Motivating and Retaining Today’s Officers

By Joseph M. Traylor

A stock image of two police officers.

Agency administrators often find it challenging to motivate their officers. The inability of leaders to do so inevitably leads to higher turnover rates, which further decreases individual motivation.1 This cycle occurs more in smaller and midsized agencies that lack the necessary monetary resources to offer higher salaries and other benefits. Consequently, administrators must reevaluate how they can motivate personnel for peak performance and decrease the rate of employee turnover.

In financially constrained agencies, leaders must attempt to motivate their paid employees as they would volunteers.2 To this end, the author has developed a new model to help agencies guide their actions and policies to foster a positive organizational culture, develop sound recruiting and advancement practices, implement fair recognition programs, and emphasize employee empowerment.


No two humans are entirely identical. People perceive the world around them through their own distinct layers of filters, which result from human experiences, prejudices, social stigmas, home lives, personal values, and other factors. And, because individuals experience everything uniquely, different things motivate them.

Administrators easily can divide employees into groups based upon visible demographics, such as race, age, or gender, and doing so can help in many ways pertaining to human resource management. However, to be effective motivators, leaders must understand that more obscure groups exist and that they need to tailor their leadership and motivation techniques to them as well.

Lieutenant Joseph Traylor

Lieutenant Traylor serves with the Saline County, Arkansas, Sheriff’s Office as commander of its detention center.

One of the most useful ways to categorize employees is by generation. Administrators can take generational identities and break them down so they can build a tiered motivational plan for each group. Doing so will reveal that new training, opportunities for transfers or advancement, and specialized assignments motivate younger to mid-career officers.3

For example, a younger officer who has spent a 3-year career in the patrol division begins to have reduced operational statistics, increased citizen complaints, and lower performance review scores. A hands-off manager could attempt to resolve the problem with discipline. But, would this truly help fix the source of the issue for this officer? Probably not. Considering the individual’s generation, leaders could help motivate the officer to return to peak performance by offering new responsibilities, a different district, an alternate shift assignment, or even specialized instruction.

In contrast, stability tends to motivate career veteran officers.4 These personnel view change as a threat to their status. They have taken time and care to establish themselves as experts within their operational world. Such officers may take a reassignment to another shift, transfer to another division, or requirement to learn new skills as a personal affront. Perhaps this generation’s resistance to change has more to do with control than status.

Communicating early about a change’s necessity could motivate veteran officers. This gives leaders a valuable opportunity to learn from them why they do not like it. Perhaps these officers simply misunderstand the change, or administrators have overlooked something. Having this conversation with them prior to making a change returns the control career veteran officers work hard for. More important, when taking part in the change process, they more likely will perform better thereafter.

Tiered motivational plans must account for more than generational identity. Administrators also must consider the “why not” and “why bother” groups.5 When confronted with a challenge, the difference in attitude among personnel predisposes them to think either of a way to accomplish something or a reason why it cannot be done. Motivating the “why not” group can prove easy. However, overcoming the “why bother” attitude can present difficulties. In these cases, it helps to find ways to relate the intended positive outcome with benefits to the individual.

When considering motivation as a whole and its role in achieving organizational goals, a mathematical equation serves to illustrate: P = A x M, where “P” represents performance, “A” ability, and “M” motivation. This equation definitively shows the relationship between ability and motivation in producing peak performance.6 As with any mathematical equation, reducing either variable decreases the total product. In this regard, administrators often cannot empirically increase an individual’s ability once in the organization. This leaves maximizing motivation as the single way leaders can help ensure superior performance and output.

Useful Model

With a clearer understanding established of the need to individually motivate several different subsects of employees, the author proposes the Nonmonetary Motivation and Retention Model (NMRM). This model offers a representation of the different needs an organization must meet to reach its maximum motivation and retention levels.

Nonmonetary Motivation and Retention Model

A pyramid graphic provided by the author representing the different needs of motivation and retention levels to include employee empowerment, fair recognition programs, sound recruiting and advancement practices, and positive organizational culture.

Positive Organizational Culture

The journey toward achieving optimal motivation and retention begins with fostering a positive organizational culture. Such a culture can be critical to keeping personnel productive and happy.7

Most employees have encountered unhappy situations in an organization. Perhaps they felt like an outsider, the target of criticism, or someone not valued. What would it have taken for them to stay there?

