What Support Do Officers Need to Perform at Their Peak?

commentary

(Police1)

Members of the NYPD gather at the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art after an alleged multiple stabbing incident, in New York, March 12, 2022, photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Members of the NYPD gather at the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art after an alleged multiple stabbing incident, in New York, March 12, 2022

Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

by Bob Harrison

June 14, 2022

In September 2020, Police1 conducted its first annual State of the Industry Survey. The second annual survey on “What Cops Want,” conducted in December 2021, shows both major strengths and substantial challenges in the profession.

As a key strength, a majority of cops chose policing as a career to help people. Not only that, but most also say that serving the community is the most satisfying thing about their job. Overall job satisfaction, as will be discussed, is much higher than might be expected given what's routinely in the news. Outside of this survey, 72% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the police, with more than three-quarters supporting more police in the streets and larger department budgets, but fewer than a quarter say that “police treat all Americans equally.”[1] Additionally, confidence in the police is markedly different as measured by race.

Still, major challenges exist. Concerningly, few cops responding to the survey would encourage others to join the profession. A majority said they were tired of the presumption that police are wrong. And a majority had substantial concerns about agency leadership, with respect to both external relations and internal management practices.

Independent polling shows fewer than a quarter of Americans believe “police treat all Americans equally.”[1] Additionally, confidence in the police is markedly different as measured by race. In 2020, only 19% of Black Americans expressed a “great deal/quite a lot of confidence” confidence in their police, a rate 37% lower than white Americans.[2] Last year saw a recovery of confidence by Black Americans with an increase to 27%, although this remains far below the 56% level of confidence expressed by white Americans in 2021.[3]

This year's “What Cops Want” survey asked officers how they see their roles, what they liked best and least about policing, and how they view the future of law enforcement. A primary area of focus was also to address how the police feel about their own organizations. Some of the responses may be surprising, but many can provide insight into possible paths police leaders can follow for the future.

Select the top three most satisfying aspects of the job

Serving the community Crime fighting Public interaction
64% 42% 31%

The 2021 Survey

Since this is the second of two surveys it is useful to look at the responses from a year earlier.

In January 2021, Police1 published the outcomes of the first “What Cops Want” national survey of sworn officers. That survey included perspectives about police reform, recruitment and career satisfaction. Key findings were:

  • Officers have a strong desire to serve their communities and increase the time they spend doing community policing.
  • They want to move some issues (homelessness and mental health, most prominently) to be the responsibility of others better trained to resolve them.
  • They were more satisfied with the job than some might expect, but significant warning signs indicated they wouldn't recommend the profession to others.
  • They were largely dissatisfied with the “police always being wrong” sentiments expressed by the public, justice advocates and some elected officials.
  • Finally, they seemed less willing to enact changes in policing if it meant diverting funding from what officers saw as their job.

This year's survey echoes many of the same sentiments. It also highlights what respondents see as less support and caring from their supervisors, managers and leaders than they would want. Specific areas of comparison will be presented as the outcomes are presented.

My agency effectively educates the public about what law enforcement officers do

Strongly disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
16% 27% 25% 26% 6%

The Context of Change

The country continues to feel the impacts of the succession of COVID variants, a rise in homicides and violent crime, and efforts legislatively and in the courts to hold the police accountable for their actions.

A recent survey of police workforce trends concluded that hiring new officers had declined from 5%–36% in the past year, resignations were up 18% and retirements were up 45% from the previous year.[4] Other data, though, does not support the notion that police officers are quitting in droves.

The overall U.S. economy shed 6% of its workforce, while police agencies are only one percent smaller than in 2019.[5] A recent push to hire new officers can be traced to the $350 billion earmarked to cities in the 2021 American Rescue Plan for this purpose.[6] At 697,000, police staffing nationally is also close to the all-time high of 709,000 in 2008[7]. The Police1 survey also found that a majority of officers plan to stay with their current agency and only 13% said they plan to move on from their current employer in the next 12 months.

Homicide is rising to historic levels in some urban communities, even as other violent and property crime levels remained flat or declined. That violence has also been visited on the police.

