Overcoming obstacles to rural recruiting

You’re not competing with Piggly Wiggly or Burger King for applicants – you’re competing with every LE agency within reasonable commuting distance


In recent years, the number of law enforcement officers in the nation has increased so slowly that the actual ratio of officers to residents has fallen, as population growth outstrips police hiring. In rural areas, the ratio can be even lower than the national average. Filling the gap isn’t going to be simple. One recent study finds that 63% of responding agencies report a decline in applicants compared to five years ago, some by as much as 70%.

If you’re going to fix the problem of police recruitment, you've got to identify the obstacles to effective recruiting and address them with every weapon you can bring to bear. The life of your department, and the safety of your community, depend upon it.

Here are four recruitment obstacles rural agencies must overcome:

To fix the problem of police recruitment, you've got to identify the obstacles to effective recruiting. (Photo/PoliceOne)
To fix the problem of police recruitment, you've got to identify the obstacles to effective recruiting. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Obstacle 1: A bad advertising campaign

Let’s start with the easiest fix: bad ads.

When you’re shopping, what do you want from ads you read? Price. Location. Information about the product, and why you should buy this product, from that vendor, right now.

Make sure those things are in your ads. Place pay, benefits and application closing date right at the top of any advertising materials. Don’t make readers hunt for basic information.

Add a link to your HR department, with detailed information about the job description and requirements, along with contacts so police applicants can find a human being to answer questions.

A common mistake small agencies make when recruiting is thinking small with ad placement. You can run an ad in your local weekly, but also post your well-crafted job listing on social media, and monitor the post for activity.

Social media is visual; use photos and video so your post doesn’t disappear in a reader’s feed. Refresh and re-post at least weekly until apps close. Decades of research indicate that multiple exposures to advertising are required to get readers engaged, so don't approach this as a one-and-done event.

Use scheduling tools to set up the reposts all at once; it saves time and keeps things from falling through the cracks when you get busy.

Post the opening on your agency, city or county website, and ask HR to keep you informed when there are inquiries. Reaching out personally to chat with prospective applicants may make all the difference in their decision.

Be generous with your email address and work phone number.

Take advantage of professional publications and websites; many have low- or no-cost job listings that can exponentially increase the reach of your announcement. Job searchers look online first now. Make sure they see your job opening when they do.

Obstacle 2: A non-competitive benefits package

A basic sales principle dictates that, if the answer is a constant “NO” but your product is sound, then your pricing is wrong. Pricing, in this case, is your compensation package. 

Rural agencies are notoriously afflicted with funding shortfalls and small tax bases, and that makes competitive pay and benefits complicated. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away, but some imagination and determination can mitigate it.

Figure out what it costs to keep hiring and training and hiring and training again. It’s way more than you think: estimates run about $100,000 per officer, with the average agency requiring years to recoup that output.

Then, when you approach decision-makers to tell them what’s happening is simply not sustainable, come armed with the numbers to make your point. Rather than begging them to spend more, demonstrate how a competitive benefits package appropriate to your area effectively saves your city or county money in the long run.

Understand that you’re not competing with Piggly Wiggly or Burger King for applicants – you’re competing with every law enforcement agency within reasonable commuting distance. If you live in a state where academy grads are certified at the state level, then you’re actually competing with every other agency in the state for the same pool of applicants.

Doing what has always been done is what generated the current crisis, so do something different instead. Start by finding others who have been successful, and tailoring their tactics to your situation.

Take Nyssa, Oregon, for example, a farming town of 3,000 residents on the Idaho border. The town struggled for years, churning over police chiefs and failing to attract qualified applicants to fill openings. When Chief Ray Rau was hired, the fourth chief in five years, he put in the hard, innovative work to make lasting change.

"Our pay was low, and our benefits package was horrible," Chief Rau said. “I eliminated one of three vacant positions and worked the shift myself for over two years to allow for over a $1,000 a month pay increase for my team, along with paying 100% of their benefits. (Now) our package is comparable to anyone in the area, but the quality of life and support of our community puts it over the top."

Obstacle 3: A negative reputation

Negative stereotypes of rural law enforcement agencies may be shallow, but they’re pervasive. Push back with modern training, up-to-date policies, and POST-compliant hiring standards and procedures.

“I had the team provide me five things they would like to see changed, and three things they had done the past six months to make it a better place to work,” said Chief Rau. “We implemented a lot of their ideas, which immediately established ownership in how we operated and served within our community. Once your agency develops a reputation as one that’s a good place to work and everyone is held to the same expectation you model, you will retain the good officers and you will have your choice of applicants for future openings.”

Establish and publicize your standing as police professionals, regardless of the size or location of your agency.

Your agency is your business. In any business, word of mouth is the gold standard, and current officers are the best possible recruiters. What do they think of where they work?

If they love it, they’ll tell their friends, their friends’ kids, and the guy they met who just got out of the military, or finished college. That’s exactly what you need.

Obstacle 4: A lack of communication

If applicants don’t know about your agency, who you are and what you do, they’re not going to apply.

If they apply, but you don’t follow up, they will lose interest and go elsewhere. It’s that simple.

Answer emails. Return phone calls. Use social media. Be consistent. It’s free, and it will make a difference.

Reach out to applicants during the hiring process, especially if there are gaps and lag time during time-consuming parts like background investigations.

Dead air is discouraging for job seekers. If you don’t want the police department in the next town over to poach your recruits, keep in touch.

Visit schools and colleges; participate in job fairs. Be present, and be available.

Accept interview requests with local print and broadcast media. Your agency needs a face, and a voice; let reporters help you with that.

Be realistic about what your agency does and doesn’t do. Don’t go to the expense of a slick action video for your ads if that doesn’t reflect your agency’s activity or expectations. It’s okay to do more livestock wrangling than SWAT ops. Just be clear about it.

Don’t get mired down in what can’t be changed. Do spend time brainstorming what can be done.

Additional police recruiting tips

If applicants in your state can’t self-sponsor through the police academy, seek out financial aid through grants or business/community partnerships.

If you’re targeting laterals because you can’t send new hires through the academy, a hiring bonus, or relocation help may tip the balance in your favor without incurring ongoing financial obligations.

Can outdated policies be changed to broaden your applicant pool? If your region has a tradition of military service but your agency prohibits tattoos, potential applicants are being excluded. It’s easy to set limits on offensive and inappropriate ink without ruling it all out. Same with facial hair: it wasn’t long ago that a full beard was standard grooming, so consider whether a neat Van Dyke is really the hill you want your staffing to die on.

Is your application process too long, discouraging applicants or driving them to other agencies? If so, find that hang up, and streamline it.

Residency requirements can be counterproductive. If the applicant can arrive at work on time, they’ve fulfilled their obligation.

Consider nontraditional applicants: applicants who are older than your usual “new” officers, applicants making a career change, or applicants with education other than in criminal justice. If they’re willing to look at your agency, be willing to take a look at them.

Finally, own the idea that your smaller agency may be a “training ground” for other, bigger agencies, instead of fighting it. One problem at a time: concentrate on getting quality applicants through your door, and providing excellence in training and experience once they’re there. Word will get around. And then you’re on your way past recruiting obstacles, ready to build on that success.

NBC News report details rural recruitment issues

The lack of staff plagues rural police and sheriff departments in Iowa as the national trend of police shortages continues to rise. 

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