At a time when policing in the United States is facing major challenges, George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy is beginning a first-of-its-kind multi-method longitudinal study of a cohort of police officers to understand how officers progress through their law enforcement careers.
The study is being led by University Professor Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, and Beidi Dong, an associate professor of in Mason’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society.
Recruitment and retention of officers have been longstanding concerns in policing, as are the officers’ higher than national average rates of divorce and suicide. Fairfax Police Chief Kevin Davis said they want to understand what success looks like for law enforcement officers.
“It’s not just [achieving] a certain rank or assignment,” said Davis. “It is the ability to serve a community and maintain your physical and mental wellness—and the ability to have a life outside of your work.”
Lum, who has personal experience as a law enforcement officer, spoke about the Mason research center’s longstanding relationship with FCPD. “That shows a commitment to research, in both good times and bad,” she said.
Lum said that this study will help researchers and agencies to understand the various stages of officer careers, from their initial motivations and experiences in applying to the police agency, to “turning points” in their careers, which may influence their attitudes, actions, and decision to stay in the profession.
The research team also hopes to understand what changes police agencies can make to ensure officers are the most successful in serving their communities throughout their careers.
Jim Burch of the National Policing Institute said the importance of this study cannot be overstated, as police departments across the nation struggle with current and future staffing levels. Agencies around the country have indicated that in addition to losing officers and being understaffed, they are also finding it difficult to interest people in joining the policing profession in the first place. In turn, understaffing has impacted the ability of some agencies to provide public safety services to their communities.
“The reality is that policing is a profession, not a vocation,” said Burch. “And that's a significant change for us as we think about how we bring in new people into this profession, how we nurture them, support them and their families and their coworkers to drive that excellence and policing that everyone wants.”
Preliminary portions of the study are being supported by the National Policing Institute, using funding that the institute received from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Lum said they will be seeking additional funding to support the study across its 20-year timeline.
Burch emphasized that while the study is the first of its kind, they don’t want it to be one of kind. The institute would like to see this study replicated across the United States.
“We would love to see a network of research institutions, universities, nonprofit organizations like ours and police departments working together to learn about these challenges,” said Burch. “What we learn here in Fairfax County will inform and improve policing across the United States.”
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