Is there anything departments can do to improve retention?
Retention is the ugly stepchild of recruiting. Yet, retention is cheaper than retraining. New hires cost much more in recruiting, training, and gaining of experience.
In one study, 54% said retention is a problem, but only 29% had taken definitive steps to address the issue. Of the 46% that felt it wasn't a "problem", most would likely agree that improved retention is still a good way to offset recruiting.
Retention is not as easy as it sounds. Let's break it down.
The first retention issue occurs during the probationary period. As I teach or attend recruiting seminars, I hear war stories of the effort a recruiter went through to get a certain candidate, only to have him or her drop out of the academy. I had it easy in the Air Force, but anyone who went through Marine Corps boot camp or Army basic surely had moments when they might have thought about quitting, if only they could. "The Marine recruiter was soooooo nice." Even if your basic course is not a stress law enforcement academy, it is necessary to prepare the candidate. Unlike the military, they can quit.
One way that the transition can be eased is with a mentoring system. An entire article could be written on this, but basically an experienced and caring department member is assigned to mentor a recruit or small group of recruits through some or all of the probationary process. The California Highway Patrol, LAPD, the Sacramento County (CA) Sheriff's Department and dozens of other agencies have some form of mentoring program. Not all take the recruit all the way through probation, but many assist through the academy or FTO program.
One progressive agency is the Tallahassee (FL) Police Department. They started by hiring one of their retired sergeants, Oscar Brannon, as a recruiter. This freed up a sworn officer for field duty. They also have a mentoring program. According to Sgt. Brannon, "The mentors are all volunteers from outside the FTO program. They each receive specialized training on their role as a mentor." The program is managed from outside of the FTO program to ensure employee confidentiality and buy-in. Sgt. Brannon added that the ratio is usually one to one or one to two. Would it be sexist to suggest that perhaps it is best to ask female recruits if they have a preference for a same gender mentor? Feedback I've heard is that this can be a factor.
And while we are talking gender, females are more likely to be single custodial parents. Either way, live-in academies are going to deal with recruits that have child care issues. I'm not dismissing the potential importance of a live-in environment, but anything that can reasonably accommodate this obligation will increase retention of good and diverse candidates.
Some agencies have videos of academy life to prepare the candidate.
Throughout the academy, FTO and probationary process, it is desirable to weed out those that are not suited for the agency. Resignations and terminations are expected in an academy-FTO program. According to Sgt. Brannon, Tallahassee's FTO program termination rate is 5%. From my observations, anything below that and you might be retaining those you shouldn't. Don't retain sub-par employees; you'll pay later.
Another reason officers leave is family issues. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department has hired a retention specialist who herself left police work to have a family. She works with the family and spouses to ease the transition. Lt. Hank, who runs the department's recruitment & retention section, emphasized the importance of working with the family. "We don't just hire the officer, we hire the whole family," he said. He stressed this was especially important in his department, where many of the applicants come from out of town. Adjusting to a new city could be stressful.