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Why quality – not quantity – matters when hiring new cops

Just like in the 1970s, the number of good candidates for law enforcement may be diminished, but the number of great candidates remains constant


Many police agencies are seeing decreasing numbers of young Americans pursuing a career in law enforcement. The smaller numbers may be a result of the post-Ferguson negative narrative or, according to police recruiter Jim Ritter, “You can get shot at for $40,000, or be home with your family for $60,000.“

If I asked Forrest Gump which is true, he would probably answer, “Perhaps both are happening at once, Lt. Dan.”

The Era of the True Sheepdog

The current situation American law enforcement finds itself in has happened before. (Photo/Pixabay)
The current situation American law enforcement finds itself in has happened before. (Photo/Pixabay)

The current situation American law enforcement finds itself in has happened before.

During the 1960s and 1970s, police officers were called “pigs” on a daily basis. College professors showed open bigotry toward cops from the front of the classroom. Officers faced violent demonstrations across the nation. Crime skyrocketed, and officers were targeted for assassination and killed in the line of duty in numbers not duplicated since.

As someone who entered law enforcement in the 1970s, I would like to provide a few words of encouragement. Although the lines of law enforcement candidates may have been shorter in those days as well, most of the police officers entering policing in the 1970s joined for the long haul. They not only aspired to make a difference, they did make a difference!

The 1970s generation welcomed diversity into their ranks, introduced community policing and still got criminals off the streets. We achieved a nationwide drop in crime and turned law enforcement into a profession. These officers didn’t look to politicians for leadership, they became leaders.

Even though the times diminished the number of good candidates available, the number of great candidates looking for police jobs remained constant.

Then and Now

Now, as back then, the line of candidates wanting to pin on a badge and strap on a duty belt is considerably shorter than a few years ago. When this happened in the 1970s, no one lowered standards. In fact, they did the opposite, and raised standards.

Having fewer people stand in line to become police officers is a good thing, because there are two types of individuals who apply to be police officers: Those who want-to-be cops and those who are born-to-be cops.

1. Want-to-be cops

These candidates have the necessary qualifications and a desire to hold the job of police officer. They are the ones who say at entry level, “How do you get to be a CSI?” and “How much time off do I get?”

Want-to-be-cops are often hired because they write a good test, have the necessary qualifications and interview well. Many even become great officers. Being a want-to-be-cop is not a bad thing.

2. Born-to-be cops

These candidates are men and women drawn to the profession. Try to talk them out of it. You can’t!

To them being a police officer is more than a job or even a career choice. To the born-to-be-cop it is truly a calling. During the hiring process, the want-to-be cops sometimes outshine the born-to-be cops. Some decision makers pass over the born-to-be cops because their passion and enthusiasm can be off-putting to those who have lost it.

The Degree Dilemma

Agencies that require candidates to have four-year degrees miss out on the born-to-be cops in two-year programs. Accepting applications from candidates with two-year degrees in criminal justice shouldn’t be seen as lowering standards, but instead, widens the search for qualified candidates. There are many born-to-be cops in two-year programs.

As a trainer for technical colleges for 40 years I have seen the passion, professionalism, unbroken spirit and untapped potential of students in two-year degree programs. These candidates come to you with 24 months of education and training specifically designed to prepare them to climb into squad cars with prerequisite skills. Most technical colleges also offer an academy after their students graduate, making them supremely qualified to step right into a field training program and thrive.

The bottom line is you can find born-to-be cops in both two-year and four-year degree programs.

Why Fewer Candidates for Police Jobs is Good News

During these tough times, many want-to-be cops are deterred from choosing law enforcement as a career. However, today’s challenges do not deter born-to-be cops. You see they are hardwired to protect the flock. (HR folks would call this an aptitude.) To them, the more endangered the flock, the more they are drawn to the task. Born-to-be cops are easier to identify when not camouflaged among so many want-to-be-cops.

Just like in the 1970s, the number of good candidates for law enforcement may be diminished, but the number of great candidates remains constant. Identify them, hire them and watch them become the next generation of honorable modern knights. These times may not inspire a great quantity of candidates, but they will bring forth candidates of great quality.

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