Choosing the Right Police Department

Find a law enforcement agency that fits your personality and job expectations.

Until recently, the United States had enjoyed a pretty healthy economy. This enabled new businesses to form and established companies to expand their operations. At the same time, "baby boomers" are starting to reach retirement age and fewer people are entering the job market to take their place. As a result, many employers, including law enforcement agencies, are experiencing difficulty attracting sufficient numbers of qualified personnel.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2010 there will be 10 million more jobs than qualified people in the U.S. The situation is quickly reaching the critical stage for many employers, especially service-oriented professions like law enforcement.

For those starting a career in law enforcement, the opportunities have never been better. With so many alternatives available today, you should look beyond just getting a job and take the time to find the agency that is "right" for you. This requires exploring the different departments that have positions available and identifying the kind of agency where you want to work. To make an informed decision, you must investigate each department and compare it against the criteria you find important.

Frequent Job Changes

It is common for young officers to change jobs early in their career. Studies suggest 50 to 60 percent of new officers leave their first agency within four years of being hired. There are a number of reasons for these frequent changes including unmet job expectations, lack of career opportunities, and poor relations with a supervisor. But jumping from job to job can have negative consequences for your career.

While job changes may be looked upon as normal for younger employees, it's not a good idea. In addition to stress in relocating and readjusting to a new work environment, the loss in seniority can postpone participation in advanced training and development programs.

In addition, police agencies are sometimes skeptical of candidates with records of frequent job-hopping. There are a number of reasons leaders are wary of officers who have changed jobs several times.

Departments make a huge financial and operational investment in hiring a new officer in the form of selection, training, and equipment. Because of this, some agencies may be hesitant to hire an employee who they fear may carry this investment out the door as soon as another opportunity comes along.

In other instances, agencies don't want to hire another department's problems. Problem employees can sense when their future employment is in question and often resign. Others are quietly invited to seek other career opportunities. Regardless of the reason, agencies don't want to chance the potential liability and damage to their reputation by hiring "gypsy" officers who are poor performers.

For all of these reasons, it makes sense to find an agency you can see yourself staying with for at least a few years before moving on.

Finding a Fit

All organizations are searching for officers. The good agencies are looking for well-qualified candidates, but the best departments are seeking well-qualified people who also "fit" within their organization. While this perception may seem strange at first, all departments are not the same. This variance exists in workplaces throughout the public and private sector.

For example, working in a chain restaurant is different than in a five star restaurant. Similarly, differences exist between the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Both are part of the United States military, but each serves different purposes and needs. Recognizing these differences, don't accept an agency's offer of employment unless you really feel it's a "fit" for you, and that you're a fit for the department.

Identify Desired Work Environment

To find the best fit, it's important to make a personal assessment of the conditions you're seeking from an employer before launching a job search in earnest. The closer the alignment of your values with those of the organization, the more likely you will be satisfied and retained by the department.

For example, if you are interested in a more structured organization similar to the military, consider a larger agency with a traditional law enforcement approach. If you want to work a variety of activities every day or in a more "family" environment, you may want to seek a smaller department. The variations are almost endless.

Investigate Employment Opportunities

Before hiring an applicant, agencies will conduct a comprehensive background investigation. In an effort to make an informed career decision, you should complete a similar investigation of your potential employer. Beyond being educational, the information you learn during this process will allow you to demonstrate a real interest in the department during interviews.

There are a number of ways to research a department. A good place to start is examining the department's Website. Sites for the most progressive agencies will be up-to-date and do a good job of conveying the image the agency is trying to project. To verify this information, search the agency on the Internet using a search engine like Google or Yahoo.

Because of the nature of police work, you should expect to find some negative or controversial information about any agency. However, this negative perception should not define the agency. Rather, there should be alignment between the image the agency is trying to project and information found. The stronger the alignment between a department's projected image and the public's perception, the greater confidence you can have in the department's recruitment messages.

But don't rely solely on the Internet. Talk with officers from within the department. How do they talk about working with other officers and their supervisors? Do they seem to be happy with how the agency treats them and the opportunities provided for them? What kind of relationship do they have with the community? Frequent negative comments or discussions of adversarial interactions are a valid source of concern.

Next, participate in the department's ride along program. There is no better way to see what it is like to be a police officer than actually being in a car and talking with the officer on the street. Riding along will give you a chance to better decide if being a police officer is the career you really wish to pursue.

When participating in the selection processes, observe  how candidates are treated. Do the employees treat candidates in a polite, respectful, and dignified manner or maintain a cold, unresponsive, and distant position? These behaviors may be indicative of relationships between officers, supervisory staff, and the public.

