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As staffing challenges continue, FCPD partners with GMU to study officers

Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis and GMU professor Dr. Cynthia Lum announce a long-term study of local police officers (via FCPD/Facebook)

(Updated at 3:55 p.m.) The Fairfax County Police Department and George Mason University have joined forces with an Arlington-based think tank to study how the attitudes and behavior of police officers evolve over the course of their careers.

Touted as the first of its kind in the U.S., the long-term or longitudinal study is intended to give the FCPD and other police departments a better understanding of how to address staffing challenges by following a select group of officers, potentially over decades.

The results could inform the FCPD’s recruiting efforts and provide a new look at what makes someone a successful police officer, Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis said at a 1 p.m. press conference, noting that divorce, suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence rates among police are “higher than the national norm.”

“We’re really happy to engage in this long-term journey to figure out what success looks like for Fairfax County, because we want to continue to lead on behalf of our profession,” Davis said. “We think over time and hopefully over many years, we’ll learn a lot more about who wants to become part of this profession and, once they enter our ranks, what determines their trajectory for success.”

Looking at both applicants and current officers, the study will be conducted independently by Dr. Cynthia Lum, a criminology professor in GMU’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, and the National Policing Institute.

With a gift provided by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in 2022, the institute is funding the estimated $300,000 cost of the study’s first three years. That includes $186,401 that went to GMU to support its costs, according to National Policing Institute President Jim Burch.

Researchers hope to get enough money from public and private funders to continue the study for 10 to 20 years, Lum said.

With a current vacancy rate of 206 positions, the FCPD has been operating under a personnel emergency since July 2022, meaning officers are required to work overtime with two shifts in rotation instead of the usual three.

Compensation has emerged as the top concern from interviews with officers, though it’s not the only one, according to FCPD Administrative Support Bureau Commander Major Gregory Fried, citing a desire for a better work-life balance as another issue that has come up.

The police department has recently committed more money to job advertising and pay for public safety workers, along with efforts to modernize the hiring process. The next academy class starting April 24 will have 58 graduates, the most in a decade, Davis said.

Still, officer recruitment and retention have become a struggle for law enforcement agencies across the country.

“We’re losing some of our best, and we struggle to bring in the best as well. As we face these challenges, though, taxpayers rightfully expect more,” Burch said. “Communities want more effective and fair policing. They want safer communities…The reality is policing is a profession. It’s not a vocation…We must invest, and that’s what this study is about, investing in those who step up to serve in their communities.”

The national exodus of officers has frequently been attributed to declining morale in the face of heightened public scrutiny, but Covid and mass early retirements may be bigger contributors to burnout, according to The Marshall Project, which reported earlier this year that local government employment in general has dropped since 2020.

Burch hopes to see the study of Fairfax County police officers replicated in other jurisdictions.

“What we learn here in Fairfax County will inform and improve policing across the United States,” Burch said.

The FCPD is also working with the D.C. nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on a review of shootings by its officers, which increased last year. That study was initiated in early March after Maryland resident Timothy Johnson was shot and killed outside Tysons Corner Center on Feb. 22.

Davis announced on March 23 that the officer who fired the fatal shot that evening had been fired.