If nothing short of money can make a person remain in an undesirable position, then leaders next need to examine if they are creating that problematic situation within the agency. They must evaluate several components when determining if their organization has a positive culture.8


Most complaints made against an officer or agency relate to attitude. The saying “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” holds importance here. To support a positive culture, organizations need to ensure that every interaction employees have among themselves and with members of the public is positive.

Of course, this is not always possible in law enforcement. Sometimes, officers must take an action that another will not like. But even then, skilled officers can leave the recipient with at least a feeling of understanding if they take time to explain the necessity of the unpleasant deed.


At professional sporting events, players must wear the same uniform. However, fans dress in the attire of their favorite sports team voluntarily. Doing so gives them a sense of belonging and allows them to show their support for and identify with something bigger than themselves. It creates a tacit link between the organization’s accomplishments and the individual.

Uniforms and other equipment that team organizations issue to their personnel serve as a statement of their unity and success as a group. If the members each wore something different, it could result in less cohesiveness.

The standards police agencies set for their employees regarding uniforms and equipment speak volumes about their culture also. Well-kept leather gear, sharp creases, and shiny brass all convey the notion that the organization demands exceptional quality. This appeals to many personality types inherently drawn to law enforcement employment. Further, projecting such a professional appearance to the public can bolster officers’ perceived external image, which serves as a factor in employee engagement.9


When surrounded by people who display poor conduct, employees lose their motivation. Proper demeanor proves crucial when promoting a positive culture. It provides the basis for everything agencies do and serves as the standard by which to measure employees. Even the most educated and trained organizations will fail if they do not conduct themselves properly.


In the private sector, businesses often lose customers and fail because of unprofessional employees. To combat this problem, restaurants place a lot of emphasis on hiring professional waitstaff. Managers of these types of establishments understand that every employee reflects on how the restaurant itself operates. Customers do not feel valued when a business tolerates rude or offensive workers.

“In financially constrained agencies, leaders must attempt to motivate their paid employees as they would volunteers.”

Law enforcement administrators may not think of their own business model in the same regard. This often becomes a fatal mistake according to public opinion. Agencies must see the citizens they serve as customers and ensure that their officers exemplify the organization’s values.

Increased Commitment and Productivity

After evaluating the agency’s culture, how can administrators make it more positive? They could refocus employees’ attention on public service, rather than on themselves, by placing a higher priority on nonmonetary motivators.10 Salary and other monetary benefits certainly are necessary, but when leaders place more effort into motivation techniques unrelated to money (e.g., employee of the month awards), it demonstrates to personnel a higher level of commitment and concern for their well-being.11

Of course, any detached manager can “throw money at a problem.” However, an administrator who takes time to read nomination letters from dozens of supervisors, rank them individually, and then determine the winner shows employees that they matter.12 This holds especially true in larger organizations where lower-level personnel do not interact regularly with higher-ups. Leaders can enhance this effect by presenting awards or other recognition in person. Such personalized motivators have proven much more effective than blanket recognition, such as a department-wide memo or email.13

While personalized motivators represent the preferred method of conveying recognition, larger efforts also have their place in the organization’s culture. One chief developed what he calls the Total Wellness Program to show employees his level of personal and professional investment in them.14

This initiative’s focus extends beyond physical fitness to encompass all aspects of employee welfare. Personnel have free access to a fitness facility located at the police station, making it convenient. But, to further show the importance of exercise, the agency gives them paid time during their workday to use the gym. In addition, each employee receives an annual psychological screening and opportunities for follow-up counseling. Further, the program can be coupled with social outreach events, such as team picnics or other outings.15

The chief has established a culture of caring and compassion within his organization. Because of this culture, officers choose his agency over similar ones with comparable salaries.16

As discussed, attitude plays a major role in the type of culture an organization exhibits, especially at the supervisory level. Just as one bad apple can ruin a bunch, a single supervisor’s poor attitude could infect an entire organization. They inevitably pass it on to their subordinates.17 Impressionable younger officers may come to see this as acceptable behavior and even identify with it sardonically. Administrators must identify and mitigate this internal threat quickly to reduce the effects it has on personnel. The longer employees have exposure to this climate, the worse their own attitude will become.

