Recruiting, Selecting, and Retaining Law Enforcement Officers

Brett MeadeBy Brett Meade, Ed.D.
Deputy Chief of Police
University of Central Florida

Ask any law enforcement executive worldwide to list the most challenging internal issue facing their respective agencies, and the vast majority will mention recruiting, selecting and retaining sworn personnel.  The fact is, given the current environment of the policing profession, recruiting the next generation of police officers is more difficult than ever. With the pressures, demands, and expectations of the community, finding individuals who want to step into and stay in this uncertain and dangerous career is a daunting task.

Costs are always a concern, as the standard cost to recruit, hire, equip, and fully train a police officer from the time they submit their initial application to the time they can function independently may exceed $100,000 and take up to eighteen months. A law enforcement agency needs about three-five years of service to recoup this initial investment.

Open positions lead to increased overtime costs to fill needed shift coverage, decreased officer morale due to the inability to take time off or transfer to other units, and decreased delivery of services to the community. Turnover cannot be completely eliminated, as some officers will use an agency as a stepping stone while others realize that police work is not for them.  From a retention viewpoint, many agencies are suffering from a leadership vacuum caused by mass retirements and other turnover causes. Loss of trained officers with a few years’ experience under their belt who understand the community and are just becoming eligible for promotion is especially damaging to an agency and hinders succession planning.

Every police executive looks for the recruit that has the right blend of skill sets, such as level-headedness, superior communication abilities, and internal drive to public service. The problem is these skill sets are desirable and highly sought after in every organization, public or private.  Competition for talent is fierce, and we all have stories about the one that was lured away, either in the recruiting process or within a relatively short time after hire. Skilled, competent, and professional officers are a valuable commodity, and rest assured, these officers are subject to being recruited away from a law enforcement organization if there is not some level of job satisfaction or bonding with an agency.

As you are evaluating a potential officer for hire, that candidate is also evaluating you and your agency.  It is truly a buyer’s market.  Potential officers are asking:

What does your agency have to offer?

Do you offer a take home car?

Does your agency pay overtime or have a variety of specialty assignments?

Some are often more interested in how much time off they can get or when they can test for promotion (sound familiar).  For some, a great working environment is more important than pay or other benefits, and for some agencies, this is a focal point for recruiting and selecting the right candidate.

In a thirty-four-year career, I have served in a small municipal agency, a large metropolitan Sheriff’s Office, and now a large university, and I can attest that successful officer skill sets for each agency are different. As a Sheriff’s Office captain, deputies I was responsible for constantly addressed violent crime and dangerous situations on a daily basis.  These deputies thrived in this fast paced environment, could multi-task, and signed up for this level of activity.   As a police executive at a large university, our mission is to provide a safe environment, and violent crime is rare.  We recruit officers who are self-motivated, emphasize community policing and possess superior communication abilities that have the capacity to immediately switch gears to handle any situation competently and professionally. I can’t offer a large variety of assignments, but officers do have the time to practice community policing, and several say their number one reason they stay is because of the working environment.

Simply sending officers to career fairs and hoping to have candidates stop by your table is not effective and has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Police executives must develop a strategy to hire and retain sworn personnel who are diverse and reflective of the community.  The plan cannot be to take whomever walks through the door.

Although not all inclusive, a successful recruiting and retention plan should include:

  1. Determine and prioritize specific traits that an agency and community desires in their police officers and then hire officers based one those who possess those desired characteristics. The pressure is enormous to quickly fill open positions, but it is imperative to recruit and hire the right personnel based on your organizational and community needs. You might be in a position to hire good candidates, but if they do not meet agency or community expectations or have the qualities you are looking for, you may soon find yourself in the same situation of having to refill a vacancy.
  1. Recruit and select officers who identify and bond with the agency culture (organizational fit), who are compatible with and capable of achieving organizational goals, and who understand community demographics. If officers bond with the agency and the community, they are more likely to be effective and maintain employment.
  1. All employees should understand the mission and goals of the agency and the desirable characteristics of potential officers. An agency needs to have specially trained personnel who reflect the diversity of the agency and community to assist in the recruiting process who can follow up with potential candidates. However, every agency employee is a recruiter and should be on the lookout for talent.
  1. Sell your agency through social media. Highlight achievements of officers and publicize all the great aspects and activities of the agency. Facebook, Twitter and other social media avenues are a necessity in our media driven world.
  1. Diversity is critical to the recruiting mission, and an agency must be aggressive in their hiring practices, as every agency is looking to have a police force reflective of their respective communities. Have feelers out in the community and use community members on hiring interview boards. This increases buy-in and demonstrates an agency’s commitment to the community.
  1. Streamline the hiring process. I have lost candidates because the process was too long. Candidates will often accept the first offer of employment. A matter of days can make the difference.  Thoroughness is important, but if an agency can find ways to shave off time between testing, interviews, and background checks, then an agency will lose fewer candidates.
  1. Combat the “grass is greener” effect, where officers are lured away by the perception of better benefits, increased pay, or other incentives. If an officer is leaving, conduct a frank and honest exit interview.  It might not influence that particular officer’s decision to leave, but you might glean information that assist you in the future.
  1. Have a personal relationship with the staff of your military veterans organizations, as well as the directors of law enforcement academies and deans of criminal justice programs with colleges and universities. Share your agency’s vision and characteristics, and use them as eyes and ears for potential candidates.
  1. Follow up constantly with perspective candidates. Constant attention will go a long way in establishing an agency’s credibility.

Recruiting and retaining talent is only going to get more difficult. Targeting, recruiting, hiring, and retaining sworn law enforcement officers who possess skill sets geared toward your specific agency and community demographics is paramount for providing effective service delivery and ensuring the well-being of law enforcement agencies.

 

Deputy Chief Brett Meade began his police career in 1982 with the DeLand Police Department in Florida.  He was appointed Deputy Chief of Police for the University of Central Florida Police Department in September of 2014.   Deputy Chief Meade previously served almost 25 years with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, Florida, retiring as Sector Patrol Commander. Deputy Chief Meade is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute Command Officer’s Development Course, the Florida Criminal Justice Executive Institute, Executive Future Studies Program, and the Florida Police Chief’s Association Future Law Enforcement Executive course. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia College, a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Webster University, and a Doctorate Degree in Organizational Leadership from Northcentral University.

4 Comments to "Recruiting, Selecting, and Retaining Law Enforcement Officers"

  1. Reply Kyle Oren May 23, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    This is a great list that applies not only to those recruiting, but also provides some good things to look for as someone looking for an agency. I know in the past when i was looking into security firms I looked for a lot of this, especially community. Another thing I looked for were potential advancements or training programs that could help me build my career. Great article!

  2. Reply Laurie July 13, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    I know quite a few police officers and they all love their job. They all seem to have a genuine desire to protect and serve. Great information, thanks for sharing!

  3. Reply Christopher Hoina August 1, 2017 at 8:17 am

    “The Developing Leader” course of study for LEOs is an excellent addition to what Brett has in mind.
    https://www.leicld.com/the-developing-leader/

  4. Reply Dave September 3, 2017 at 7:46 am

    While I agree with every point in this article, I however would expect a doctorate degree holder to get down into “the systemic” weeds more with some “why and what for” analysis and maybe a few pointers as to how a department might right its course when hemorrhaging talent.

    I respect your insight and experience I truly do, but I get a sense you phoned this one in, and didn’t cover anything most of us in leadership roles don’t already know.

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