Straining The Line

How recruitment & retention woes reflect a much bigger problem

By Darrin Fulton  |   Dec 6, 2018

The thin blue line is strained. The strain is getting worse by the day. But what if the thin blue line breaks? What I mean by this is: Where will society be when no one wants to do the job anymore?

Law enforcement agencies across the country are facing increasing shortages due to retirements, transfers, and a major decrease in applicants trying to get into the academy. The retiring generation often bought into the job at a time when major narcotics, gangs, and homicides were skyrocketing. They have provided cities across the country with lengthy careers of community service and are ready to move on to life after the badge. We are indebted to them for keeping our communities safe for the past 20-plus years.

Now for the issues at hand.

The Evolving Story

Law enforcement has drastically changed from what those officers who joined in the late 1980s and early 90s dealt with. The media has done a great job of making cops look like the enemy of society, and social justice groups have made a living on demonizing the profession. Men and women looking for a career—especially this generation—are not looking to be spit on and hated for wearing a badge. More and more believe the media and organized groups, that law enforcement really is a job of brutality and hatred toward those who do not don the uniform. To top it off, the news often carries stories and videos of officers being murdered or shot in the line of duty. Why not look elsewhere?

Those looking to start a career these days are also looking for good pay and the ability to move around within a company or organization. While unions have done an excellent job of fighting for better pay and benefits, they have also created difficulties by fighting for positions within departments being awarded strictly by seniority. It’s extremely hard to explain to someone looking at a law enforcement job that while pay will improve, and benefits are great, they will be stuck working the streets for possibly a decade or more before being able to maneuver out of patrol. Departments are working overtime to come up with new ways to allow more officers to move around into different units. The cops of old who were willing to pay their dues and bide their time to eventually get into something better or at least different are becoming fewer and farther between.

New department regulations and city or state legislation have caused alarms as well. Anyone wanting to get into law enforcement knows that they will always be under the public eye and have a bodycam watching their every move. Almost every cellphone in America is capable of recording everything and officer says and does. With civilian oversight groups and city governments hamstringing officers with scrutiny after use of force, those entertaining the idea of a career in law enforcement are second-guessing whether or not it’s worth having their every move under a microscope and part of the public record. 

While athletes and actors make millions—and, of course, could possibly get hurt on the job—no one is sending real bullets in their direction on a movie set or a ball field. Cops face life and death situations almost on a daily basis and yet are paid far below their worth. When being told they could die tomorrow for what is often around $40,000 a year starting pay, most people are probably going to look for something else to do with their life.

Again, departments are striving to come up with new ideas every day, including incentives, not only for new recruits, but for the officers who recruit them. City governments face a massive amount of stress when trying to handle a budget to not only run a community efficiently, but to provide their employees, especially first responders, with the best equipment, vehicles, and salaries to keep them safe. Beyond that, they work to incentivize sticking with the job and making it a career. There are departments I know of where there hasn’t been a raise in five or more years. It’s difficult to imagine that someone just starting out would be happy with not seeing any extra money for a lengthy period of time, despite hard work and risk.

Shift work is another ocnundrum that no one has found the magic answer to. No matter whether it’s eight, ten, or twelve-hour days, human beings are not naturally conditioned to flip-flop their days and nights. It’s more difficult to function, get enough sleep, and be alert to be safe and keep others safe when working long hours and working overnight. What used to be the smell of coffee wafting through a division, has now become the over-sweet aroma of high-sugar, massive caffeine energy drinks. Cops have made those companies extremely wealthy thanks to the hard schedules they endure. From the outside looking in, anyone searching for their lifelong profession just might not be that interested in surviving off excess amounts of caffeine, nicotine, and stale gas station food. 

So where do we go from here? How can law enforcement agencies across the country rebuild their ranks and get people interested in wanting to serve a greater good and their communities?

More than anything, the culture has to be turned around. Someone has to be willing to stand up and say enough is enough. We need to make the media understand that their overzealous coverage of police shootings and jumping to conclusions without sufficient facts has real-world consequences. We need to hold cops accountable when they behave criminally, of course. But we also have to have a society that understands just how rare that happens. Bottom line: Until law enforcement becomes respected once again, it will be a difficult task to recruit good and hard-working candidates who are looking for more than a paycheck.

Officers must be allowed to do their jobs. Being second-guessed for every action has created a new era in policing, in which self-initiated activity is frowned upon by the overseers and looked at warily by the boots on the ground for fear of something going wrong. Nobody wants to end up on YouTube or on the other end of a citizen complaint or worse. So rather than doing our best, accepting that mistakes will happen and that force is never pretty, we have become passive. This is terrible for morale and public safety.

Finally, departments must look at the new generation that’s coming of age now. In only three years, agencies can begin hiring those that were born in the year 2000. Technology has been their companion from the time they were born. Agencies must look at ways to integrate technology into the academy, as well as look at how these new recruits will learn and operate. Agencies must find new ways to allow officers to maneuver among units throughout a department so they aren’t quickly burned out on patrol and leave to find greener pastures.

Conclusion

For many years, law enforcement has been a career held by those who were not getting into it for themselves. Those wanting to don a uniform and wear a badge felt a higher calling. They sought to serve and better their communities. Service has become an almost dirty word and policing has been given a negative connotation.

We must do our best to overcome the obstacles at hand and guide a new generation of officers into agencies across the country. Should that become a burden that few are willing to bear, I fear that the lower crime rates that so many cops have worked so hard to achieve will disappear and a new era of lawlessness and destruction will fall upon us.