Police Interview Newsletter
Police Recruiting Woes

Volume 5, Issue 5
September-October, 2006

     There is a crisis brewing in police agencies nationwide! Baby Boomer police officers, with 20 or more years experience, are retiring in droves and there are too few qualified recruits to replace them.

     After years of easy pickings - where police departments had grown accustomed to selecting the cream-of-the-crop individuals, from huge applicant pools, to enter academy training, nearly "80% of the nation's 17,000 law enforcement agencies" (Washington Post, 3/27/06) are not able to fill all of their police vacancies. In my own police selection work, I've seen the size of applicant groups during a typical police hiring process dwindle, in the span of 15 years, from 1,200 strong to an average of only 200-300 individuals.

     "Police officials and researchers say a confluence of demographic changes and social trends have precipitated the shortage. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan siphoned off public-service-minded people to the military. Hundreds of law enforcement officers have handed in their badges to take higher-paying positions in the booming homeland security industry" (John Pomfret, Washington Post 3/27/06). To make matters worse, over the next 20 years as many as 76 million baby boomers are expected to retire from their various jobs - across the workforce. Available Generation X workers expected to replace them number only 46 million. Severe labor shortages across the U.S. economy as a whole are staring us in the face!

     Competition for hiring and retaining police personnel has become intense! Pomfret reports that several Northern Virginia Counties have launched new incentive programs that include: (1) signing bonuses for new employees, (2) "bounties" for county employees who refer and recommend successful candidates, and (3) significant pay increases for veteran officers. In the Southwest, the cities of Dallas, Austin, and Houston are engaged in a "bidding war". Houston recently increased their new officer signing bonus to $7,000.

Is there a Solution?

     Clearly no one has yet arrived at the solution to police staffing shortages - present or future.

     Some law enforcement agencies have experimented with lowering their standards and requirements in hopes of enlarging the applicant pool. So, in effect, an individual with a drug use history, poor credit rating, marginal physical fitness, or even past gang association may not be automatically disqualified from a police hiring process. Is this a good idea? Will police agencies simply have to accept the fact that "people are not as equipped or as inclined to be police officers as in the past?" - as Barbara Raymond, a police researcher for Rand Corporation has stated.

     Some law enforcement administrators say "No! We won't compromise our standards." In his article, "Police Finding It Hard to Fill Jobs" (Washington Post, 3/27/06), John Pomfret recalls recruitment drives at the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department that resulted in some questionable hiring. In their efforts to get new people on board quickly to deal with a surge in D.C. Area crime in 1989-1990, the Department mistakenly employed "gang members and people with substantial criminal histories." Some of these individuals were then later involved in controversial police shootings. Apparently, there are huge risks and potential liabilities that come with lowering the bar to put new cops on the street.

     Other police chiefs and administrators tend to agree with Sergeant Mark Gordon, author of "Police Recruiting in the 21st Century" (E.M.U. School of Police Staff and Command, August 2004). Gordon believes that "Recruitment of the right people is important to the success of any business and law enforcement is no different" (p.20).

     To attract talented applicants in the changing work force, Gordon believes that agencies must start using some more creative and innovative recruitment strategies. The willingness to flex and think out-of-the-box may be crucial to recruiting and retaining the "right people".

      The importance of this concept of "getting the right people on the bus" within any organization, is driven home by leadership trainer/researcher Jim Collins in his recent book - "Good To Great". His research clearly demonstrates that one can only become and remain a great organization by hiring disciplined people, who engage in disciplined thought, and are capable of taking disciplined action. Unless police applicants possess the basic aptitudes, intelligence, integrity, self-control, people skills, and passion for the job - they should not be recruited for police careers. Why not? Because they are simply the wrong people for an extremely important and demanding job.

