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Back to Archives | Back to September 2005 Contents 

Police Turnover

By Dwayne Orrick, Chief of Police, Cordele, Georgia

olice departments across the country are reporting increased rates of staff turnover. Many agencies are spending enormous amounts of resources on recruiting, selecting, and training new employees. At the same time, they are unable to make progress because they are losing experienced officers to other employers.

Even though the problem of turnover is approaching critical levels for many law enforcement agencies, the issue has not received as much publicity as it has in other professions. For example, the turnover rate averages about 12 percent for nurses and 13 percent for teachers.1 A recent study completed by the state of North Carolina revealed that police agencies across the state experienced an average turnover of 14 percent in patrol positions. The average tenure for a new officer is 33 months.2

Numerous factors have been cited as contributing to high turnover, including poor pay and tough competition in the labor market. Regardless of the cause, the increases have led some community leaders to be concerned with the financial costs of turnover. For police executives, high turnover rates have threatened agencies' ability to keep a sufficient number of well-trained, experienced officers on-duty.

Positive Side of Turnover
It should be pointed out, however, that having staff leave the department should not always be viewed as a bad thing. Staff turnover allows the department to spread the influence of its leadership, initiate greater change of the organization's culture, and replace ineffective and unethical staff. Despite these benefits, police organizations must continue to reassess fundamental philosophy of how their agencies operate and its impact on the selection and retention of officers.

When the department invests enormous resources to select and train staff, it is normal to view a good officer's departure as being a loss. However, if the officer performs well in his or her new position, the previous employer's reputation is enhanced as being a good department. Every department has its formal and informal communication networks. When leaders foster good relationships with their employees, staff transfers will allow both departments to have contacts in the other's organization. These relationships can be used as an extension of both the department's resources in other communities and the leader's influence.

No organizational success can be achieved without good followers. Although no one wants to admit it, the fact is that all departments have some amount of deadwood. By measuring employee's performance along two dimensions, critical thinking skills and activity, leaders can categorize followers. Critical thinkers are employees who can think for themselves and give constructive criticism; other employees have to be told what to do or don't think. Active employees take initiative and are self-starters, whereas passive employees are lazy, require constant supervision, and avoid responsibility.

Employees who score low on both dimensions are characterized as passive followers and make up 5 to 10 percent of the workforce. To improve their performance, the follower must improve his or her critical thinking skills and activity. When a follower is unwilling or unable to improve his or her behavior, the department and community are best served by inviting the employee to explore other career opportunities.3

A few years ago, most U.S. communities enjoyed a vibrant economy and agencies were faced with a condition known as negative employment. This situation occurs when there are more jobs available than qualified applicants. This leads to extreme competition between both public and private employers. Some departments were faced with the dilemma of not maintaining minimum staffing levels or lowering their hiring standards.

Unfortunately, some persons were employed as officers who should not have been and later became involved in improper or unethical conduct. The chief executive is considered the caretaker of the institution and cannot allow the integrity of the organization to be questioned. If an officer cannot be trusted, he or she cannot be allowed to remain in a position where their conduct will taint the reputation of the entire unit. According to the National Institute of Ethics, the average officer who was involved in improper behavior that resulted in their removal from duty had 7.3 years of service.4 If this projection is accurate, police executives can expect to continue seeing a relatively high number of officers being involved in misconduct for several more years.

Turnover also allows the opportunity to change the organizational culture. The organizational culture is defined as "a shared basic assumption that the group has learned as it solved problems . . . that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems." 5

Changing how an organization is perceived and how officers respond to problems is challenging for a chief in the best of circumstances. This is especially true when the department has a strong yet dysfunctional culture. With increased levels of turnover, leaders can better initiate the embedding and reinforcing factors necessary to effect positive change.

Reassess the Fundamentals
Even though there are some potential benefits when turnover occurs, the problem cannot continue without long-term effects on the department and how it interacts with the community. How does an agency best reduce the level of turnover? A number of practical solutions are available, but conceptual issues must also be evaluated.

As law enforcement leaders enter the 21st century they are faced with a rapidly changing environment and diverse workforce. To address the issues of turnover, leaders will be forced to reassess the fundamentals of their organization.

Develop Strong Organizational Values: Leadership researchers Kouzes and Posnar have found that the most motivated employees have values that align closely with the organization's values. Perhaps surprisingly, the second most motivated group of employees had a highly defined set of personal values even though their organizations did not have a highly defined set of values.6 To foster this environment, leaders should seek to identify the core values of the department. Core values are the fundamental bedrock upon which the department operates. Unfortunately, for many agencies core values have not been identified or are lists copied from another department. For these values to have meaning, the staff must be involved in their developmental process. Second, values must be visibly reinforced through operational procedures. For example, if the department has a core value of honesty and officers routinely see staff lying or falsifying records without any consequences, the value has no meaning.