Personnel are subject to influence not only from supervisors but also from peers. Those unhappy about an issue within the organization more likely will vocalize discontent or show it through their performance if others do so. Conversely, an employee unhappy with a situation but surrounded by people who are not may find a way to get beyond it.18

Organizations that emphasize the importance of positive attitudes, professional appearance, proper conduct, and consummate professionalism inevitably increase employees’ level of engagement with their work. This leads to an increase of discretionary effort—above the minimum amount required—that personnel will give and goes a long way in increasing desired work outcomes.19

Sound Recruiting and Advancement Practices

The skill sets required for a police officer or other law enforcement official essentially are universal throughout the United States. They also could be transferred easily into another career choice, as retired officers often do. Many career options (e.g., private investigations, insurance fraud detection, college instruction) offer more financial benefits. So, how can police administrators dissuade these personnel from entering a new field? Or leaving for an agency offering a higher salary?

After developing and nurturing a positive organizational culture, leaders can move their attention to the second level of NMRM—sound recruiting and advancement practices.


Effective recruiting comprises a large part of successful motivation and retention. Unsurprisingly, employees want to surround themselves with the best. Yet, finding qualified law enforcement officers historically has represented one of the most difficult and expensive duties of any agency’s training personnel.

Most organizations have minimum standards a person must meet for employment eligibility. This itself can present a challenge, especially in smaller communities. Additionally, because some unfortunate high-profile events have changed the public’s opinion of law enforcement officers in general, the pool of applicants has continued to shrink.20

Many agencies that feel the strain from high turnover and low interest from new applicants fall victim to the trap of hiring the wrong people simply to fill vacancies quickly. Similarly, these same organizations may promote personnel not qualified or suited for leadership roles because they see no other choice.

“...because individuals experience everything uniquely, different things motivate them.”

Recruiting must comprise a targeted effort, rather than just a blanket program. This requires more work from recruiters but provides a better overall return on investment.

For instance, two candidates have the same qualifications. One has demonstrated sustained volunteer experience and displays a true spirit of public service. The other has worked only in high-paying private corporations and has never volunteered for anything significant. Which candidate would fit better in a public safety organization?

Agencies engaged in untargeted recruiting may not consider that recruitment plays a large part in the organization’s overall motivation. Recruiters should choose a group of people already predisposed to be motivated by nonmonetary factors, as is common in people who volunteer more.21

Recruiters also must remain upfront and truthful with candidates when discussing opportunities for assignments or advancement. Misleading people to get them interested in applying initially may help gain employees, but it will backfire quickly. The attitudes of individuals who expected fast promotions or certain types of assignments and did not receive them will turn negative and spread to others.22


Once an agency has recruited an employee who displays a propensity for public service motivation, it must foster this spirit as the individual grows. Advancement opportunities serve as a great motivator for almost every subsect of employee.

As leaders retire, organizations often feel pressed to fill supervisory vacancies immediately, partially due to the negative stigma of having a “rudderless ship.” However, rushing to fill a key opening with the wrong person can have vast repercussions. It takes administrative courage to overcome such shortsightedness and wait until the right person becomes available.

Part of this courage comes from understanding that individuals must have internal motivation to perform at their peak in any role.23 A person cannot be entirely extrinsically motivated. Individuals without the intrinsic drive to become the best will fall victim to lackluster performance or, worse, self-centered leadership. Such a toxic leadership attitude can kill the spirit of an organization and cause it to crumble.

It can prove difficult to gauge someone’s level of internal motivation. Job history, performance reviews, personal references, and other sources can provide useful insight. But, administrators should consider other personal factors.24

Some key factors to assess during a candidate’s background investigation include a history of family problems, health concerns, financial instability, and drug or alcohol abuse. Typically, candidates face these assessments for initial employment, but not necessarily when considered later for advancement or other assignments. Doing a quick check-up on these personal motivating factors throughout employees’ careers can benefit an organization when deciding how to help them perform at their peak.

Regardless of the system an organization chooses to employ for recruitment and advancement, it must be both standardized and transparent. Without a standard by which to measure employees’ progress and suitability, agencies cannot fairly compare them with others when considering them for advancement. This can demotivate personnel, especially when they feel more qualified than those selected.

