Policing in the 21st century is an especially tough job. The financial challenges and occupational hazards of the past such as shoestring budgets and high-risk traffic stops and calls for service persist, and ever-multiplying modern complications compound them. Law enforcement agencies today face the operational challenges of providing for the public safety in the midst of global health crises from COVID-19 to monkeypox, and in the aftermath of widespread defund the police movements. In order to accomplish their missions in an increasingly complex world, police departments must focus on the recruitment, retention, and supervision of highly qualified personnel.
This article addresses recruitment, retention, and supervision with the goal of assisting local police departments in crafting the solutions that best serve them as they work to address the various problems that often arise in these areas. In the recruitment section, the focus is on attracting diverse and highly qualified candidates by simplifying the application process and overcoming cognitive biases in the interview process. The retention section focuses on training and promotional growth and opportunities aimed at ensuring that a local police department is in the best position to not only attract the best candidates, but also to ensure that they remain engaged and committed to the agency in the long term. The article concludes with a supervision section that focuses of evaluating performance and responding to complaints, both internal and external.
It is no secret that, on average, the demographic makeup of local police departments does not necessarily reflect that of the United States. Differences between the demographic makeup of local police departments and the general population appear not only along racial, but also along gender lines. Data from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that on average, in 2016, approximately 88% of the officers employed by local police departments were male, and only approximately 12% were female. Yet, women make up just over half of the country’s population.
These differences may impede many local police departments in their recruitment efforts, as community members may be discouraged or even dissuaded from applying for entry-level positions with the department because they do not see themselves reflected in the force. Rectifying this impediment to recruitment is a difficult task that requires careful planning in connection with both the application and the interview process, as well as full compliance with any applicable laws. For example, state laws such as California’s 1996 Proposition 209, which added Article I, Section 31 to the state’s constitution, prohibit preferential treatment on the basis of characteristics such as race and sex in the operation of public employment.
What then are local law enforcement agencies to do in order to attract the most diverse and highly qualified candidates and hire the best employees? At the outset, it must be noted that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will address the needs of all local police departments. However, in seeking solutions, local police departments can consider implementing one or both of these two steps in their application and interview process.
The first step an agency may wish to consider is simplifying the application process, which starts with making the process itself known to as many potential candidates as possible. To achieve this type of visibility, agencies can consider using social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram to publish job openings, rather than relying solely on traditional media and their own websites. This ensure that the agency will reach the highest possible number potential candidates, as data from the Pew Research Center suggests that 42% of adults aged 18-29 and 25% of adults aged 30-49 often get news from social media. Digital publication can also facilitate the posting of job opportunities in English, as well as other languages commonly used in the communities agencies serve.
Simplifying also entails creating job descriptions and applications targeted toward ascertaining whether a candidate possesses those skills that are integral to successfully performing the job. Consider, for example, a job description for an entry-level officer, which states that a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent is preferred, but not required. Before including such language in a job description, an agency should ask whether a bachelor’s degree is, in fact, integral to successfully performing as an entry-level officer If the answer is no, then why include such language in the job description? Census data shows that only 33% of Americans have achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. As such, the express preference for a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent may discourage the majority of potential candidates from applying, either because they do not possess the preferred degree or because they cannot clearly determine what may or may not be considered “its equivalent.” Removing express preferences for knowledge and skills that are not integral to successfully performing the job, as well as ambiguous language, from job descriptions and applications is crucial to making the application process more accessible to more potential candidates.
The second step local police departments can also consider is offering training to decision-makers and interviewers aimed at increasing awareness of common cognitive biases, with the goal of preventing these from permeating the recruitment process. Cognitive biases can alter an individual’s thinking without him or her realizing that this is taking place. For example, people tend to be drawn to those who remind them of themselves due to the affinity bias. They also tend to think more highly of tall men and slender women due to the beauty bias, and recollect the first and last thing they heard in a presentation, speech, or (very importantly) an interview answer due to the primacy and recency biases. Understanding these unconscious biases is critical to preventing them from adversely affecting the interview process.
Simplifying the application process and overcoming cognitive biases through training are insufficient alone (and far from the only tools an agency can use) to improve recruitment of the most diverse and highly qualified candidates. However, these are two approaches that can help maximize the potential to recruit top tier candidates.
An agency’s growth, in terms of both size and operational success, is not contingent upon recruitment alone. To be sure, recruitment is a starting point; an agency must be able to attract the interest of highly qualified candidates in order to select and hire the best from among them. However, another critical building block is retention. You have to make sure that the highly qualified candidates who come on board stick around for the long run.