Move away from the Survival Mentality: Police work is a profession that provides officers with numerous opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of others. But departments will never be able to retain and motivate staff until the survival mentality socialized into our new officers is addressed. As new officers are socialized into the police profession through the recruit academy, they are indoctrinated on the dangers inherent to law enforcement. This indoctrination focuses their attention on making it home at the end of the day without being complained about, disciplined, sued, injured, or killed.

In his needs hierarchy, Abraham Maslow proposed that individuals would not be able to move into or be motivated by higher-ordered needs of love and belongingness, self-esteem, or self-actualization until lower-ordered needs of physical needs and security are satisfied. "If the individual is in a survival mode, economic motives will dominate; if survival needs are met, social needs come to the fore; if social needs are met, self-actualization needs are released." 7

Moving from the survival mentality is not to minimize the importance of teaching officers good tactical procedures or making them aware of the risks inherent in law enforcement. But service and problem solving, not combat, should be the focus of our academy instruction and socialization for new officers.

Change Compensation Systems: Employers demonstrate the worth of an employee to the organization every two weeks in the form of a paycheck. Unfortunately, many governing authorities view the police as a necessary evil and a dead-end cost because they do not realize the police department is critical to the community and its economic development. No one wants to move his or her family or business to a community with a high crime rate or a poor quality of life. As a result, some communities cling to parochial compensation systems, view trained police officers as little more than common laborers, and pay their staff as little as possible. Others are forced into adversarial roles with staff through collective bargaining agreements. This adversarial positioning permeates the entire department and how it interacts with the community they serve. To recruit and retain the caliber of officers needed for policing in the 21st century, agencies must pay a competitive salary. In addition, the system must reward officers with cost of living adjustments, longevity, and advanced certifications.

Establish Career Development Programs: As soon as a new employee is recruited, he or she is told of the opportunities to move out of patrol by way of promotions to supervisor; transfers to traffic, detectives, narcotics, or other elite units; or new job at larger agency. In reality, there are only a limited number of these opportunities available and employees who are anxious to move from the patrol function are often unwilling to wait for the few vacancies to occur. Rather than continue with this unrealistic expectation for moving out of patrol, a department can use job enhancement techniques and creative career development programs to provide individual patrol officers opportunities for growth and salary increases without making them supervisors or assigning them to special units. The department undertaking these steps will find that enhancing the patrol service provides for a stronger and better department that engages in problem solving and improving the quality of life for the community.

Engage Officers' Minds: Generally, most police officers have a strong internal locus of control. That is, they feel they can make a difference in their environment. In fact, many officers join the police profession to make a difference in their communities. Yet most agencies continue to follow traditional incident-based policing techniques. This method of policing requires officers to repeatedly answer calls but take little corrective action. By training officers how to identify problems, develop solutions, and implement the strategy to correct the problem, police administrators can provide officers with a creative outlet that can improve their community. Officers who fix problems and do not merely treat the symptoms can make a bigger difference in their communities and have more rewarding careers.

Employ Mentoring: While still considered a revolutionary idea by some, mentoring programs have been around for thousands of years. Traditionally, apprentice programs have functioned as a conduit for passing along knowledge and experience. By implementing formal or informal mentoring programs, departments provide a wonderful opportunity to guide employees through a promising career. Mentoring programs have been shown to increase new officer success rates, build confidence, anchor officers to the department, and reduce turnover.8

Recruit Incumbents: In most agencies after the officer is hired and trained, they get into the routine of being on the job, and administrators get used to having them around and pay them little attention. But it is a basic human need to feel needed and important. Leaders too often focus their attention on the troubled employees and on new candidates. As a result, the good hardworking officers who make up most of our agencies are ignored and provided with little positive reinforcement. To avoid this, leaders must schedule time to celebrate, praise, and recognize employees who perform well.

Some employee turnover is unavoidable and normal, and there are some conditions in which employee turnover is beneficial to the department. At the same time, pronounced turnover can be detrimental to the department and prevent it from achieving its goals. Many of the problems contributing to unnecessary and unwanted turnover will continue to plague agencies until fundamental changes are made to the organizational culture. Failing to address these issues will make departments being unable to limit turnover for years to come. ■

1 University of Washington Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortage, and the Organization of Schools, by Richard B. Ingersoll (January 2001), 14.
2 North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center, Recruitment and Retention Study Series Sworn Police Personnel, by Douglas L. Yearwood (April 2003), iv - v.
3 Howard Prince, John Halstead, and Larry Hesser, Leadership in Police Organizations, (McGraw-Hill, 2002), 153-156.
4 National Institute of Ethics, The National Law Enforcement Officer Disciplinary Research Project, by Neal Trautman (1997).
5 Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985), 9.
6 James E. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 49-50.
7 Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 100.
8 International Association of Chief's of Police, Best Practices Guide for Institutionalizing Mentoring into Police Departments, by Harvey Sprafka and April Kranda (2002).



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 9, September 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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