“These young kids these days, they don’t understand what the job is really about.”
I’ve heard this line numerous times throughout my career - sometimes it was directed towards me, sometimes it was towards the younger boots in the department. Who’s usually the one saying it? An “old timer” who is on the downswing of his career. Who are the “young kids” that veteran officer is referring to? “Millennials” who are on the job – which means anyone born from 1981 to 1996, according to the most commonly-accepted definition of the term.
One gripe which I hear often is the following: “these young kids, they don’t want to stay in patrol, they want to get promoted, do investigative work or be assigned to a special assignment right away. They don’t understand they need to do their time just like everyone else and prove themselves on the street.”
While I totally agree that only proven, trusted and capable officers should be transferred to special roles in a police department, there is one fact which many veteran officers seem to miss. Millennials, on the whole, pick things up quickly and are able to process mass amounts of data, skills picked up through growing up with high-speed internet and the culture that creates. They grew up watching all the dash and bodycam videos, seeing all the reports of officers being fired for posting (or even liking) the “wrong thing” on social media, and the result is that a lot of Millennials may want to get away from patrol quickly. That is not to say they are not qualified or capable, it’s just to say that they see the writing on the wall and want absolutely no part of it. But they still genuinely want to do the job, live the life, and have that badge.
Patrol isn’t what it used to be – something I can agree with the “old timers” on, having been on the job for a while myself. Patrol used to be the crème de la crème of any given police department – when I first got on the job, we had officers who were in patrol their entire careers. I’m talking about men and women with 30+ years of hard-charging, backbreaking, car humping patrol work. They were the bruisers who were called to deal with an unruly crowd. They were the officers who knew exactly what needed to be done and knew how to do it within the confines of written policy so that no one gets burnt by the administrators. They were the same group that went out together after work and closed the bar every other week because they trusted each other.
Largely, that iconic, mythical, legendary patrol officer seems to be dead in many agencies, probably shortly after retirement, as the joke – and unfortunately too often the reality – goes.
These days, in patrol you often have a decent sized group of Millennials combined with “mid-timers” (10-20 years of service), and yet the Millennials are seen as pushing the older veteran officers out of their long-sought-after investigatory and special assignment positions. Today, it’s not uncommon to see an officer with less than five years on the job trying to get a transfer or promotion. By its nature, that’s not a good or bad thing, it is simply the way things are now. Things move at a faster pace because a younger, more connected generation is pushing the boundaries forward at a higher speed.
The current issues facing patrol (every citizen having a camera, one complaint possibly ending an otherwise honorable career, and more) are national and Millennials do not want to deal with that level of micromanagement in their everyday work lives – and who does?
Speaking in terms of burnout as an issue, and perhaps one of the causes of Millennials seeking transfer to specialized roles, it’s not as big of an problem as many people may believe, from what I’m seeing. The biggest issue, and perhaps cause, of that is twofold: the first being that police departments do not put round pegs into round holes; and second, that the commanders of those departments are usually stuck in an institutionally dogmatic state of being which relegates people to roles, as opposed to seeing them as individuals in terms of what strengths they might bring to the agency.
Our job seems to have had roughly the same burnout rate it has always had since the early 70’s, and there are two specific forms of burnout that directly impact LE. First is the reality for many that you plateau and become very stagnant in your daily work. For the baby boomer crowd, this was never an issue: the mentality was something along the lines of you show up for work, do your eight and skate. You hit the same bar on the way home and do it again until your days off, when you veg out in front of the TV. Millennials on the whole hate that level of monotony, and a routine like that will easily burn them out. From what I’m seeing, it doesn’t seem to be an issue until around the 3-5 year mark, depending on certain variables.
The other type of burnout comes when an officer is “stuck” working for commanders who are unwilling to make changes which reflect the speed of modern life. It took the FBI Miami shootout to change the way we think about training and equipment, and yet the North Hollywood Shootout still happened. The entire LE field changed policies and tactics after the Columbine High School Shooting, but today we still see perimeters being formed during active shooter events. Having access to information on best practices, but not seeing those practices implemented, is frustrating for everyone, but especially the younger officers.
The most serious issue which creates a gap between command staff and the densely Millennial-populated patrol divisions of their respective departments is the latter: institutional dogma. Overall, I feel that it’s one of the most serious counter-survival policies propagated within any given police department. If we know that an adverse event has occured, why wouldn’t every agency do what’s needed to train and equip officers based upon the injury and death of other officers? The answer given by command staff is often “well, it has not happened here,” but perhaps the attitude should be “the saying ‘nothing ever happens’ is only valid until that something does happen.” When such an event finally does occur, the commanders often seem to put on a dog and pony show and then maybe change a few things around – being reactive instead of proactive – but often not changing much from a practical standpoint, in the end.
The Millennial officer identifies these inconsistencies very quickly, and their instinct is often to try to develop ways to solve them. Many go out of their way to develop their own skillsets towards that goal, only to be told they are not the round peg that department is looking for to fill a specific hole. The lack of candidates we’re now seeing in the pools for police academy recruits is a result of these issues… the perception, documented by real cases, is that commanders of any given police department will not hesitate to hang an officer out to dry when something goes sideways – even doing so in the media and on the national stage. Why would any Millennial want to go out and do all that work for something which could be taken away from them in the 60 seconds it takes to record, edit and upload a video into the social media sphere? It’s not just their career, either: they can get sued and lose everything they ever had or wanted, or even go to jail and lose their freedom, because being fired or being hung out to dry is tantamount to guilt in the eyes of the public, and that goes a long way towards conviction.
So how do we get through all of these issues and start to cultivate the enthusiasm of the Millennial officers? The reality is that they are the officers who will be doing the job for the next decade or two, and they will be the face of the police to their communities – the quality of service they are able to provide will directly impact the lives of their constituent population. I think that one of the things that agencies must recognize is that earned-through-time-on-the-job has to stop. In many departments, for example, the only way you are getting an investigator/detective spot is if that detective dies or retires. That, along with providing career-long appointments, needs to stop. Instead, I feel it would be better to provide a rotation through these special assignments which the current batch of Millennial officers can compete for, similar to how doctors train once they’re out of med school.
Something like that will not only allow these officers to have a motive for working hard, but it will allow them to gain the skillsets they want and provide a diverse experience set that will benefit them regardless of which position they eventually seek – as the saying goes, every crime has elements of many others in it, and human behavior and decision-making is somewhat constant. In the end, as with doctors, the end result will be officers highly trained in every aspect of patrol who will also likely be able to do everything from community meetings, to SWAT operations, to heavy narcotics investigations. Right now, something like this doesn’t exist as far as I’m aware of it, and with the current institutional dogma at play in many agencies I’m familiar with, it never will, unless our police departments realize that to facilitate the next generation of veteran officers to be the backbone of that department, they must provide a solid base for the “boots” entering the profession now. Millennials are going to be running the show soon, and it’s better to give them a fighting chance than leaving a failing system of policing in their way.
VDMSR is a full-time LEO in a very dense urban environment, and has been writing on the topic of law enforcement for more than a decade. In addition to his op-ed pieces, he also conducts unbiased reviews of equipment and training classes. For more information visit www.vdmsr.com