Thought Leadership

Recruitment, Retention, and the Mental Health of Current Police Officers

Recruitment and retention are among the many challenges facing current law enforcement agencies and their leaders. It has become increasingly difficult for agencies to not only recruit but also retain the officers they have.

In the past two years, many agencies have experienced a major exodus of officers eligible for retirement and those who decide mid-career that this is no longer for them. This creates a void as those who would have been future leaders within the department are gone. Additionally, with recruitment becoming increasingly difficult many officers are working overtime directly impacting current police officers as they are being asked to do more with less.

“It’s not a fun time to be in law enforcement. It’s not an easy time to be in law enforcement right now,” said Tony Thompson, Black Hawk County Sherriff.

Public perception of law enforcement can also affect agencies as they recruit and retain officers. With the atmosphere out there that all police officers are bad, it is having a huge impact on police officers as they go about their job. When we have these major incidents that highlight one incident, and all officers get tainted with the same it has a significant impact on mental health and makes it increasingly difficult to recruit.

With officers overworked, overtired, and dealing with the public perception it begs the question – how is this affecting the mental health of current law enforcement?

Thompson also adds; “The job is less rewarding now, too. We’re less apt to fight when they feel less appreciated and enabled and supported.”

RECRUITMENT & RETENTION

When agencies are able to recruit new candidates, these recruits are from a different generation than those in current leadership positions. With new positions opening, officers entering the force for the first time are receiving their training during a period of great transition.

Law enforcement leaders are not only recruiting a new generation of law enforcement officers but also trying to retain those officers. Younger candidates want to know what the department can offer them – instead of what they bring to the agency. This becomes another added challenge to officers who are already feeling burnt out. Furthermore, after a few years on the job, some officers start looking for their identities, and agencies need to keep them interested and involved.

With recruitment and retention affected, current law enforcement officers are often working double. Law enforcement officers devote their careers to keeping citizens and the communities they live in safe. What many officers don’t talk about is what they see on the job – accidents, mental health calls, and even death.

All officers know this is part of the job, however, it doesn’t make witnessing tragedies any easier to see or cope with, in particular, when agencies are short-staffed and needing their current officers to work more.

HOW CAN WE PROTECT THOSE WHO PROTECT?

Creating a culture of open conversation and removing the stigma surrounding mental health can help as well as providing adequate resources. It’s the responsibility of law enforcement leaders to recognize this and do everything in their power to prevent it from happening. That means creating a culture that supports the concept of vulnerability.

When new officers begin their careers, the field training they receive can have a tremendous impact on the type of cop they will be.

Laying the groundwork early in an officer’s career, with a strong FTO program that includes mental health training, can help law enforcement officers manage chronic stress more effectively. The biggest investment law enforcement leaders can make is investing in their officers and investing in the right technology and programs that can support them most effectively.

Many agencies around the country have created peer support groups (PSPs). Who can understand what an officer is going through better than another officer; someone who has walked in their shoes? Studies have shown that PSPs are effective in addressing problems and applying resources to help others in their peer group. Peer support is not the only solution in aiding and supporting our current law enforcement officers – but no one knows what a cop goes through better than another cop.

Education. One of the best things law enforcement leaders can do is educate themselves on what other agencies are doing around the country to support their officers. Ask questions, find out what’s working and what’s not. Listening and learning about different perspectives can help in creating successful strategies for your agency.

There needs to be an open conversation about mental health in law enforcement, especially now as many agencies continue facing challenges in recruitment and retention. In a 2018 Fraternal Order of Police survey, 90% of respondents believe there is a stigma in law enforcement that creates a barrier to seeking help for emotional or behavioral health issues.

If every officer knows that sometimes it’s OK to not be OK, that eliminates the stigma from within. That doesn’t mean eliminating resiliency; it means promoting empathy and understanding.

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