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Opinion: ‘I want to be a police officer when I grow up’ used to be a common dream. How do we bring it back?

Negative perceptions are hurting police staffing. How can we get young Americans to support police?

SHARE Opinion: ‘I want to be a police officer when I grow up’ used to be a common dream. How do we bring it back?
A Provo police car in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

A Provo police car in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Andy Griffith Show” reruns. “Kojak” on prime time. “Columbo.” “Starsky & Hutch.” Once upon a time, you could turn on the TV and find that the cops were almost always good guys. Crockett and Tubbs occasionally discovered that an officer was involved with the drug trade, but the “Miami Vice” duo stayed above the fray and took the bad guys down. In those days, politicians scored points by vocally supporting police and departmental budgets, never by vocally undercutting them. While my favorite TV shows suggested that some bad actors got into the profession for the wrong reasons, “I want to be a police officer when I grow up” was a common childhood refrain.

But in recent years, a spate of high-profile use-of-force incidents have tarnished the profession. Many in the media and political circles piled on. 

Such negativity is hurting police recruitment and retention. That’s among the findings of a new Utah Foundation report, “To Protect and Serve: Meeting Law Enforcement Recruiting and Retention Challenges in Utah.”

Utahns seem to distinguish between national drama and their local experiences. A 2021 statewide survey of registered voters in Utah found that while only 13% of respondents reported that police misconduct was not at all prevalent at the national level, 46% of respondents reported that police misconduct was not at all prevalent in their local area or town. But even in Utah, anti-police messaging is taking a clear toll among younger people: In a survey of registered Utah voters, 53% reported they trusted the police a great deal, but that share was only 35% among millennials. Since millennials are the largest proportion of the workforce, the impact could be substantial on future recruiting.

Negative perceptions hurt retention too. In a 2021 survey, more than half of Utah law enforcement officers were considering leaving their jobs. Among those thinking of leaving the public sector altogether, a lack of support from elected officials and the community, along with negative media portrayals, were driving forces. 

As with most recruitment and retention challenges, the single biggest factor for law enforcement officers is pay. The average pay for local officers in Utah in 2021 was nearly $57,000. Compare that to more than $80,000 nationally; Utah’s local officers are paid only 71% of what their national counterparts earn. 

For their part, Utah governments are responding. Over 70% of Utah cities surveyed in 2022 report that they increased officer pay in the previous year or expect to do so in the coming year — and 62% of cities surveyed will do both. The average pay increase across both years is 13%. This may have contributed to an increase in officer morale between 2021 and 2022.

But Utah cities struggling with staffing needs must flip the script with young people. Building a pipeline of talent — a clear pathway for young people to become officers — will serve to grow the pool of potential law enforcement candidates. This pathway might include expanding high school and college law enforcement course options, apprenticeship opportunities and career exploration programs.

Law enforcement officers consider their job a public service, and that carries a lot of weight. It is the top reason law enforcement officers chose their profession. Very few consider law enforcement to be the wrong career for themselves. And better pay may keep some officers from moving to other professions. But better support from elected officials, the community and the media could improve morale — at no cost to taxpayers. 

Departments are losing experienced officers. As a result, increased workloads make the jobs of remaining officers more difficult. Even Crockett and Tubbs would have had a harder time catching the bad guys under these conditions. But the more applicants police departments have, the more likely police chiefs will choose good officers to fill those vacancies.

Bolstering both recruitment and retention could bolster the profession; it could ensure that departments have a good pool of law enforcement officers while at the same time improving the vital services they provide Utahns.

Shawn Teigen is the president of the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization. Reach him at shawn@utahfoundation.org. Find the new Utah Foundation report, To Protect and Serve: Meeting Law Enforcement Recruiting and Retention Challenges in Utah, at www.utahfoundation.org.