     In her 2005 Rand Corporation report - "Police Personnel Challenges After September 11" - Barbara Raymond reminds us that policing has changed dramatically in recent years. "The job is far from the adrenaline-packed hook 'em and book 'em, car chase stereotype of the past. As cities around the nation become more culturally diverse and police departments embrace community policing tactics, officers are often pushed to deal with the root causes of crime, becoming more social worker than cop". These realities would seem to argue in favor of law enforcement officers (as well as applicants) needing more, rather than less, education to do their jobs effectively.

Sgt. Mark Gordon's Recommendations

     In his article, "Police Recruiting In The 21st Century", Sergeant Gordon borrows from private sector practices to offer these recruiting and retention suggestions to police administrators.

  1. Consider increasing work shifts to 12 hours. Research shows that both Generation X and Generation Y (or, Nexters) individuals are seeking jobs with lots of time off. Time away from work is often rated as a higher priority than one's salary. Because this work schedule requires only 14 days "on duty" per month, the officer has plenty of days off to do other things.

  2. Reduce the management pressures at the police station. I believe that Gordon observes correctly that the nature of police duties on the street provides sufficient daily stress on it's people, without management styles within the organization that are purposely designed to create additional stress. People do not work better in response to pressure tactics. Indeed, Gen Xers will chose to go elsewhere when unwarranted and unnecessary pressures are applied. An atmosphere of education and support can be much more effective in attracting and keeping good people.

  3. Managers/Supervisors commit to offering instant feedback & constant communication to officers. Gordon observes that the younger generation needs and expects ongoing feedback (positive or negative). Timely performance reviews, frequent praise and encouragement, and regular feedback/recognition can do much to improve officer morale and retention.

  4. Consider signing bonuses. Why not? Athletes and executives across private industry are often recruited in this fashion. Gen Xers and Nexters are interested in making good salaries and, as Gordon suggests, will "go where the money is". A number of police departments are already using the signing bonus as a solid recruitment tool.

  5. Start focusing on mid-career recruitment (ages 25-45). Police work has been viewed as a young person's job. The average age for new hires has traditionally been 22 to 30 years old. However, some departments are rethinking this ideal age concept and actively recruiting older individuals away from other career paths. Gordon suggests that a particularly promising recruitment effort may involve pursuing women returning to the work force after raising their children.

How Might the Federal Government Help?

     In his May 23, 2006 commentary entitled "Police Personnel Crisis Needs Federal Leadership" at washingtonpost.com, Jeremy Wilson underscores the importance of increased federal government involvement and support.

     With the increased homeland security responsibilities since September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "requiring more officers, with more skills, at a higher cost" (p.1), Wilson asserts that police departments need (1) help in developing long-term plans for recruitment and (2) more financial support from the federal government. Presently, the proposed federal budget for 2007 involves a 41 percent cut in the law enforcement assistance programs run by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

     Jeremy Wilson's recommendations include the following:

  1. U.S. Justice Department (or a national organization) could use their resources to study long-term issues affecting police recruitment and retention. Such forecasting and planning studies might include:

    • Evaluating strategies to recruit new officers, by projecting what police skills will be needed in the future, surveying young people's interest in police work, informing departments about the kinds of changes they need to make to attract the best applicants.

    • Conducting strategic planning to determine whether or not it is reasonable to modify police entrance requirements - related to physical fitness, drug use histories, educational level, and issues of financial debt.

    • Assessing how changes in communities across the country may affect and alter the kinds of skills required by successful police officers in the future.

  2. Establish a national clearinghouse, for state and local law enforcement agencies, to collect and distribute information from these studies and others that target police personnel staff issues. Most police departments do not possess the time, money, or expertise to do these long-term studies on their own.

     Finally, there is some discussion about re-instituting LEEP - the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration Program, which provided loans to college students and active duty police officers, whose loans were later "forgiven" if they were willing to work in local law enforcement agencies. The September 2006 issue of American Police Beat calls for the federal government to re-implement this program to help make it possible to educate and train the thousands of law enforcement officers who are so desperately needed in the field. It worked extremely well in the 1970's and could be used to great advantage in the present and future.

Phone: 804-353-6700
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Email: MacHart@PoliceInterview.com
Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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