Report: Law enforcement agencies nationwide struggle with officer recruitment, retention

Across the country, law enforcement agencies are struggling with recruiting and retaining new officers, according to a new report from the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank focused on policing research and policy.

Locally, the Spokane Police Department is also struggling with recruitment.

The report, which was released this month, highlights three specific trends among law enforcement agencies — including city police agencies and county sheriff's offices — surveyed by the organization: Decreasing applications for police officer positions, more officers leaving their jobs to find careers outside of law enforcement, and a growing number of current officers becoming eligible for retirement.

"The workforce crisis is affecting law enforcement agencies of all sizes and types — large, medium, and small; local, state, and federal," the report reads. "And it is hitting departments in all parts of the country."

Sixty-three percent of the 411 law enforcement agencies that responded to the Police Executive Research Forum's survey reported a decrease in the number of applicants for police officers in the past five years. The Nashville Police Department, for instance, reported a 60 percent decrease in applications through their online portal since 2010. Smaller agencies are also reporting similar issues: The Liberty Lake Police Department, which consists of 11 full-time officers, reportedly only received five applications for two open positions, compared to 70 applicants for one position a decade ago.

The trend is reflected locally, according to Spokane Police Chief Meidl: "We are now experiencing what the rest of the nation is experiencing in terms of applications," he tells the Inlander.

He says that two decades ago, there would be upwards of "1,000 people" applying for two open positions at the Spokane Police Department. Fast forward to 2019, where his office currently has only 70 applicants for seven open positions. And most of those applicants are going to get disqualified for one reason or another, such as issues to arise in background checks.

"While 70 sounds like a lot, statistically, we may get six or seven [people] out of that list," Meidl says. "We select one out of 10 to 12 applicants out of the list."

The report chalks the declining application numbers to a variety of factors, including a robust national economy with a low unemployment rate, a shrinking number of people leaving active military service — a demographic that typically serves as pool for law enforcement recruitment — and competition for labor among police departments. Additionally, the report also notes that the hiring criteria for new officers is becoming steeper as the nature of police work changes: New officers must be comfortable with new technology and dealing with social problems, such as drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness.

"You have a job that takes a special skill set," Meidl says. "It’s not just law enforcement: it’s social outreach, it’s problem solving, it’s dispute resolution."

"Even as police departments are struggling to get enough applicants in the door, they need to be raising the bar and looking for applicants with a wider array of talents and skills," the report reads.

Decreasing retention rates also becoming an issue for law enforcement. Among the voluntary officer resignations reported by the surveyed agencies, 29 percent occurred within the officer's first year, while 40 percent took place between the officer's first year anniversary and fifth year of service — meaning that a majority of resignations occurred within five years of an officer joining a department. Additionally, agencies reported that officers leaving departments to pursue careers outside of law enforcement was the second most common reason for resignation cited in exit interviews. (The most frequently reported reason was a transfer to another law enforcement agency.)

Meidl says that the Spokane Police Department may be behind the curve on this trend: "People are retiring out of SPD. We don't see a huge outflow of people deciding 'this isn't for me.'"

He adds that his department will need to hire over 40 officers through 2020 due to a combination of retirements and newly funded positions from the public safety levy, which voters approved in early 2019.

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.