6 key steps to improve police recruitment and retention

At IACP 2018, Gordon Graham shared his top tips for how police leaders can attract the right candidates who will stay the distance


As PoliceOne reported last year, if you could only attend one session at IACP’s annual conference, it should be whichever class Gordon Graham, a 33-year CHP veteran and practicing attorney, is teaching. This year at the 125th annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, his focus was on police recruitment.

Getting and keeping good people is critical to the effectiveness of all law enforcement agencies. In many regions around the United States, the law enforcement applicant pool is small and competitive, so it is no surprise police leaders list recruitment and retention as the top challenge they face today.

In his session, Graham discussed why agency recruitment and retention is not just an HR responsibility, but requires the involvement of all members of the agency.

Gordon Graham speaks to IACP 2018 attendees. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Gordon Graham speaks to IACP 2018 attendees. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Here are key steps in the police recruitment process that can help law enforcement leaders attract the right candidates.

1. Ensure every cop is a recruiter

Every time the police recruitment pool dwindles into a puddle, said Graham, there is a tendency to lower standards to try to increase the size of the pool, but there is a price to pay for that downstream. Departments should research strategies that expand recruitment without lowering hiring standards.

“You do not have to lower standards to increase the size of the applicant pool,” said Graham. “I would make everyone a recruiter. While cops are on duty, as part of their job, they need to recruit. We meet great people every day. Grandma has her house burglarized, and her 20-year-old grandson is helping her on the scene, that is a potential recruit. If everyone could find one good women or man in their career, it would help departments keep up with attrition. If you found one a month, you’d increase your applicant pool by 12 times.”

2. Select the best recruitment officer

It is no secret that departments don’t necessarily assign their brightest and best cops to serve as recruitment officers. “’You screwed up every other job in our department, we will put you in recruitment’, is not the right approach,” said Graham.

You need someone with both good communication and customer service skills who can walk candidates through what is often an overwhelmingly rigorous selection process.

Farming out the background investigation is also fraught with risk, said Graham, where investigators can be rude and aggressive, or even worse, there have been cases of investigators trying to pick up female candidates.

3. Project the right image

In this day and age, a company’s website is its recruitment calling card, and that is just as true for law enforcement as any other profession. For many new recruits, the first step on their journey to becoming a police officer starts when they visit your agency’s website.

“The kids coming on board today want to make sure they are going to make a difference,” said Graham. “Does your agency’s website reflect the primary mission of public safety – the preservation of life? Does it have information on how employees in your department are making a difference in your community?”

Your website should feature a message from the chief that explains what your LE agency is all about, as well as your vision and value statement, notes Graham.

Do you have a section on your website dedicated to praising your employees? While many agencies have a citizen complaint form front and center on their website, consider posting a personnel commendation form to show your agency focuses on the positive difference LE makes in your community.

4. Maintain communication with applicants during the recruitment process

Compared to other professions, applying to become a police officer can be a long and arduous process. If recruitment takes so long that people leave to go to another agency, what can you do to shorten the process at your agency? Can you give people a preliminary job offer to keep them around while you do the background investigation?

“Regular contact with people is essential,” said Graham. “I see some very clever departments whose recruiters keep in contact every day with people via apps on smartphones. They talk to people on a regular basis to tell them the status of their background check and tell them what is going on.”

5. Recruit where good candidates hang out

While you may find potential candidates at job fairs, the next generation of police officers can be found in many different places.

“Military bases are filled with great candidates, colleges are filled with great candidates, volunteer organizations are filled with great candidates,” notes Graham.

In addition, consider a candidate’s life experience.

“Backgrounds today are much more complex than they used to be. The new generation has had different experiences.  Many have never been in a physical confrontation so getting punched in the face is a foreign concept to them. In their mind, it might justify deadly force. Strive to hire people who know about life. A lot of people who know about life may have some criminal problems in their past. So what? Think it through. Find out the facts, not just the charge,” said Graham.

6. Recognize that recruitment drives retention

Recruitment is closely tied to retention. Once you attract the right people, you need strategies in place to keep them.

This means asking candidates, “Do you really know what you are getting into?” Folks need to understand that law enforcement is much different than what they see on TV or in the movies.

“What are you doing to build employee trust and pride in your organization?” asks Graham. “What options do personnel have in your department to advance or do something different? If employees think they are always going to be in patrol or working in the jail, they may choose to move on. Consider developing levels within positions where you can keep people, increase their pay, and keep their skills and abilities up to date.”

Final thoughts

At the close of his session, Graham had one request for attendees: “Please do not lower standards, instead, revisit the way you recruit. Revisit the hiring process, the background investigation process, the academy process, the FTO process and the evaluation process, all with the goal of getting and keeping good people.”

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