Is the Exodus from Dallas PD Real?

On the front page of its Metro section last Monday, The Dallas Morning News had a piece reporting that the Dallas Police Department's attrition rate (i.e., the number of officers who resigned, got fired, retired or died last year) was higher than it has been in Chief David Brown's five-year tenure leading the department. In fact, the 6.8 percent attrition rate, which represents 240 cops leaving the 3,500-officer department and/or corporeal existence, is the highest it has been since the 1980s. The piece was an update to a post a month earlier in which the News reported that the attrition rate was going to be "higher than expected." Which wasn't all that different from a piece in April predicting that attrition would come higher than expected. And that followed reporting from still earlier in the year about a passel of Dallas cops being poached by the Fort Worth Police Department. This all fits in quite nicely with the parallel narrative, being pushed most strongly by police associations, that Brown's brusque management style and harsh personnel decisions have sunk morale to unprecedented levels.

But while it's indisputable that more officers are leaving DPD now than in past years, and while it would probably be better if more officers stayed, it's less clear that this should be chalked up to Brown's management or that Dallas is all that much of an outlier compared with comparable police departments.

This year's attrition rate was a bit more than a percentage point higher than it has been over the past decade, according to numbers DPD presented to the City Council this past spring:

That's a significant jump, but it comes with a couple of caveats. The years in that chart in which the attrition rate was lowest coincide roughly with the Great Recession, which caused DPD job applications to spike and presumably also meant that veteran officers had less opportunity and incentive to jump ship. It's also impossible to quantify how much of the low morale (which seems real, even if the Dallas Police Association's morale survey almost certainly overstates it) can be attributed to Brown's leadership versus factors beyond his control, like officer salaries and more attractive working conditions in other North Texas cities.

And comparing DPD's year-over-year attrition rates against one another doesn't really get to the heart of the question, which is whether DPD is shedding officers more quickly than other police departments.

Finding a good answer is easier said than done, as there is relatively little data with which to establish a reasonable baseline attrition rate. The best, most recent data comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies. According to a 2012 analysis, state and local police agencies lost an average of 7.4 percent of their officers. But turnover was heavily dependent on the size of the department. The smallest departments (fewer than 10 officers) lost a fifth of their force. Those with 100-500 officers lost 7 percent. The biggest departments, classified as those with 500 or more officers, lost 5.4 percent, which DPD was right on par with in 2008 but is considerably above now.

The only other real analysis of nationwide attrition rates was published over the summer by a team of researchers at Wayne State University. They, too, looked at the 2008 CSLLEA, but they also considered data collected as part of the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics program in 2003. The study puts the average national turnover rate at 10.7 percent, higher than the BJS study mainly because of the way they estimated attrition for smaller departments that didn't participate in the census. Again, the rate of turnover decreases with the size of the department, and attrition at what the researchers define as "super" agencies (i.e., those like Dallas with 2,000 officers or more) is remarkably consistent and remarkably low: about 4.5 percent in both 2003 and 2008. Assuming that baseline holds in 2015, then Dallas would fall in the rightward taper of the bell curve. Its attrition is higher than can be explained by normal statistical variation.

This isn't so bad as to be an existential threat to the department, representing as it does the loss of two or three dozen extra police officers per year in a department of 3,500. But the departure probably should be cause for concern, because high attrition can feed upon itself, as the Wayne State study describes in a summary of existing research:

The indirect costs of turnover include the loss of expertise to the agency, decreased social networks and contacts, increased use of inexperienced and/or tired staff, insufficient staffing, and decreased morale. Social networks and communication lines are essential for police officers to be effective at their jobs. High turnover can result in inexperienced officers who have not cultivated these networks with others, particularly those in the community. Excessive turnover can lead to difficulty maintaining adequate staffing levels. Not only does this potentially mean less police coverage in the community, it can also lead to decreased quality of services.

High levels of turnover can also trigger turnover among the remaining employees. Turnover can lead to increased frustration among officers who remain due to increases in workload demands and a loss of social relations with those coworkers who have left. “If the topic of conversation is not, ‘How are things going?’ but ‘When are you going to leave?’ then turnover begins to generate further turnover” (Cawsey & Wedley, 1979, p. 93). Thus, turnover can also decrease the morale of the officers who remain, ultimately leading to demoralization. In sum, turnover is potentially very costly to law enforcement agencies. A reduction in turnover could save law enforcement agencies substantial expenditures over the long run.

Whether the solution involves paying cops more or getting rid of Chief Brown or something else entirely remains a matter of discussion.

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