Share on Twitter

As law enforcement struggles to police its communities, homicide is rising to historic levels in some urban communities, even as other violent and property crime levels remained roughly flat or declined.[8] That violence has also been visited on the police themselves. Last year saw a 51% rise in police officers being feloniously killed as compared to 2020.[9] Nationally, 60,105 officers were assaulted in 2020 while performing their duties, 4,071 more than in 2019.[10] Even as issues of police deadly force rage, the data shows that the number of police-involved shooting deaths has remained relatively stable at 900–1,000 annually,[11] a fraction of the 61 million contacts between police and the public each year.[12] Public support has declined, but remains relatively strong, even as Americans call for greater emphasis on social service and community policing by their police.

Why did you choose law enforcement as a career? (select all that apply)

Category Value
To help people 72%
Variability of the job 57%
Challenges of the job 46%
Job security 31%
Salary and benefits 30%
Family tradition 16%
Friend was a police officer 13%
Lack of other job opportunities 3%

Satisfaction with Policing As a Career

Several questions asked officers why they chose law enforcement as a career, what they find least and most satisfying about it, and their thoughts about the future of policing. Some of the responses may reaffirm the norms of the police mindset, while others could be indicators of concern for police leadership. Most notably:

  • When asked why they chose a law enforcement career, 72% responded it was “to help people;” 57% due to the “variability of the job.”[13] Forty-six percent noted it was the “challenges of the job,” and 31% listed “job security” (Q14). This is consistent with the 2021 survey, where 75% listed “want to serve my community,” 52% reported it was the “variability of the job” and 48% listed “challenges of the job” as their primary reasons.[14]
  • They were asked to select the top three “most satisfying” aspects of their job.[15] The top three most satisfying aspects were “serving the community” at 64%, 42% chose “crime-fighting” and 31% selected “public interaction.” Compensation and pensions both rated around 27% (Q15).[16] This is consistent with the previous survey, although in 2021, “serving the community” was lower at 56%, and only a quarter selected “community interaction” or “public interaction” as top satisfiers.
  • Some 63% of respondents cited the “presumption that police are wrong” as the “least satisfying” aspect of the job, while 60% chose “poor agency leadership” (Q16).[17]
  • Overall job satisfaction, on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high) reflected that 55% chose 7 or higher, while only 19% selected 4 or lower (Q17). This split in perspectives is similar to the previous survey, where 39% agreed or strongly agreed that the current climate had strengthened their pride in being a law enforcement officer, while 33% disagreed or strongly disagreed with that sentiment.
  • In contrast to the overall positive job satisfaction, when asked if they would recommend a career in law enforcement to others, on the same 1–10 scale, 55% selected 4 or lower, while only 22% chose 7 or higher (Q19).
  • The Net Promoter Score calculation, commonly used to assess a consumer's likelihood of recommending a product or service, tells a different story when applied to the career recommendation responses (Q19). Only 7% of respondents are promoters of a law enforcement career while a jaw-dropping 78% fit the criteria of being a detractor.
  • Finally, when asked if they were optimistic about the future of policing, 21% said “yes,” 38% said “no” and 41% said they weren't sure (Q20).
  • This year's survey did not ask about the current climate and its effect on their commitment to serve the community. Last year, 28% agreed or strongly agreed that it had; 44% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the climate had strengthened their commitment to serve.

Throughout the survey, when asked about the effectiveness of their agency's leadership, sentiments were far more critical than positive.

  • Asked if their leadership supported officers when communicating with the media, 40% agreed or strongly agreed; however, 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed (Q22).
  • On the subject of putting officer concerns before public perceptions, 25% agreed or strongly agreed that the agency did so, but 56% said they did not (Q23).
  • Finally, from a list of nine critical issues and how well leadership communicated with their communities, on a 1–5 scale (low-high), “highly ineffective” ratings averaged between 31%–36%, while “highly effective” ratings averaged only 5%–8% (Q24).

