Author: James Dudley
Are part-time or job-sharing police officers coming to an agency near you? Will sworn members be able to take a year off to bond with their children or take a sabbatical to thwart the stress related to police work? These strategies and others were discussed at an officer recruitment and retention forum held in San Francisco in November 2018.
Over 80 sworn and civilian individuals from 46 different police departments, sheriff’s agencies and corrections institutions convened at the conference hosted by the Insight Exchange Network (IEN). The event addressed the difficulties in recruiting and retaining viable candidates in a vibrant economy with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, the lowest number since 1969. Conference producer Josh Krenz recognized the need to put together the program for agencies and speakers to share experiences, best practices and new ideas.
Factors impacting police recruitment
Agencies are struggling with a confluence of factors in addition to the strong economy in regard to recruiting new personnel. Law enforcement as a career choice is currently as unpopular as during the Viet Nam war era and the civil rights movement. High profile incidents over the past decade have had a dramatic influence on law enforcement in general. The American political divide has had an impact as well, considering uniformed law enforcement is the most visible representative of the government. Once generous and guaranteed pensions may be in doubt as cities and counties struggle with stretched budgets.
As a result, potential candidates have the upper hand in today’s law enforcement job market. In the post-Viet Nam war era, it was not unusual to see thousands of job seekers in line for law enforcement positions. Today, agencies struggle to gather enough candidates to enlist, remain through the application and background check process, and take a seat in a police academy. Viable candidates may apply at several agencies to take the best offer proffered. Agencies are offering signing bonuses, moving expenses, educational incentives and salary negotiations to lure candidates. Other incentives include Veterans preference points, take home cars and deferred compensation packages, as well as the usual medical and dental benefits. Salary and pensions are not the only incentives; some departments promote intangibles such as climate, recreational activities, schools, and cost of living and quality of life benefits.
Using the weather
At the recruitment forum, Melbourne Police Department recruiter Brent Kleeberg explained a tactic he used via social media. Melbourne is an active coastal community in central Florida. Officer Kleeberg had previous experience with an agency near Colorado Springs, Colorado. He contrasted two photographs, one with a marked cruiser working a scene with another vehicle stuck in a snow bank, above another photo of a cruiser parked alongside a beach in Melbourne with the message, “Your choice! We are hiring!”
Kleeberg received numerous applications from the Facebook posting and has hired several out-of-state officers with experience. Even a year later, he receives enquiries about the post from potential candidates and sponsorship from local retail entities. He said his post appealed to the way today’s candidates use social media.
Salary is often a secondary consideration among applicants. Kleeberg and others agreed that visual portrayals of contemporary policing showing officers on foot patrol, on bicycles and in community venues have great appeal for new recruits. Some agencies are also moving away from recruitment campaigns depicting SWAT or enforcement-themed scenes to those showing officers as an integrated part of the community.
Connecting with your audience
While social media can reach a large audience, it is important to take an individualized approach to targeted demographics and not brand folks as millennials or Gen Zs.
Lieutenant Sarah Ruiz, commander of recruiting for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona, said she “was sick of hearing all the negative connotations associated with millennials.” Recruiting agencies need to take an approach of inclusiveness, rather than one of division. Agencies need to understand the new generations and how they are the future of policing. Lt. Ruiz has fully embraced the concept by reaching out to high schoolers in hopes of enticing them with custody positions where applicants need only be 18 years of age. She related her own experience, where as a 17-year-old she became familiar with the culture and remained to promote through the organization. Personnel who enter as custodial deputies can enter patrol ranks after a few years.
While Lieutenant Ruiz’s approach works for her agency because of the early-age entry opportunities, agencies that require applicants to be 21 years of age can cultivate potential applicants in high school to join Explorer and Cadet programs. Several agencies train and pay cadets or public safety officers positions to cultivate future applicants. Duties include traffic direction, report taking and other non-enforcement activities to introduce them into the law enforcement culture and environment.
Hand-holding during the application process
Once applicants begin the process, police recruiters must work hard to retain new recruits.
Several presenters at the forum mentioned the need for ongoing communication with candidates during background investigations, polygraphs, psychological and medical examinations. If this process drags on or no communication is conveyed to the candidate, candidates may lose interest, grow impatient or sign on with another agency.
LAPD Sgt. Britt-Nickerson and others described the importance of mentoring candidates during this process. Mentoring begins by explaining the selection and hiring process to candidates. Assigning a mentor to each candidate ensures regular check-ins to keep applicants interested and aware of next steps. Candidates left in the dark – without hearing from the agency for months on end – may be more likely to look elsewhere.
Open house events are also important to allow candidates and their families to meet and greet command personnel and learn about the agency’s culture and mission. Human resources personnel, department physicians and background investigators should be on hand for candidates to ask questions about the recruitment process.
Agency representatives should be carefully selected to participate in the open houses and mentoring assignments. Identify those personnel who can show a commitment to a culture of an inclusive and progressive department.
6 Best Practices in Recruiting
Here are six best practices shared by participants at the forum:
1. Recruit as wide as possible across genders and demographics, including age.
This may require a paradigm shift from expectations of what department leaders imagine an ideal candidate to look like. Do not “pigeonhole” applicants. Qualified candidates come in all shapes and sizes.
2. Use software to reach the largest audience of applicants.
Forum attendees cited using PoliceApp to find applicants both locally and from across the country. I spoke with Business Development Director Michael Quadrato after viewing the site. I was impressed that he appealed to “millennials” on the site without using the “M” word. He said the non-reference was intentional and that it is important to be culturally astute. The site is user-friendly for agencies and candidates alike.
3. Enlist “true believers” from the ranks of your agency as recruiters.
They may be dedicated and permanently assigned personnel to a unit or, as some agencies favor, use working employees on assignment from various details in patrol, investigations and other assignments. It is also important to recognize that each member of your agency is a potential recruiter. Provide officers with business cards that have links to recruitment applications, your agency’s social media sites and information pages about the agency.
4. Use social media.
Agencies should use focused messages on social media. Besides Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, consider Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on free versions of radio stations like Pandora, Spotify, iHeart Radio and others.
5. Create a mentoring program for candidates.
Choose mentors from the ranks as you would recruiters. Their relationship with applicants should be informative, supporting and guiding. A strong mentor is crucial to maintaining connection throughout the application process until recruits graduate from the academy and probation. Demystify the application, selection and hiring practices within your agency. Constant contact may keep your candidates from looking at other agencies. In that vein, recruitment officers expressed that “poaching” candidates, once taboo among agencies, was now a standard practice in luring new recruits.
6. Do not lower standards.
Whether at the initial application, physical agility test, or written or oral examination, standards should not be lowered or modified to gain a larger aggregate number of candidates. Agencies that have gone this route have regretted the decision downstream. Lowering passing scores on psychological screenings and backgrounds investigations is especially problematic. States that passed legal marijuana laws will be encountering the issue very soon. Preparations should be carefully thought out in advance.
The nature of law enforcement requires a paramilitary structure and chain of command for control, communication and responsibility. The structure is especially crucial in critical incidents and enforcement activity. Still, a paradigm shift must be made to meet the challenge of recruiting and hiring in the current climate. As with every generation of law enforcement, leaders must determine the best strategies to recruit individuals by re-tooling their approach to appeal to candidates’ strengths, desires and abilities.