworn police positions, using July 2001 as a base, ranged from zero to 87 percent with an average turnover rate of 14.2 percent being reported by those agencies returning completed surveys. Forty-one percent of the respondents noted that their agency's turnover rate remained stable for the years of the study (July 1998-July 2001). Slightly more than a quarter of the agencies experienced either a significant or a slight rise in their respective turnover rates, while turnover rates dropped for 30.2 percent of the police departments.

Vacancy rates for sworn positions, using June 2002 as a base, ranged from zero to 100 percent; 47.6 percent of the agencies reported a full sworn force with no vacant sworn positions on June 30, 2002. The average vacancy rate for sworn positions was 7.2 percent. During the period June 1999 through June 2002, 49.6 percent reported that their respective vacancy rates had not changed, while 27.8 percent reported an increase in their vacancy rates, and 22.6 percent noted a decline in vacancy rates.

Retention Techniques
Six different techniques for personnel retention were identified on the survey and agencies identified the specific techniques being utilized and then ranked each retention technique in terms of their effectiveness on a scale from zero (not effective) to nine (highly effective).

Table 2 reveals the most popular retention strategy was annual pay increases, irrespective of job performance. Of the respondents, 81.5 percent felt that longevity and cost-of-living salary adjustments were essential retention techniques. Offering education incentives, such as tuition reimbursement and allowing officers to attend classes during the work hours, was the second most frequently employed technique (76.6 percent), followed by personnel promotions (69.4 percent).

Survey participant ratings on the effectiveness of the identified six retention techniques are also provided in table 2. As a general rule the most frequently used retention techniques were also perceived to be the most effective with the exception of promotions and assigning favorable work shifts, which were perceived to be less effective than performance-based merit pay.

Attrition Reasons
Table 3 depicts the attrition reasons for North Carolina police departments. Agency budget restriction was reported as the most frequently discussed factor when explaining why police officers leave the department. A high percentage of the respondents also noted that lateral transfers to other law enforcement agencies and employees' resigning to accept employment in the private sector were substantial factors affecting agency attrition rates. It should be noted that all of the factors listed in table 3 were identified as reasons why officers leave departments, with even the bottom three occurring in slightly more than 40 percent of the responding police agencies.

Respondents were asked to identify the extent to which each factor affects their agency's attrition, that is, to select the best response from a range of choices. Agency budget restrictions and lateral transfer account for the bulk of police departments' attrition rates. Forty-four percent of respondents noted that agency budget restrictions accounted for 71-100 percent of their agency's total attrition rate. Lateral transfers explained between 81 and 100 percent of their attrition.

Surprisingly, all of the remaining factors listed on the survey instrument were discounted as significant contributors, with the majority of the respondents noting that these factors account for less than 10 percent of their agency's total attrition. While the remaining factors do explain some attrition, the factors do not occur frequently enough to drive a sizable decline in a police agency's workforce.

Average Length of Service
In this study, irrespective of the reasons why officers leave, the average length of an officer's employment was 34 months before he or she decides to leave the police agency. Eighty-four percent of the agencies reported an average length of stay less than three years. Thus, it appears that there exists a critical two-month window (between an officer's 34-month employment anniversary and his or her 36-month employment anniversary) during which police agencies can implement policies or programs to improve retention rates and conversely minimize its attrition rate by retaining officers beyond three-years. Once an officer is retained beyond this critical period attrition drops precipitously. Only 16 percent of the police agencies reported an average length of stay, for those officers that eventually leave the agency that was greater than three years.

Significant Differences
Analyzing several pertinent research questions would ascertain if significant differences existed between agency groupings.

Do agencies with high attrition rates differ from agencies with low attrition rates in terms of how each group rates the effectiveness of their recruitment strategies?

Surprisingly, agency attrition rate has no significant bearing on how the respondents rated the effectiveness of their recruitment strategy. Agencies with low attrition rates are no more likely to report effective recruitment strategies than agencies with higher attrition rates. In other words, for police agencies, effective recruitment strategies are not directly related to the extent to which an agency loses sworn personnel.

Do agencies with high attrition rated differ from agencies with low attrition rates in terms of how each group rates the effectiveness of their retention strategies?

The effectiveness ratings of the various retention strategies did not vary by agency attrition group. Agencies with low attrition rates are no more likely to report more effective retention strategies than agencies with high attrition rates. Thus, it appears that the perceived effectiveness of retention techniques is not related to agency turnover.