Training and promotional opportunities are both integral to retention. To that end, the importance of selecting the best field training o
officers and creating the best training program cannot be understated. The knowledge and skills acquired in this initial training are the foundation upon which new, entry-level officers will build their careers. However, training should not end here; rather, it should be a career-long undertaking. Local law enforcement agencies are encouraged to seek out and offer training and leadership opportunities for officers that exceed the minimum requirements of their positions. Employees are more likely to remain with an employer and engaged with a job if they have the tools they need to develop and grow professionally.
Promotional opportunities are likewise critical to professional growth and development. As with recruitment, there is no one-size-fits-all promotional process that will appropriately address the needs of every agency at every rank. Some agencies use a written and oral interview component, while others choose only one or the other. Each component, like the process itself, varies from agency to agency. For example, some agencies use both an external and internal panel, while others find that the chief’s interview suffices for the oral interview component.
While the structure of the promotional process may vary significantly, adhering to a few important principles—specifically, fairness and impartiality—can help ensure that the process serves the dual purposes of retention and building the best possible workforce. To keep the promotional process fair and impartial (regardless of whether the chief may select any candidate from the eligibility list, only among the top three candidates, or only in raking order), the decision-maker should first determine what the needs of the department are and what skills, knowledge, and experience will best meet these needs. This will allow the decision-maker to articulate properly and fully the reasons underpinning his or her selection. The decision-maker should also carefully document the decision-making process in anticipation of legal challenges to the selections that occur.
Kolender v. San Diego County Civil Service Commission (Kolender v. San Diego County Civil Service Commission (2007) 149 Cal. App. 4th 464), a California appellate court decision, highlights the importance of effective supervision. In 1998, Margaret Gant was promoted to a supervisorial position with the San Diego County Sheriff. In 2005, incorrect information she entered into the computing system resulted in a sentence that was 34 days longer than it should have been. This was not her first error that resulted in an improper calculation of custody time. The prior year, her error resulted in an inmate serving less time than specified in the sentencing order. She was demoted on the basis of incompetence, a disciplinary decision she subsequently appealed. Among other things, she relied on her overall “fully competent” performance evaluation for the 2004-2005 period to challenge the decision.
On the basis of that performance evaluation, the hearing officer found that the permanent demotion should be modified to a temporary four month demotion. The hearing officer’s decision went before the San Diego County Civil Service Commission, which adopted his recommendation. The case continued on to the superior court and, thereafter, to the appellate court. The courts reinstated the demotion, noting that although the overall rating was “fully competent” there was a disconnect between that conclusion and the body of the performance evaluation, which indicated numerous areas that were rated as “needing improvement.”
The Kolender case serves as an important cautionary tale, and highlights a critical aspect of supervision: the performance evaluation. Accurate and honest performance evaluations are crucial at every rank and for every employee. Gant’s demotion likely would not have been overturned, and the intervention of the courts likely not needed, if her 2004-2005 performance evaluation had not been changed to inaccurately rate her as “fully competent.”
Preparing accurate and honest performance evaluations is a challenge for most supervisors for many reasons. For instance, it is difficult to deliver constructive criticism, and it is especially difficult to do so if the employee is used to receiving glowing reviews that may have been less than factual. However, providing such constructive criticism serves several important purposes. As the Kolender case shows, accurate and honest performance evaluations can serve to support necessary disciplinary action. Furthermore, such evaluations also place the employee on notice of any deficiencies in performance and manage expectations when it comes to advancement and promotions.
Another integral aspect of supervision is the receipt, processing, and handling of both internal and external complaints, as well as responding to them. To that end, agencies should consider facilitating the complaint process in order to ensure accessibility. For example, departments could make complaint forms available in person as well as online—along with clear directions for the channels by which a complaint can be submitted—and offer forms in English as well as other languages that are widely used in the communities they serve. Agencies should also consider scheduling internal deadlines to ensure that complaints are processed and, if necessary, investigated promptly and in advance of any statutory limits (such as the one-year statute of limitations set forth in the California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act). Finally, local police departments should consider setting specific guidelines pertaining to the timing and means by which a complainant will be advised of the outcome of his or her complaint.
Local police departments face issues as numerous and diverse as the communities they serve. The purpose of this article is to provide agencies with suggested tools they can use to improve the recruitment, retention, and supervision of a diverse and highly qualified workforce. Agencies are also encouraged to consult with legal counsel to ensure that they are fully compliant with any applicable state and federal laws that may govern the recruitment, retention, and supervision methods they wish to adopt.
J. Scott Tiedemann is the managing partner of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, California's largest public sector and non-profit labor and employment law firm. He advises public safety agencies across California on a myriad of personnel issues, including internal affairs investigations, responding to a critical incident, and the training standards for peace officers in California. He has represented public safety agencies in many high-profile matters involving unreasonable or excessive use of force. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emanuela Tala is an associate in Liebert Cassidy Whitmore’s Los Angeles office where she provides representation and legal counsel to clients in matters pertaining to employment law and litigation.