Police recruitment and retention: The UK crisis

A white man in a black blazer sitting by a window..

The evolving landscape of law enforcement in the UK faces a significant challenge in recruiting and retaining police officers. This concern focuses on whether the expectations of long-term service, reminiscent of past norms where officers served for 30 years or more, remain viable in today's rapidly changing societal and professional contexts. Such expectations are rooted in the profession's history, yet they now confront a reality where the dynamics of work and life have fundamentally shifted.

The discourse often centres around recruits' resilience, age and life experiences, and the role's challenges and expectations. While these are legitimate concerns, they are embedded in a narrative that views anyone who does not complete a full 30-year career as a failure. Blaming organisational culture, roles, pay and the traumatic incidents affecting individuals are legitimate concerns, but is this the full picture?

The allure of the private sector, with its adaptability, innovation and often less bureaucratic environment, presents a compelling alternative for those considering a career outside policing. Despite the different stresses and pressures encountered in the private sector, including job insecurity and high-performance expectations, it represents a viable path for many, underscoring the need for policing to reevaluate its value to prospective and current officers.

Faced with the task of attracting and retaining a new generation of officers, I believe policing must confront its entrenched practices and structures. These practices have defined the profession for over a century, but they now risk alienating a workforce seeking flexibility, meaningful engagement and recognition of their unique needs, skills and strengths.

The challenge extends beyond mere recruitment strategies to encompass a broader cultural shift within the profession, recognising the distinct attributes of Generation Z (18 - 25-year-olds). Today's recruits, primarily from Generation Z, bring a unique perspective shaped by their diversity, education, digital fluency and global connectivity. This generation has navigated global crises and digital learning environments and developed resilience, but along with these, there are also heightened experiences of anxiety and stress.

Moreover, they personify the most nonconformist generation, rejecting conventional labels and traditional financial ambitions. People can afford to take risks. Jobs and employment opportunities are more significant than ever, and a number of sectors now face severe labour shortages, meaning that workers can easily find new jobs if needed.

The challenge for policing is to adapt to generational expectations and the competitive landscape. Yet, the policing officialdom tends to pigeonhole them into an organisational structure that adheres to perspectives formed over 125 years of practice. How does policing adapt to the significant social and political changes, the shrinking workforce and fierce talent competition? Policing must evolve to attract and retain this new generation, recognising their specialist strengths and needs without compromising the profession's integrity.

If policing does what it always has, it will get what it always has, and frankly, today, that is not good enough. We recognise that policing is challenging; the police federation suggests that most people will experience three to four traumatic events in their lifetime, whereas a police officer is likely to experience a staggering 400 – 600 in their career.

Critics argue that today's recruits lack the resilience for policing's demands, but this perspective may overlook generational differences in handling trauma and stress. A more nuanced recruitment approach, acknowledging the realities of policing while accommodating the emotional and psychological needs of officers, is imperative. While recruits are trained on policing's challenging aspects, like fatalities, nothing can fully prepare anyone for the reality.

Furthermore, leadership might struggle to adapt, often seeking to model recruits in their image, ignoring societal shifts in expectations and norms. It is time to rethink and overhaul traditional methods, recognising that past approaches may not suit current realities. Whilst there is no panacea, this is now the time to refocus the lens and begin to look at the challenges from the reverse, create a different system and acknowledge that just because this is the way it has been done over the years, it may not be the best process today.


Professor Tony Blockley is Head of Criminology, Investigation and Policing at Leeds Trinity University.


Leeds Trinity University's Corporate Communications team is the first point of contact for local, national and international media.

Looking to source a comment or would like to arrange an interview with one of our academic experts? Contact the team on +44 (0) 113 283 7100 or email the Communications team.

More about the Press Office