by Jon LeSage
With so many baby boomers retiring at once, police hiring is going through a period of transition.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the country are facing a major challenge in the recruitment of qualified peace officers. The baby boomer generation—many of them hired after service in Vietnam—is in the midst of retirement planning. Younger people are more skeptical about police work because of negative publicity and the allure of a rebounding economy with job offers from the private sector.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes police officers on its listing of jobs dominated by workers over the age of 45. While workers in other industries are considering staying on the job past retirement age, police officers typically wait until their optimal point of pension benefits and go into retirement as soon as they possibly can.
Naber Technical Enterprises, an Auburn, Calif.-based law enforcement consulting firm, has conducted a nationwide study of police agencies’ hiring programs. The study found that departments across the country are facing a shortage of peace officers. Naber says that the officer shortage is caused by a decrease in the number of applicants combined with the lengthy and expensive applicant screening process. Normal attrition occurs and it becomes more difficult to fill the need for officers, usually resulting in current officers working more overtime. Most police departments are going through budget cutbacks, meaning that funds are tighter for recruitment and hiring.
Police departments face a lot of competition in getting the word out to qualified candidates—from other departments, from fire departments and homeland security jobs, and from the private sector, which offers better pay and offers a quick hiring process. Police departments have to find candidates with fairly clean backgrounds, appropriate skills, and the desire to work in a stressful job that is coming under increasing public scrutiny. Plus they must be willing to undergo a lengthy and sometimes grueling hiring process.
Sgt. Matt Murray, supervisor of the recruiting unit for the Denver Police Department, is concerned about the “brain drain” that retirement is creating for his agency. Retiring officers take with them years of experience and expertise. This puts more pressure on officers approaching retirement age—some of whom will decide it’s not worth staying on much longer.
The Denver PD currently employs about 1,440 sworn officers. According to Murray, 300 retirements are anticipated during the next two years. The agency will sponsor four academy classes this year with the hope that 45 recruits will graduate from each class. In the past, it was normal for Denver to sponsor only one to two academy classes per year. Denver is also actively recruiting lateral transfers to fill some of the gap.
Murray and his team of recruitment officers are trying out non-traditional methods to reach qualified applicants. “We’re trying to tap into people who don’t usually apply,” Murray says.
Setting up at shopping malls is one technique that’s produced results. Officers invite interested parties to compete in physical fitness exercises that are used to test candidates in the hiring process. “We offer them a challenge,” Murray says. “Can you compete in a physical fitness test with cops?” This also serves to break down their fears about the physical requirements of being a police officer.
The department has produced a recruitment video featuring minority police officers talking about their careers, which plays on electronic kiosks in high-traffic malls and college campuses. Another effective technique has been networking with universities and community colleges to allow Denver PD officers to teach class sessions.
“We’re trying to catch people earlier and break down the barriers,” Murray says. “We’re going through a period of transition in police recruitment. We’re looking for different kinds of people these days with diverse backgrounds, a higher education level, and the right kind of mentality. We’ll come out better in the long run, but the transition isn’t easy.”
Murray cites the example of personally recruiting a female social worker with juvenile program experience. The woman at first didn’t think she would make a good police officer, but Murray convinced her otherwise.
“We really have to sell candidates on duty, ethics, and service,” Murray says. “The military does a good job of selling this image. We have to find the right people. Money can’t be their main concern.”
Movie Theater Trailers
The Los Angeles Police Department understands the difficulty of overcoming negative publicity and presenting a positive image of the department. No other police department has gone through such intense public scrutiny during the past 15 years.
The department hired public relations and advertising firm Weber Shandwick, which produced the famous “Got Milk?” commercials. Weber Shandwick conducted surveys and helped the LAPD create a brand image that it now displays on its Websites and printed materials. All of the LAPD materials now have a consistent look and image, says Officer Chris Porter of the department’s recruitment unit.
Weber Shandwick recommended that the department create a series of movie theater trailers to reach young people in the five counties surrounding the agency.
The first installment of the trailers is currently being shown in area movie theaters, featuring a team of two officers—a male and female—carrying out their daily duties. This plays out against the back-story of a little girl being abducted and a search operation being conducted by the LAPD.