These responses seem to indicate that police leaders could consider ways to enhance internal communications to reinforce an understanding of the ways they are supported, and why instances of less vigorous support may be due to a lack of efforts to engage the community to build opportunities for shared dialog.

Over the past year, how effectively did your agency leadership communicate with the public about the impact of each of these issues on police officer morale?

Highly ineffective Ineffective Neutral Effective Highly Effective
Anti-police protests 34% 24% 25% 12% 5%
Anti-police sentiments in some communities 32% 25% 25% 13% 5%
Assaults on police officers during protests 35% 22% 27% 11% 6%
Media portrayal of law enforcement 36% 24% 22% 13% 6%
Political efforts to reform the police 34% 23% 25% 12% 5%
Political efforts to defund the police 33% 21% 26% 13% 8%
Politically motivated prosecutions of police 37% 21% 27% 11% 5%
Rush to judgment before full BWC video release 31% 19% 28% 14% 7%
State legislation to remove qualified immunity 36% 20% 26% 11% 8%

Due to rounding, some of the values do not add up to 100 percent.

The Value of Engaged Employees

It may be useful to look outside of law enforcement to gain an objective perspective on the importance of having employees who are committed to the work. Since policing is a profession that some would see as one of stress and physical danger, isn't it normal for its practitioners to be unhappy? Even if they are, does that mean they won't do the job anyway? Fortunately, there is a body of knowledge in this regard that can be a useful yardstick for police leaders.

The Gallup Corporation, a global analytics firm, uses its “Q12” questionnaire to measure employee engagement at work.[18] This wealth of data has led to some significant conclusions as they look at top-quartile and bottom-quartile organizations.[19] [20] Some of the major differences between top and bottom units are a:

  • 10% difference in customer loyalty/engagement
  • 43% difference in turnover
  • 64% difference in safety incidents
  • 81% less absenteeism
  • 66% difference in wellbeing
  • 13% difference in organizational citizenship (participation).

So, what does our survey say, and how could it relate to the engagement issues seen in other industries?

Gallup asserts the relationship between engagement and performance is “substantial and highly generalizable across organizations.” If so, the outcomes of this survey of the police are both positive indicators of the officers' commitment to the profession, while others, that were very similar to the questions Gallup asks on the Q12, may be concerning:

  • When asked if their supervisor cares about them as a person, 61% said yes, 19% said no and 20% more said they didn't know (Q30). Although 61% is a majority, the level of uncertainty indicates a possible gap in perceived “caring” that could be due to not communicating or acting in ways that affirm its presence.
  • 44% said they do not receive constructive feedback from their supervisor (Q32).[21]
  • 29% said they rarely receive recognition for good work, and 17% more said they never receive such recognition (Q33).[22]
  • 77% said that morale had decreased in their agency in the past year (Q25).
  • 25% said their supervisor values their input and perspective; 25% disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement (Q29).
  • 67% said their supervisor allows them to do their job as they feel best, while only 17% disagreed (Q29).[23]
  • 58% said their supervisor shares important information with them in a timely manner, 18% said they do not (Q29).
  • Perspectives about their supervisor caring about their professional development also were split; 50% said yes, while the other half said no, or were not sure (Q31).[24]

A significant number of officers feel unrecognized, unimportant, and unappreciated by their leadership.

Share on Twitter

While these questions do not directly correspond to the Gallup Q12, this pattern of responses makes it highly unlikely the American policing enterprise would fall into the top quartile of high-performing organizations.

History and standing in the community can vary widely from organization to organization. The responses do indicate there are a significant number of officers who feel unrecognized, unimportant and unappreciated by their leadership. How that translates to the work of policing is not known, but being less involved, and feeling their opinions don't matter could affect how police treat the public. The Gallup data helps frame how much an engaged, healthy workforce can be different in terms of wellbeing, turnover and service.

What Could It Mean?

Looking at the dramatic differences in perspectives about support from “bosses,” police leaders could consider the fiscal, physical and work-product costs they may be squandering if their workforce is disengaged. They could also imagine the impacts on staffing productivity and employee wellness if their officers and staff were highly engaged.

