Retaining Generation Z Officers is the Real Crisis

Note: This article originally appeared at the excellent American Peace Officer Substack by Roland Clee. Roland will be a featured presenter at our Recruiting Seminar in Orlando later in the year. We will be announcing those details on our upcoming webinar on September 14.  You can sign up for free.

Public safety agencies are finally grasping the scale of the recruiting crisis. Police recruiting today has the attitude that anybody who meets standards for fitness, moral character, and enough scholastic aptitude to pass the academy and the state exam, we will find a uniform that fits you. (This doesn’t consider the disastrous mistake of lowering of fitness, citizenship and honesty standards in departments across the country.)


This is the candidate pool that has become recruiting’s primary resource. Previously, the most apt potential officers were those who were raised in families steeped in public service. In the last decade, family support for legacy candidates has cratered.


Policing has always hired and recruited people who never imagined becoming an officer until they were unhappy in their career and a friend or family member suggested trying out law enforcement. I’ve heard that testimony from ranks as high as deputy chiefs and receiving what they have told me, I’m certain more than half would have found other careers more rewarding.




Even if you drag the next generation through the door, get them trained, and on solo patrol, the true challenge will be retaining them. Generation Z does not have the same attachment to their career, and that isn’t limited to police and public safety. They have seen friends and family develop enticing careers that didn’t exist a decade ago. No one will deter or delay them from following their passion.


Career development training and opportunities

Career development and training is key to keeping them around long enough to become vested. I recently spoke to a young officer who works for a small department where minimum manning is three officers per shift. Name the specialized training and he wants to do it. Instructor Techniques is 80 hours and Vehicle Operations instructor is another 40 after that. He wants to do it all and sincerely wants to do it for the benefit of his department. Unfortunately, he, and officers like him cannot due to staffing concerns. Many departments are mandating Crisis Intervention Training, another 24 hours, and then Drug Recognition Training requires a prerequisite 24 hours of DWI and Field Sobriety. Today major agencies are challenged with staffing restrictions to take officers off the road to attend training.


There are no choices. There are only real answers. Accessibility to training is non-negotiable to Generation Z. On this point you either decide to retain or abandon staff. This is going to be expensive, and it is going to be expensive to everyone, but it is the only path forward. We’ve had budgeted vacancies for years.  If you don’t have officers receiving their ‘actualization’ training, we won’t have officers on the street – period. Even the smallest departments will need to fund regional or neighboring training centers that bring the instruction to the officers, ideally within their shifts.


Protect officers legally by defending qualified immunity.

In 2020, many legal protections and discipline processes evaporated like they had never been previously negotiated in contracts. From the late 1960s through the1970s, cities cried poor mouth denying officers cost of living raises and bargaining units negotiated some rational protections for high-risk employees.


If cities want to compensate the officers (active and retired) retroactive and inflation adjusted in the amount of those raises, billions of dollars, for the officer protections stolen without due process or bargaining unit negotiation, it will still fail to provide the protection that new officers deserve and need.


Qualified immunity, on face value, is a necessity for anyone courageous enough to bear the badge for eight to twelve hours per day.


Real cops do building searches in dark houses and warehouses focused through their front sight. They pull over cars when they know that backup is miles and minutes away. Cops break up fights at concerts, bars and schools surrounded by mobs who are only held back by brittle and fragile social fabric.


Quit betraying officers

This has been a request for generations. Now it is a make-or-break demand. An officer six months away from a twenty-year defined benefit pension plan will not throw everything their family has cumulatively earned to defend a three-year officer being thrown to the wolves on a minor offense.  Policing has never been a tragedy-free landscape for officers. Generation Z officers abhor perceived injustice within the profession more than any prior generation.


When an officer is treated unfairly by command when well-intentioned actions had an unfortunate outcome, fellow officers will be rapidly seeking employment elsewhere and leave in droves, within or beyond law enforcement. As soon as the example is set on one officer being unjustly scapegoated, it will act as a social contagion with officers leaving the profession and leaving the agency. You take out one of theirs unjustly, and they will abandon you forever.


Who will lead?

A 23-year-old officer today was 14 years old when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. If it seems like yesterday to you, we share that. Without relitigating the case, we do have to recognize that it was the starting gun blast in the war on cops. As a reminder, we ask great things of a generation who has always known how to order a pizza for delivery on a smartphone. Five years from now, if we are taking correct measures to retain Generation Z officers, they will begin moving into supervisory roles. Will our New Centurions (check out the book and the movie by Joseph Wambaugh) be ready to bear the mantle?


The ultimate question is who will provide the atmosphere where Generation Z officers thrive. If police departments, including sheriff’s offices, don’t figure this out soon, we will have an age gap between officers and commanders where our agencies will be divided by age and generation. This process will be very unpleasant and expensive.


There is no Plan B

Today we are focused on the recruiting and the staffing crisis without realizing that we have no Plan B. We are accustomed to arbitrary negative responses when it comes to financial and budget matters that our leaders shrink when challenged. Policing is going to cost more in the future.


The non-negotiables are adequate staff, management support, fair and uniform discipline and career training opportunities. This next generation, if we listen to them, will bring revolutionary improvements to the processes in policing.


This isn’t a sponsored ad read, but I invite you to a Safeguard Recruiting webinar on September 14th. Check them out and you will agree with me that 100 actionable leads are worth far more than 100,000 worthless ad views. I’m impressed with their track record and approach and I look forward to checking them out with you.


As always, keep our officers in your prayers, especially our future officers.



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