Law enforcement as a profession is a tough sell these days. In the court of public opinion, agencies and individual officers are constantly under fire—figuratively and literally. And a job that requires working long hours on weekends, holidays, and nights for less pay and fewer perks than a job in the private sector doesn't sound so appealing, especially when the law enforcement profession doesn't garner the same respect it used to in many circles.
Because of these factors and more, people who might have considered joining law enforcement in the past are instead choosing different employment options—as are some current officers. But society still needs officers, and with many veteran officers retiring out after being hired with grants in the 1990s, agencies are more desperate than ever to fill vacancies. Departments are being forced to change the ways they recruit new officers, and in many cases they are changing their department culture as well as their policies in an effort to attract candidates. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes slow-moving bureaucracy needs a push to bring it up to date.
Law enforcement is different than it used to be, so agencies are using innovative recruiting strategies to keep up with the times and successfully bring more officers on board.
One of the major signs of the times is an expectation of diversified police forces. That means recruiting women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. There are many reasons this is an uphill battle for police agencies. But there are ways to at least work toward accomplishing this goal.
One stumbling block can be department policies that give priority to honorably discharged members of the U.S. armed forces and those who reside within the jurisdiction. This can push qualified women and minorities out of contention, which is why Michael Parker, a consultant who draws experience from his long tenure with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department where he retired as commander of the personnel and training command, cautions against these well-meaning rules.
"Having a diverse workforce, especially when working in a diverse area, gives validity to your agency, that you're reflective of that community," says First Lieutenant Robert R. Hendrix, commander of the Michigan State Police recruiting and selection section. "We've changed a lot of our recruiting material to make sure that it includes members of our diverse workforce." But he's also actively looking for new ways to bring them into the fold.
To find potential female officers, the MSP holds specific recruiting events for women. "We bring in a group of women that are already in our agency and they talk about the challenges and the fears that they had when they were considering law enforcement at the Michigan State Police as a career choice," he says.
To get the word out, the department uses print ads, TV and radio commercials, fliers, and email blasts to people who have applied to the agency so they can tell their interested friends and family. MSP also makes ample use of social media.
The agency has also recruited at career fairs in Detroit and other cities with large African-American populations, and has asked pastors leading minority congregations to suggest potential recruits. Working with community groups is another piece of the puzzle.
"In all our recruiting we're looking for the top candidates, no matter which demographic they come from," says Hendrix. "We're just making sure that people of different ethnicities and genders know that they're wanted and welcome in our agency."
One way of accomplishing this goal is attending community events such as local high school basketball games and showing the human side of the badge. This isn't a new concept, but it's one that can be easily overlooked, especially when agencies are short staffed.
"We've found if we just have the opportunity to talk to young folks who like to serve their community and want to give back, a lot of them will find that they are a good fit for law enforcement...more specifically with our department, Michigan State Police," says Hendrix.
Another recruitment strategy that helps bring in individuals from diverse backgrounds interested in law enforcement careers is creating youth programs such as Police Explorers and Cadets. In a bid to make an improvement on this model, the Dallas Police Department is launching a new program through which it will hire recent high school graduates as supplemental public service officers who can receive college tuition reimbursement from the department. When they complete the program with 45 credit hours and reach hiring age they'll be eligible to participate in the Dallas police academy and become full-fledged officers.
Chief U. Renee Hall hopes to have hired 250 officers onto the Dallas Police Department by the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year, 60 more officers than the year before. She says the agency is actively working on inclusivity as they work toward this goal. For example, the department has a designated LGBTQ liaison to reach out to that community, and Hall herself has been meeting with LGBTQ groups in Dallas.
"Part of recruiting will be mending some relationships," says Hall. "We need to understand why people aren't joining. Are we welcoming? Part of that is my strategy, making sure this is a police department that operates with the highest level of respect, and we emulate the kind of people we want to be a part of it."
In addition to a lack of interest in law enforcement, agencies are stymied by a lack of qualified applicants.
"We're measured by the city by the job we're doing in hiring women and minorities," says Capt. Dave Johnson of the Training and Recruitment Division at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Police Department. "Our applications received mirror the demographics of our community, but the applicants we're able to hire that make it through the background process don’t necessarily mirror our community as much as we'd like."
For one thing, not many people across the country are fit enough to meet law enforcement entry standards. But other factors for disqualification that are more difficult to rectify include credit history, drug use, and criminal records.
Part of changing with the times is rethinking some of the disqualifying factors for hiring, according to Dallas PD's Chief Hall. When she came on board she decided to reevaluate potential recruits' history of minor criminal offenses and drug use, if they admit to it. Class A misdemeanors and Class B misdemeanors from the last 10 years on someone's record are automatic disqualifiers. But Dallas PD evaluates any admitted drug use on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the type of drugs and when they were used.
Especially with more states having legalized recreational use of marijuana, agencies can expect to get more applicants reporting marijuana use in their past. Although it's illegal under federal law, is that transgression enough to turn away someone who is otherwise a qualified candidate?
"I'm not saying that we want individuals who are drug users to be law enforcement officers," Hall wants to make clear. "But if you experimented with drugs as a teenager and now you're an adult looking to get hired by the police department, I just think you're a different person than you were as a 16-year-old high school kid."
