The Loss of Talent: Why Local and State Law Enforcement Officers Resign to Become FBI Agents and What Agencies Can Do about It

By Bowman, Mark D.; Carlson, Peter M. et al. | Public Personnel Management, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Loss of Talent: Why Local and State Law Enforcement Officers Resign to Become FBI Agents and What Agencies Can Do about It


Bowman, Mark D., Carlson, Peter M., Colvin, Robert E., Green, Gary S., Public Personnel Management


This evaluation conducted an analysis of the motivation for state and local law enforcement officers to leave their previous law enforcement positions to become FBI special agents. This survey examined motivation from the perspective of the equity, expectancy, and job design theories of motivation. The analysis revealed that there were indicators of perceptions of unfair treatment and inadequate reward in the special agent trainees' previous law enforcement positions. They anticipated improvements in these factors and for task significance and skill variety when they would become fully-trained special agents. The analysis reveals that there are specific organizational and leadership actions that law enforcement leaders can take to reduce turnover.

One of the most pressing demands on law enforcement leaders is that of recruiting and retaining qualified law enforcement officers. There is a considerable body of research on the causes of turnover in the private sector. However, there has not been a great deal of turnover research focused on law enforcement organizations. The unique characteristics of the law enforcement profession and of law enforcement organizations limit the value of turnover research from the private sector. This research focused on one specific aspect of turnover in state and local law enforcement organizations: why staff persons leave these policing agencies.

For any employer, retaining current employees is a critical aspect of human resources management. The most important questions related to this need are: (1) why do good employees leave and (2) what would it take to keep them from leaving? This research effort was directed at answering the first question, which led to several conclusions that may help agencies answer the second question.

The group of state and local law enforcement officers who leave their previous law enforcement positions to become FBI special agents is an identifiable portion of the larger range of officers who leave state and local law enforcement organizations every year. Examining this specific type of turnover offers several benefits.

First and foremost, these former state and local law enforcement officers have chosen to remain in the law enforcement profession. They are considered to be a high-quality group of law enforcement professionals. Further, they would be expected to be able to provide a high quality of insight into their experiences in their previous law enforcement organizations and the expectations of what they will experience as FBI special agents. This group, while representing a narrow portion of the law enforcement turnover spectrum, can provide insight into the broader picture of state and local law enforcement organizations throughout the United States.

The Problem of Turnover in Law Enforcement Agencies

Retention of personnel was a significant issue that was identified by The Major Cities Chiefs Association's Critical Issues Study Group that was created to study the most pressing issues of its members and to issue a report on those issues. (1) The report, Meeting Law Enforcement's Responsibilities, Solving the Serious Issues of Today, contained a chapter on recruiting and retention problems. (2) Within that chapter, Deputy Chief David Beam of the Marietta, Georgia Police Department said, "Recruiting and retaining professionals compatible for law enforcement duty is quite possibly the most difficult task facing law enforcement today."

The U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services Office has been responsible for administering grants that placed more than 100,000 new police officers in police departments across America. The effects of this program were studied by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center with regard to recruiting, training, and retaining police officers. Recruiting qualified candidates to fill unanticipated openings was reported to be a problem in more than half of small agencies and more than two-thirds of large agencies reporting. …

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