The spot is visually dynamic and gripping, designed to reach young people raised on videos and action movies. You can also watch the trailer (also called a vignette) on the LAPD recruitment Website (www.joinlapd.com), which also features images of individual officers and themes showcasing the department’s philosophies and values.
The LAPD is going through a large recruiting push right now, Porter says. LAPD wants to hire another 300 officers by the end of July to cover attrition plus some small gain in the total number of sworn officers (which is currently at about 9,140 officers).
Besides the movie theater spots, the department is employing traditional methods of recruitment: Internet, print advertisements, and attending job fairs and college career days. One effective method is offering current officers $500 for recruiting a candidate who makes it through the academy.
Potential candidates don’t often bring up the negative publicity and image of the LAPD at these events, Porter says. “The LAPD is very well known, which is a benefit,” he says. “The problem is that people want to be investigators and detectives right away and don’t want to work patrol. This might have something to do with the TV show ‘CSI.’ We have to give them a reality check: Every local agency requires patrol duty. I tell them they have to walk before they can run, and that patrol duty makes you a much better detective.”
More than any negative image, prospects do bring up the danger factor of patrolling a city like Los Angeles. “I’m not a used car salesman,” Porter says. “I tell them that there are risks involved in the job. You have to decide if the risk is worth it to you.”
Creating a Supportive Environment
Lt. Gail Kavanagh is responsible for recruiting, hiring, and backgrounding all police employees for the Phoenix Police Department. Kavanagh believes that effective recruiting begins with the very first contact a candidate has with the department and continues through each phase of the hiring process, especially the background investigation. “Candidates will choose one agency over another by the way they’re treated,” Kavanagh says. “This is much more important than the pay and benefits being offered.”
Kavanagh speaks to candidates during the written exam, offering an orientation and explanation of the hiring process. Recruitment officers also are available to answer questions.
The recruitment team offers support to candidates who are struggling with different parts of the hiring process. For example, the department offers a pre-academy physical fitness-training program that includes running, weight training, and calisthenics. Candidates are encouraged to participate, which helps build camaraderie that continues into their academy classes.
The background investigation is a sensitive and critical part of the hiring process. Phoenix PD tries to make the process as supportive as possible. “The background investigator really tries to establish rapport with them,” Kavanagh says. “The candidate is revealing very intimate information during the process. They can build a bond with the investigator.” Phoenix currently has 10 background investigators on staff, with each of them handling 10 to 20 open files.
Phoenix PD is not facing a recruitment crisis, Kavanagh says, but must keep the recruitment process moving along to avoid an anticipated future shortage of officers. The department currently has about 2,960 officers, but expects to see a drop in that number due to a deferred retirement program instituted a few years ago. For officers in the program, there are financial disincentives for staying beyond five years from the time they signed up for the program, she says. This means that the need for new officers will grow during the next one to two years.
Times Have Changed
Although not facing a hiring crisis, the Miami-Dade Police Department is undergoing a continuous recruitment process to avoid future shortages, says Sgt. Bernard Johnson of the department’s recruitment and selection office. The Miami-Dade PD currently has about 1,030 sworn officers.
“We used to offer one written exam every other year and would receive about 2,000 applications,” Johnson says. “Now we offer three exams a year and try to recruit about 500 applicants. It’s helping us get a better pool of candidates.”
Miami-Dade PD is active in all the standard recruitment and publicity methods, including job fairs, print advertisements, and Internet. The agency also benefits from getting the word out through its neighborhood resource officers and utilizing programs for police explorers, ride-along assignments, volunteers, and internships for college students. Johnson says that the department tries to focus more on one-on-one recruiting efforts than mass media.
Johnson addressed an issue that also came up with the other departments interviewed for this article: screening applicants and conducting background checks is a bit more complex than it might have been 25 years ago, even 10 years ago. Police departments used to cut candidates out of the hiring process automatically for certain issues. Today things are not as clearly demarcated.
“It used to be cut and dried,” Johnson says. “Now we have to look at the totality of what someone’s done with their life, and how long ago certain events happened.”
Today, candidates are more likely to have experimented with illegal drugs or have had financial and marital or relationship problems than they might have in years past. Police departments have to face this reality, while also maintaining certain standards that must be upheld due to the nature of police work.
“Society has changed in the past few years,” Johnson says. “We have to be flexible in some areas, and rigid in others.”
Jon LeSage is a freelance writer based in Southern California.