Regarding the future, the majority of respondents remained satisfied with policing. They want to help people and serve their communities. Americans, in general, want policing to remain (and even grow) but strongly support changes in police work to emphasize community policing, social service and de-escalation of force. Bridging the gap between the police and their communities could take engagement with the various communities in each jurisdiction as well as more effectively tending to the “care and feeding” of officers and staff. In addition, agencies might consider planning the work with greater deliberation and interaction with their community and employing evidence-based strategies to validate the effectiveness of their work.

Creating a workforce that is optimistic about the future, proud of the work it does, and where people feel they are cared for by their supervisors and managers could foster success in the years ahead. This survey could be a starting point to open discussions with officers, staff and community members toward that goal.

Better Policing Toolkit

For those interested in learning more about successful strategies for bridging the gap with communities, as well as tips for making agencies better performing in general, the RAND Corporation offers its Better Policing Toolkit.[25] This site includes a series of quick guides and white papers on policing strategies that have shown to be most promising in reducing crime, holding offenders accountable, and building trust and legitimacy with the communities that agencies serve and protect. The toolkit also provides tips on how to make organizational changes and implement new strategies successfully. To help leaders make the case for policing, RAND's Cost of Crime Calculator presents evidence of how having more police has helped lower crime and the benefits to society of doing so.[26]

2022 Survey Demographics

As with last year's survey, respondents were generally older, male and white. Almost half were 36 years of age and older and had more than 20 years in policing. Even with 20% being supervisors, and 18% more being in leadership or administrative roles, there was a marked split in perspectives on the effectiveness of agency leadership, both to support their officers and to communicate effectively with the community.

Some 2,376 officers and deputies responded to the survey in December 2021. The majority were veteran officers; 68% had between 10–30 years' experience, while 14% had more than 30 years in policing. They were split among rural (22%), suburban (40%) and urban (38%) departments. Fifty-eight percent were municipal police officers, 21% worked for sheriff's departments, 6.7% for campus police, 5.5% for state police agencies and 6.3% for other types of agencies (tribal, airport, transit, etc.). Fifty percent were line officers, 13% worked in investigations and 10% worked in administrative roles. Eighty-one percent were white, 87% were male. Only 14% of respondents were 35 years of age or younger.