In terms of attrition rates, do agencies that adhere to the minimum educational requirement differ from agencies that require higher educational attainment such as a college degree (associate's degree or bachelor's degree)?

The North Carolina survey found that agency attrition rates are not significantly related to minimum educational requirements. Agencies with low and high turnover rates do not differ in terms of their entry-level educational requirements. In other words, police officers that hold a high school diploma are no more likely to remain with an agency than officers holding higher educational credentials. Contrary to popular assumptions officers who hold higher educational credentials are not leaving the agency at a higher rate than their counterparts who possess the high school diploma.

In terms of entry-level salaries do agencies with high attrition rates differ from agencies with low attrition rates?

Agencies are not losing sworn personnel because of their respective starting salaries. In North Carolina the starting salary is not currently and directly related to attrition. The survey indicated that agencies with high attrition rates do not have significantly lower entry-level salaries than agencies with lower attrition rates.

Small vs. Large Agencies
This survey found that factors other than education and starting salary are driving attrition rates. As noted earlier, agency budget restrictions were the most commonly reported reasons for attrition. Perhaps, officers are either being forced to leave through layoffs caused by budgetary issues or voluntarily leave around the three-year employment mark due to the lack of promotional opportunity and accompanying increase in salaries. Regardless, budget restriction was considered the primary reason for attrition.

When evaluating the difference between small and large agencies, the survey results established three interesting factors.

Do small and large agencies differ in terms of their perceived effectiveness ratings for recruitment techniques?

Larger police departments are more likely to use, and more likely to report higher effectiveness ratings for, three recruitment techniques: Internet, Police Corps, and job fairs. Smaller agencies are less likely to employ these three techniques and do not view them as effective recruitment strategies.

Do small and large police agencies differ in their attrition rates?

Larger police agencies report an average attrition rate of 10.2 percent while their smaller counterparts report an attrition rate almost twice as high (18.2 percent).

Is there a difference between larger agencies and smaller agencies in hiring applicants who have already completed basic law enforcement training?

Both small and large police departments reported similar percentages for the number of new hires who had previously completed a basic law enforcement training course. On the average smaller agencies reported that 84 percent of their new hires had completed basic training versus 82.7 percent of the larger agencies' new employees.

Current External Events Affecting Recruitment and Retention
It is extremely important to consider external events and the current economic situation, which is affecting agencies in North Carolina and across the United States. Both local and state agencies are affected by these events and the influence on the results of the current study needs to be considered. The time period for this study is 1998-2002, so its results may reflect some but not all of the difficulties caused by governments' fiscal crisis that started in 2001 as well as the employment and business recession facing most jurisdictions' tax generating ability, which results in restraining the police departments' budgets. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the subsequent war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq all continue to affect recruitment and retention by police agencies. The current focus on homeland security and additional requirements placed on local and state agencies without adequate funding will affect not only the current budgets but also future budgets of law enforcement agencies.

Economic concerns and limitations may limit attrition as individual officers have fewer options to pursue outside of their current position. Conversely, more positions may be created as a response to homeland security issues and more vacant positions may open up in order to meet the need.

Policy Recommendations
From the results of this study certain policy recommendations to the chief executive officers of police departments became apparent.

Recruitment Strategy: Police departments may wish to consider launching a more aggressive recruitment strategy to fill vacancies that are fairly limited at this time as indicated by an average vacancy rate of 7.2 percent. Agencies should explore innovative recruitment strategies and seek ways to improve the effectiveness of existing strategies. They should perhaps conduct more recruiting efforts on a national level and should recruit former military personnel. This would expand the average number of applicants, which in North Carolina is currently 9.9 per position and possibly include more individuals that the departments view as better and more qualified applicants.

Respondents overwhelmingly mentioned salary issues as factors affecting both recruitment and retention within their agencies. Increasing the average starting salary may attract a better and larger applicant pool, but study findings suggest that the greater salary concern occurs after, and not before, the applicant is hired as a new officer. On the average officers are leaving the department after two years and 10 months of service, possibly because of limited opportunities for promotion or the failure to receive an increase in their salaries. In other words they are still receiving the same compensation, or only a slight increase above, their original starting salaries. This holds true for all officers irrespective of whether or not they possess a two- or four-year college degree.

Retention Strategy: Further work is needed to explore options for retaining officers beyond the three-year service mark including proposals to address increasing officer salaries during this critical period. In addition to cost of living adjustments other pay increase opportunities could include merit pay, increased pay for education and specialized training and in-grade step increases. Graduated pay scales based on length of service, with or without supplemental state and federal funding were mentioned as possible alternatives.