To bring in more candidates, dedicated recruiting campaigns can help provide a pervasive unified message about a law enforcement agency and the types of applicants it's looking for. This is why the money and effort they require can be worth it.
Hendrix says the Michigan State Police has updated its recruiting campaign images to reflect the department's diversity of people, but also its diverse assignments. He thinks it's important that they show "not only the uniform, but our lab services, our K-9 officers, and all of our support services, too." Opportunities for career advancement and diversification can attract new hires as well as keep them at the agency long-term.
This kind of marketing is also evident in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's new recruitment campaign, which launched in March. It includes social media, billboards, radio spots, buses, and trains. Some spots seek traditional new recruits, while others seek lateral transfers.
A large portion of the campaign's focus is online, which is critical in reaching today's job seekers. That includes a steady stream of posts across various social media platforms by a dedicated employee as well as a revamped recruitment section of the agency's website.
"We know, just from surveying, that 70% to 75% find us either online or through employee referrals," says Johnson. And most of the applicants come through the major job search websites such as Indeed and Monster. The campaign seems to be working, with a 25% increase in applications received since November. It was developed through Charlotte's internal marketing department with help from private sector marketing agencies they have relationships with.
And now Johnson is excited about the overhauled recruiting section of the CMPD's website, which can be conveniently reached by visiting www.cmpd.org/apply. "We want our recruitment website to be intuitive, to be flashy, to draw attention….because that's how everybody these days goes job hunting is online," he says.
In that same vein, videos are another way to reach out to recruits. Officer Brad Perez, public information officer and department videographer for the Fort Worth (TX) Police Department, has had great success with a series of humorous Star Wars parody videos going viral. In fact, he was told that they didn't need to recruit any more officers, so he needed to change the theme of his videos from recruiting to general promotion of the Fort Worth Police Department and its values. He says, "Through personal observation, every time we put a video out, the inquiries about lateral transfers and applying, even people that send us messages wishing they were younger so they could join us, all increase dramatically."
For agencies that don't have the manpower or the budget to fund their own largescale recruiting campaigns, Axon has launched an I'm In campaign that provides materials to help agencies get the word out, including a downloadable poster and video at https://www.connectandserve.in/#about.
To build on the success of online recruiting, agencies are moving toward an entirely online hiring process to improve the experience for applicants and keep them interested. Newer software also allows people to apply anytime they want, instead of during designated application periods. The Michigan State Police began switching form a paper system in 2014, and they haven't looked back.
MSP updated its entry-level law enforcement exam working with the Michigan civil service commission, and then went to an online application process.
"In the past, we had them bring the original plus a copy and we'd put it in a manila folder. That's how we kept track of all of our applicant files," says Hendrix. Now potential recruits can apply online, including digitally uploading all necessary documents.
Applicants can also access the online system to stay updated on their progress throughout the hiring process. They can easily view their status when they log into their profile, instead of wondering when they will hear back from the department, which could be discouraging and often led to applicants abandoning the process altogether. Hendrix says this paperless system makes hiring easier for both the agency and the applicants.
Hiring From Outside
Recruiting from other agencies has traditionally been difficult because it's meant officers giving up the seniority at their previous departments, and giving up a higher salary. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is changing its policies to make lateral transfers much more attractive, and it's making a concerted effort to get the word out to prospective applicants not just in their area, but across the country.
With so many officers retiring at once, Johnson says CMPD brass realized they couldn't hire rookies quickly enough to "stay ahead of the curve." Desiring to fill gaps in their ranks more quickly, the agency decided in November 2017 to aggressively recruit lateral transfers. Once hired, these officers are out working in four to five weeks, compared to a nine-month process for new recruits.
Officers from other agencies who apply to join CMPD are given "credit" for their law enforcement experience in calculating their starting salaries. So an officer with eight years of experience would be offered the same salary and benefits as an officer who has been serving with CMPD for eight years. In the past, lateral transfers would start at the same entry-level salary when joining, regardless of experience elsewhere.
"We've seen great success, especially in the last few months," says Johnson. "It's a very efficient way to bring on quality police officers and provide better service to our community, and the benefit we see to it is almost immediate. We bring laterals from not only the state of North Carolina, but also NYPD, LAPD...literally across the country."
Of course, such tactics take officers away from other agencies, creating more need for recruiting there. But everyone understands that all law enforcement agencies are fighting over the same pool of people. This includes those who are transitioning from the military after honorable discharge.
"Traditionally, about 30% of our new hires have some level of military experience," says Hendrix of the Michigan State Police. "So you can't neglect that piece of your recruiting strategy in favor of just going after what you might view as the millennial population or even lateral applicants."
The mainstay of this process has been physically visiting military bases. While this is still a commonplace and effective strategy, what is different now is the online component to recruiting these potential applicants.
"For most of the bases where soldiers are transferring out, there's a transition website that every agency in that area should be a part of," says Hendrix. "These soldiers are 22, 23, 24 years old and they look for jobs just like every other potential applicant at that age: online."
Law enforcement agencies across the country are facing the same struggles with recruiting officers, and it will likely continue to be a challenge. "We're all trying to hire from that same pool," acknowledges Hendrix. "But we can't let that deter us from finding the right people that are out there that want to give back to their communities and serve the areas that they came from. We just have to keep up the good work and keep trying our best to get those people to join our agencies."