References

  • [1] Jackson C. As public safety tops the agenda, Americans want both order and justice. Ipsos, July 8, 2021. Seventy-two percent have a favorable opinion of police and law enforcement; 64% trust the police and law enforcement to handle crime and public safety issues; 77% support deploying more officers to street patrols, 70% support increasing police department budgets. Fewer than a quarter of Americans say 'police treat all Americans equally'; even fewer (17%) say the same of criminal justice courts and lawyers. 62% support reallocating some police budget to community policing and social services. 81% support mandating police-involved shootings be investigated by a separate authority, 90% support de-escalation training.
  • [2] Jones JM. Black, white adult's confidence diverges most on police. Gallup, August 12, 2020.
  • [3] Jones JM. In US, Black confidence in police recovers from 2020 low. Gallup, August 14, 2021.
  • [4] Survey on police workforce trends. PERF, June 11, 2021. A national survey of chiefs in May 2021 asked about hiring, resignations and retirements in the past year. There were 194 responses. Reduction in hiring was modest, with a 5% overall decrease; in larger agencies, though, the drop in hiring was more pronounced. Those with 250-499 officers saw a 29% reduction, those with 500 or more officers saw a 36% decrease in hiring rate. Increase in resignations was 18%, and increases in retirements were significantly larger, with a 45% increase. Even in the largest agencies, the retirement rate increased by 27%. In agencies of all sizes, overall staffing was down from 1.1 to 3.1 percent.
  • [5] Li W, Mahajan I. Police say demoralized officers are quitting in droves. Labor data says no. The Marshall Project, September 1, 2021. In 2020, the U.S. economy shed 6% of workers, but under 1% of police. The push to hire more is gaining ground; Biden administration announced that cities can use part of the $350B American Rescue Plan money to hire more officers to combat gun violence. A surge in gun violence saw an increase in 187s by 25% from 2019 to 2020.
  • [6] Biden-Harris Administration announces comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to gun crime and ensure public safety, June 23, 2021.
  • [7] Statista. Number of full-time law enforcement officers in the USA 2004–2020. Police staffing peaked in 2008 at 708,569, and then dropped significantly to 626,942 in 2013 in the aftermath of the 2010-2011 recession. By 2019, however, staffing had risen back to 697,195.
  • [8] Conklin A. At least 16 cities see record homicides in 2021. Fox News, December 18, 2021.
  • [9] FBI. LEOKA data, preliminary statistics. Dec 27, 2021.
  • [10] FBI. FBI releases statistics for law enforcement officers assaulted and killed in the line of duty. October 22, 2021. Jan 1 to Sept 30, 2021, 59 officers killed, a 51% increase from same period in 2020. Nationally, 60,105 officers were assaulted in 2020 while performing their duties, 4,071 more than in 2019. Of the 60K officers assaulted, 31% were injured; 2,744 assaulted with firearms, 1180 assaulted with knives, 11,760 more assaulted with other types of dangerous weapons.
  • [11] Washington Post. Police shootings database, December 28, 2021. Nine hundred people shot and killed by police in past year, rate steady since they first started gathering the data in 2015; 2020 saw 1,021, 2021 saw 880.
  • [12] Harrell E, Davis E. Contacts between police and the public, 2018 — statistical tables (PDF. BJS, December 2020.
  • [13] The survey listed nine choices; respondents could select as many as they felt appropriate.
  • [14] There was no “serve the community” or “crime-fighting” options on the list of choices for Q14. Although 29% listed “salary and benefits” as a reason, only 3.5% noted that a lack of job opportunities elsewhere motivated them to enter policing.
  • [15] They were asked to select a “top three” choices from a list of 16 descriptors.
  • [16] Although Q15's “serving the community” is related to Q14's “helping people,” they differ in precise meaning, and there was no “helping people” choice in Q15.
  • [17] Respondents were asked to select 3 choices from a list of 12 descriptors. Several choices rated from 23-29%; they were “attention from politicians,” “being in the media spotlight,” “negative comments from citizens,” “unclear policies” and “serving a community that doesn't appreciate (the) police.”
  • [18] As of 2020, Gallup has collected data from more than 2.7 million people in 112,000 business and work units across 54 industries. The 12 questions ask workers if they know what their company expects from them, if they have the tools to do their jobs, if they have been recognized for good work, and if their manager or someone else at work cares about them. It also queries if they have friends at work, if their opinion counts, and if they have had developmental conversations or someone who promotes their work.
  • [19] Gallup Q12 Meta-analysis, 10th ed.
  • [20] For government organizations, the data includes 1.5M respondents from 266K business units. There is no public data on the Q12 as it relates to policing or law enforcement.
  • [21] This relates to Question 5 in the Gallup Q12.
  • [22] This is similar to Question 6 in the Gallup Q12 of “someone at work who encourages my development,” and may be an area where supervisors could develop habits to informally recognize good work on a more consistent basis.
  • [23] This question is consistent with the Gallup Q12's Question 3: “Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day.” The strong positive response indicates that a majority of officers feel free to do their jobs without undue supervisory interference.
  • [24] This also relates to Gallup Q12 Question 6, “someone at work supports my development.”
  • [25] RAND. Better Policing Toolkit.
  • [26] RAND. Cost of Crime Calculator. RAND also has a wealth of data and insights related to what cops “don't” want to do, policing in the post-Floyd Era and on racial reconciliation in the criminal justice system.

Bob Harrison is a retired police chief who is an adjunct researcher with the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation. He is also a course manager for the CA POST Command College. He consults with police agencies in California and beyond on strategy, leadership, and innovation. He holds a postgraduate degree in business strategy and innovation from the University of Oxford, and master's degrees from two U.S. universities.

This commentary originally appeared on Police1 on June 13, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.