When the system is not completely transparent, leaders can find it difficult to face employees not selected for advancement. They encounter questions about why someone was not chosen and receive judgment for perceived prejudices. Administrative courage is important. Evaluating each candidate with the same standard and then having the willingness to explain the outcome of advancement processes is crucial to an organization’s integrity. These practices directly affect employees’ motivation to continue working for the agency.

Fair Recognition Programs

The debate about fairness is never-ending. And, the argument exists that fair is always equal, and if it is not equal, it is not fair. Understanding the next level of NMRM requires a clear understanding of the subtle difference between fair and equal.

The concept of equal is easy to grasp—one person receives the same as any other. However, this is not always fair. For instance, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides resources based upon each family’s need.25 The levels of support vary, but every family receives the necessary assistance. This illustrates what fair means for the purposes of NMRM.

One private-sector CEO stated, “Recognition is priceless, and status is much more than money.”26 In fact, it has been suggested that recognition routinely outweighs salary in employee motivation if pay already is at an acceptable level.27 This principle proves applicable in the agencies NMRM focuses on—those without the financial resources to expand monetary benefits. Such organizations need to motivate their employees like they would volunteers.

Administrators commonly employ some type of recognition program. Such efforts vary according to the size, type, location, and values of the agency. They typically include an incremental award for performance, such as employee of the month, quarter, or year. These types of recognition unquestionably help boost morale; however, they often are conferred too infrequently or inconsistently to truly have an effect. To enjoy the most benefit from recognition programs, organizations should take regular opportunities to showcase employee accomplishments.

Recognition can extend beyond overall job performance. Many agencies have begun to award badges, patches, or certificates to signify length of service. This can motivate an employee, especially when coupled with a status boost, like the title of trooper first class. Also, allowing personnel to wear a different insignia or badge to denote a specialization, such as hostage negotiator or field training officer, gives them the opportunity to display pride in their accomplishments.

“This model offers a representation of the different needs an organization must meet to reach its maximum motivation and retention levels.”

An idea that administrators could adopt from the military is a good conduct award. This type of recognition takes length-of-service awards a step further. Such awards recognize that an employee has worked for a period of years without poor performance, disciplinary action, or any other criteria the agency wishes to set.

Informal, revolving awards provide other opportunities to recognize peak performance. Although less rigid, they can offer much the same benefit as traditional awards.

During my time in the military, one group I was assigned to completed weekly formation runs around the post to fulfill our physical training requirements and build esprit de corps. The runs started out as simple team-building exercises but quickly morphed into friendly speed competitions.

On one run, a spirited company commander sent his fastest runner out of formation to sprint ahead at the last minute and defeat another unit. Members of our group joked that the lanky sprinter resembled a popular animated character. As weeks went on, other companies entered their own sprinters in a bid to finish first. Before long, a new award based on the character was born. Each week, the winning company would receive a figurine that had been spray painted gold. While perhaps silly to some people, this type of recognition builds a strong sense of belonging and pride among employees. It can motivate even marginal performers to achieve higher levels of success.

While pursuing fair recognition practices, administrators have certain risks to avoid when possible. The ultimate example of an undesired outcome comes from the overuse of recognition programs. This may seem counterintuitive when thinking from a perspective of “some is good, so more is better.” However, rewarding people too frequently can dilute the prestigiousness associated with the award, causing employees to stop working toward earning them.28

This occurs in other facets of life. In sports, the participation award comes to mind. While encouraging individuals who do not win is a noble act and helps keep those persons interested in the sport, giving everyone the same large trophy makes it less distinguished. Some participants could lose the motivation to work hard because they will get the same reward regardless of their efforts. In this instance, perhaps a smaller trophy or a certificate would serve better to recognize nonwinners.

Organizations also can err by mixing monetary rewards—even gift cards—with other awards.29 Doing so eventually dilutes the importance that such personalized recognition conveys and instead can demotivate employees. This inevitably leads to a condition where personnel will perform at peak levels only when this type of award is possible.

If leaders apply the same principles that volunteer organizations do in motivating employees, then they must fairly and judiciously award recognition. Remaining consistent in how to choose recipients, how frequently to bestow recognition, and which type of reward given can go a long way in increasing employee morale. When organizations handle recognition programs properly, they will find personnel staying longer and working harder because they enjoy it.