The three most common reasons officers give for terminating employment were, according to the agencies that responded to the survey, agency budget restrictions, accepting employment in the private sector, and lateral transfers to other law enforcement agencies. In-depth review of these issues was beyond the scope of this study. For example, more remains to be learned about lateral transfers in the law enforcement community. Why do officers switch agencies, and how do they select the next agency? Officers who leave for employment with state agencies and larger municipal law enforcement agencies should be contrasted with those transferring to agencies of the same size and smaller. Recommendations should be directed at reducing the number of lateral transfers across law enforcement agencies that may include consideration of salary issues, extending an officer's employment contract beyond three years, and a combination of employment restrictions and incentives to remain with an agency once employed.

Selection Strategy: A relatively large percentage of the respondents noted concerns about the current applicant screening process for attending basic law enforcement training instruction prior to employment. Given the fact that across the state of North Carolina 82 percent of the newly employed sworn officers have already completed basic training the importance of screening for basic training takes on new emphasis. The implication to law enforcement executives is that serious examination of basic training screening procedures must occur as an ongoing evaluation process to ensure the local agencies' needs are being met. During this study numerous recommendations were offered including requiring a mandatory passing score on standardized entrance exams, minimum reading and writing test requirements, as well as having all interested parties pass the minimum training and standards employment requirements prior to enrolling in a basic law enforcement training course of instruction.

The Future
Since this study was initiated, current events have changed many factors in American law enforcement. Homeland security is now a buzzword in law enforcement. New skills and emphasis on protecting the infrastructure of the country has added responsibilities to local law enforcement. When this study started, the economy was strong and governments had a solid tax base. By the conclusion of this study the economy had eroded, departments were facing fiscal crises and new unfunded mandates were being forced on state and local governments by the federal government.

This study has provided a baseline for future studies to ensure that the law enforcement executives know what it will take to recruit and retain a police force to meet the needs of their community.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission, the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission, or the North Carolina Sheriffs' Education and Training Standards Commission.

North Carolina Recruitment and Retention Survey Methods

Survey Instrument: A three-part, 27-item survey was developed with the first section of the questionnaire presenting questions that addressed the issue of recruiting sworn police personnel. The survey items dealt with recruitment strategies and techniques, the number of applicants, and the extent to which the responding agency had a backlog or waiting list of potential candidates. Respondents were also given the opportunity to comment on what course(s) of action should be undertaken to improve the recruitment of sworn police officers and to build a more qualified applicant pool.

Part 2 of the survey instrument addressed the issue of attrition and retention and included questions that were designed to enumerate the responding agency's turnover and vacancy rates and how these have varied over the past three years. Other questions focused on obstacles that hinder successful recruitment, techniques for retaining sworn personnel and reasons why officers leave the agency. Respondents were also given the chance to offer suggestions for improving personnel retention.

Survey Sample: A list of North Carolina's 453 police agencies was provided by staff of the Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and was utilized as the basis for selecting those police departments that would be included in the survey sample. The list was divided into four groups, or quartiles, based on the median number of sworn personnel.

A proportionate number of agencies, relative to the percent of agencies in each of the four groups, were sampled and selected to receive a copy of the survey in the mail. A total of 205 surveys were distributed with 53 (25.8 percent) going to agencies with more than 18 sworn officers, 45 (22 percent) to agencies with nine to 18 sworn officers, and 43 (21 percent) being mailed to agencies with five to eight sworn officers. The remaining 64 surveys (31.2 percent) were mailed to the state's smallest law enforcement agencies, those that have fewer than five full-time sworn officers.


Hiring Trained Applicants vs. Training New Hires

The study team also thought it was important to ascertain the extent to which police agencies either (1) hire applicants who have already completed basic law enforcement training (BLET) or (2) hire applicants and then sponsor their BLET during the state-mandated period after employment. Survey questions addressed both sides of the coin by soliciting participants to state the proportion of both pre- and post-BLET hires. The percentage of applicants who are hired before completing their BLET ranged from zero to 100 percent with 70 agencies (58.3 percent) requiring all applicants to complete BLET before employment. Responses from eight agencies (6.7 percent) indicate that 100 percent of their new hires are employed first with admittance into a BLET program occurring thereafter. Across the entire study sample, the average police department hires 82 percent of its applicants from an applicant pool that has already completed a BLET program, with the remaining 18 percent of the new hires being employed prior to BLET.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 3, March 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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