A recent article titled 2019’s Top Cities for Police Officers suggested that police workload based on UCR crime statistics is part of defining the best places for police employment. That may be as good a measure as any, but the issue of police staffing continues to be a concern of planners and administrators.
“Because of law enforcement’s varied service requirements and functions, as well as the distinct demographic traits and characteristics of each jurisdiction, readers should use caution when drawing comparisons between agencies’ staff levels based on police employment data from the UCR Program.” So states the front page of an FBI report on police staffing.
The questions “Would you recommend your police department as a good place to work?” and “Is your department understaffed?” may intersect, but workplace culture is more than pay and activity levels. Having worked for and with several police agencies here is my scoresheet for deciding to join, stay with an agency or leave, in no particular order.
1. Housing costs
I was so anxious to be a police officer at the age of 21 I would have paid to be allowed to work! But money matters and the number of digits on your paycheck may be the least of your fiscal concerns. We know that the cardinal rule of real estate is location, location, location. Considering that the biggest investment you’ll make is home ownership, the affordability of housing relative to your pay will be a big factor of what your salary is actually worth. Having a home with no mortgage at retirement is a huge contributor to financial security.
I would never stick with a job just because 20 years of suffering gets you an income for life, but it is something to think about. Fewer government agencies offer a defined benefit plan, where your income is certain, so those existing (assuming the underlying financial stability of the plan is strong) are gold. Keeping out of debt and growing your own investments by exercising some deferred pleasures (do you really need a $60,000 pickup truck?) can ensure a comfortable retirement fund you build on your own.
Don’t make the mistake that working for a small department is safer. Police work anywhere can turn deadly in an instant. Do ask if your agency cares enough to provide quality safety equipment and preventive, holistic healthcare. How have they treated injured officers in the past? If a department is low on resources, runs worn-out vehicles and doesn’t staff sufficiently to keep up with calls and requests for backup, it is likely that the public is satisfied with its law enforcement enduring a low quality of life.
I’ve worked for agencies where it seemed like interpersonal drama was pervasive from the chief to the dispatchers. Encouraging and supporting healthy families and relationships is often considered none of their business, but police leaders can establish healthy standards of on- and off-duty conduct. This may manifest in a seemingly “we’re all buddies here” fraternity, but a lack of accountability will seep into everything from sloughing off reports to sloppy uniforms.
The balance between healthy accountability and having no trust in officers can be a challenge. Where every decision is highly regulated, punishment is harsh and arbitrary, and productivity is measured only in arrests and tickets, the appeal of policing can lose its luster. If you can’t take time to talk to victims, follow up on incidents and have positive interactions with your public because you have to produce x number of activities for the day, the concept of serving the public can get lost.
Some agencies are so stable that it can easily be five or 10 years before a promotion or assignment change is available. Others have so much personnel change that you might be thrust into positions before you are ready. Don’t make the mistake thinking there won’t be enough activity at a small agency. A small agency officer might be able to follow a case from start to finish, where a large agency officer might be relegated to standing at the perimeter and calling in the specialty units.
7. Continuity of leadership
Staying with an agency forever means that leadership will come and go. If you have an agency with a legacy of professionalism and caring for the officers on the front line, then future leaders will likely maintain that culture. Frequent changes of executives that waiver between outside hires and inside hires can be a sign of unpredictability in the quality of the workplace. Career builders who intend to stay at the top only long enough to get to the next job can leave disaster in their wake even if their resume looks better.
8. General quality of life
Not everyone wants to live in a small mountain town like me, so try to find a place that makes your days off pleasant. Putting off your dream until you can retire and move depends on too many chances. Get where you want you and your family to be as soon as you can. That might mean avoiding an agency that will move you involuntarily. You won’t know what you’ve missed until it’s too late!
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