Employee Empowerment

Administrators must empower their employees. This involves giving up control of many everyday decisions and processes and trusting personnel to use their expertise in carrying out the agency’s mission.30

With more autonomy, employees take additional responsibility for their work output. Consequently, they feel a sense of ownership in the agency.31 Once an organization reaches this point in NMRM, individuals stop thinking of themselves as employees and begin to feel like partners. Administrators must grow and encourage this feeling of partnership to have individuals choose their organization instead of another.


Every law enforcement administrator strives to provide the highest quality of service with the resources they have available. Often, they find themselves making decisions based solely upon budgetary constraints without regard to human capital cost. Employee motivation frequently suffers and too often is overlooked by leaders.32

Organizations that motivate their employees like volunteers and commit themselves to the principles of the Nonmonetary Motivation and Retention Model less likely will face the crippling effects associated with low motivation and rapid turnover.

“Organizations that motivate their employees like volunteers and commit themselves to the principles of the Nonmonetary Motivation and Retention Model less likely will face...low motivation and rapid turnover.”

Lieutenant Traylor can be reached at


1 Martin Dewhurst, Matthew Guthridge, and Elizabeth Mohr, “Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money,” McKinsey Quarterly, November 2009, accessed March 18, 2020,
2 The theory of Public Service Motivation helps explain how to motivate law enforcement employees as if they were volunteers, instead of paid personnel. In essence, it describes what leads an individual to forgo potentially more lucrative or glamourous careers in favor of working for an agency that serves the public. See Donald P. Moynihan and Sanjay K. Pandey, “The Role of Organizations in Fostering Public Service Motivation,” Public Administration Review 67, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 40-53, accessed March 19, 2020,
3 Hillary M. Robinette, ”The Police Problem Employee,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1982, 10-17, accessed March 18, 2020,
4 Ibid.
5 Tom Long, Leading Warriors from the Backs of Giants: The Greatest Leadership Lessons I Ever Learned (Southaven, MS: TOSS Publishing, 2015).
6 Randall Aragon, “Positive Organizational Culture: A Practical Approach,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 1993, 10-13, accessed March 18, 2020,
7 Matt D’Angelo, “Build a Culture That Increases Employee Retention,” Business News Daily, May 9, 2018, accessed April 16, 2020,; and John E. Sheridan, “Organizational Culture and Employee Retention,” Academy of Management Journal 35, no. 5 (1992): 1036-1056, accessed April 16, 2020,
8 Michael Carpenter and Roger Fulton, Law Enforcement Management: What Works and What Doesn’t (Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications, 2010).
9 Durand Crosby, “Improving Employee Retention in the Public Sector by Increasing Employee Engagement” (lecture, Fourth Annual International Conference on Engaged Management Scholarship, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, September 14, 2014), accessed March 18, 2020,
10 Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss, “The Key to Motivating Volunteers—A Gold Star,” NonProfit PRO, September 5, 2018, accessed March 18, 2020,
11 Dewhurst, Guthridge, and Mohr.
12 Alison Price and David Price, Introducing Leadership: A Practical Guide (London: Icon Books, 2013).
13 Dewhurst, Guthridge, and Mohr.
14 Todd Radford, “Total Wellness Program” (lecture, FBI LEEDA Executive Leadership Institute, Benton, AR, January 11, 2019).
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Jay Fortenbery, “Improving Motivation and Productivity of Police Officers,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 4, 2015, accessed March 19, 2020,
18 Long.
19 Crosby.
20 “Police Departments Struggle to Recruit Enough Officers,” The Economist, January 5, 2017, accessed April 16, 2020,
21 Ibid.
22 Robinette.
23 Fortenbery.
24 Ibid.
25 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), accessed March 31, 2020,
26 Ernie Capobianco, “Rewards and Recognition: Two Highly Effective Ways to Motivate Your Employees,” The Next Web, October 9, 2014, accessed March 19, 2020,
27 Fortenbery.
28 Ibid.
29 Fulton and VanHuss.
30 Bessie L. Marquis and Carol J. Huston, Leadership Roles and Management Functions in Nursing: Theory and Application, 9th ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2017).
31 Aragon.
32 Leslie A. Leip and Jeanne B. Stinchcomb, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Job Satisfaction and Turnover Intent of Jail Staff Throughout the United States,” Criminal Justice Review 38, no. 2 (May 2013): 226-241, accessed March 19, 2020,