A police force and university in northern Virginia are teaming up for what they say will be a first-of-its-kind study that will seek over the next 20 years the assess the challenges police agencies face in recruitment and retention.
Police departments across the country are reporting that they cannot hire officers fast enough to replace those retiring or resigning. An annual survey of nearly 200 agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum shows that resignations increased by 47 percent from 2019 to 2022.
The Fairfax County Police Department, which is participating in the study announced Friday, is emblematic of the trend. Police Chief Kevin Davis said the police force is more than 200 officers short of the 1,484 officers it is authorized to employ, though he said a larger-than-normal academy class of 58 will soon fill some of the gap.
Davis said at a press conference Friday that the study will help agencies like his understand what police need to do to attract the best recruits and keep them on the force.
“We think over time, and hopefully over many years, we’ll learn a lot more about who wants to become part of this profession and why,” Davis said.
The study, led by George Mason University, will not only follower officers throughout their careers, but will also look at applicants who decide for whatever reason against becoming officers.
Cynthia Lum, a professor with GMU’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, said that while recruitment and retention are key issues in the policing profession, there’s a lack of academic studies assessing the reasons.
“These are questions that have existed for decades about why people join the police department, why they leave,” she said. “And I feel like we’re just still guessing. And we’re guessing because we don’t have these types of studies.”
Lum said the plan is to continue the study for 20 years, though long-term funding will still have to be secured.
The National Policing Institute is providing initial funding. Its president, Jim Burch, said the lessons learned in Fairfax will be relevant across the country. But he said he’d like to see this sort of study replicated across the country.
For a profession that faces accusations of racism, especially in recent years, Burch said it will be important for the study to address applicants’ and officers’ views on race. He said he’s confident that academics have the skills and tools necessary to get an honest assessment of those views. And Lum emphasized that the study will be independent and officers will have the ability to speak freely and at times anonymously about their views.
Davis said he thinks the quality of officers entering the profession is better than it was when he started 30 years ago. He said that stems in part from recruitment efforts that seek to draw from a broader pool of the population. That extends beyond racial demographics. As an example, Davis said his force used to provide a salary bump for applicants with criminal justice degrees. That has been changed to incorporate graduates who had different academic interests.
“We hired psychology majors, sociology majors, and we’re looking for a greater representation of the community,” he said.