Issues to Explore

When looking into a police department as a possible employee, there are a number of issues to consider. Probably the most important and overlooked issue for a person considering a job in law enforcement is whether they really want to do the work. The emphasis of many departments' recruiting efforts focuses on the exciting, adrenaline-pumping incidents of car chases and arresting fleeing felons. The media often reinforces this image.

In reality, however, the majority of police work is service-related and often filled with completing paperwork and random patrolling. Law enforcement is a sacrificial profession that requires its members to work long shifts, weekends, and holidays. Working conditions are often hostile and unpleasant. Despite this, no other job provides individuals more opportunities to make a positive impact on their community and the lives of others. Individuals who like the idea of helping others and making positive changes in their community will likely have a very rewarding career. One of the best ways organizations can reinforce this intrinsic motivation is to allow officers to participate in community and problem-oriented policing activities. Another way is to involve officers in projects in which they can develop an ownership with the success of the program.

Salary and Compensation

One of the most distinguishing factors between departments is the salary and compensation provided to employees. While no one entering law enforcement should expect to become wealthy, the best agencies pay their officers at or above the market average. The market average varies according to the area of the country or state the department is located. To identify an average salary, call several agencies in the surrounding communities and inquire about their entry-level salary.

Compensation is more inclusive than just salary. As a general rule, younger officers are more concerned with how much money they take home than other benefits. However, as you progress through your career, other benefits such as education incentives, tuition reimbursement, insurance, and retirement will become increasingly more important. Departments with good benefit packages demonstrate a concern for not only attracting new officers, but also meeting the needs of their veteran employees.

In addition to examining compensation packages, examine the quality of equipment issued to officers. Organizations that provide officers with quality equipment demonstrate greater support in helping them serve their community. Some of the equipment that should be examined includes uniforms, rain gear, weapons, vehicles, and computers.

The best agencies offer abundant opportunities for officers to attend training. Being able to participate in frequent training builds officers' confidence, minimizes potential liability, and increases their ability to perform. In addition to the required basic academy and field training, you should have the opportunity to attend advanced training that will meet your needs as you progress through your career.

Career Development

Another important factor to consider is the career development opportunities provided at each agency. This can take on a variety of forms including specialized training, mentoring, individualized career assessment and counseling, and varying work assignments.

In larger agencies, officers have opportunities to join specialized units such as traffic, narcotics, or domestic violence units. Working in smaller agencies is advantageous because individuals are expected to work a variety of functions and thus avoid becoming bored with doing the same thing every day. While smaller departments may not be able to provide on-going specialization, they can provide officers with training in these areas and allow them to work cases when needed.

In addition, agencies may provide dual career paths to offer alternative promotional opportunities. Typically, these systems provide promotions and accompanying changes in titles or non-commissioned officer ranks for increased levels of training and experience (i.e. Officer I, II, and III; Intermediate, Advanced, Master patrol officer; Private, Private First Class, Corporal).

Agency Interaction

Even if a police department seems perfect on paper, it's essential that you feel comfortable with the department culture. Assess interagency communications by examining how well staff interact with each other. A poor relationship between officers and the public may be symptomatic of an adversarial relationship between line and supervisory/command staff. Look for leaders who provide frequent feedback as well as recognize and reward officers' positive performance.

This recognition may take the form of commendations and rewards. It may also include highlighting good behavior in shift briefings, department meetings, or public presentations. Regardless, officers who are rewarded when they do a good job are happier and perform better.

Finally, everyone wants to be associated with something special. Those departments that establish high, but reasonable and fair standards set themselves apart from the mediocre organizations. Organizations that establish and maintain high standards of conduct have better esprit de corps and morale within their organization. If an agency is experiencing a large-scale scandal or several of its officers are being investigated or indicted for criminal behavior, it may suggest the department lowered its employment standards. While their misconduct may be isolated to a few individuals, their behavior reflects on everyone in the agency.

There are a number of alternatives for you to consider when seeking a career in law enforcement. By taking the time to identify the desired working conditions and making informed decisions about your employment opportunities, you will be more likely to choose an agency that fits with your personal needs. In return, you can look forward to a long, enjoyable, and rewarding career as a police officer.

Dwayne Orrick has been the police chief and public safety director for the City of Cordele, Ga., for 18 years. He holds a bachelor's of arts in criminal justice and a masters of public administration from the University of Georgia. He recently authored "Recruitment, Retention, and Turnover of Police Personnel: Reliable, Practical and Effective Solutions," Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Ltd.

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