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The San Diego Police Department recruits passionate public servants. Here's how.

An in-depth look at one PD's journey to find a new class of officers ready to serve the communities of San Diego


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Content provided by GovX

By Brent Hannify for PoliceOne BrandFocus

In 2017, nearly 8,000 people submitted applications to join the San Diego Police Department. Only 131 made it into the academy. They were athletes, ex-military, and a few college students. Most came from San Diego and its surrounding counties, but others traveled from across the country to join the force.

With 8,000 applications and less than 150 spots, it can be challenging for PDs to find who's out there to truly serve their community. (image/GovX)
With 8,000 applications and less than 150 spots, it can be challenging for PDs to find who's out there to truly serve their community. (image/GovX)

But Sergeant Esmerelda Tagaban and Detective Sergeant Jonathan Lowe bristle at the word "force" to describe the police department for which they both recruit officers. As they see it, a police department is not so much a force as it is a service community. Lowe and Tagaban—"Tag" as her fellow officers call her—both emphasize that police work is more about customer service than it is about exerting authority or power.

Every three months, a new class enters the academy, and the job before Tag and Lowe is to prepare the students mentally and physically for the responsibility of wearing the badge. We had the chance to sit down with them to learn about the rigors and challenges of building a new academy class.

What qualities or traits do you look for in new recruits?

Lowe: When we respond to calls, we're often dealing with people on the worst day of their lives. Officers have to be sensitive to that, so the best recruits are those who are not only good at talking to people but listening to them as well.

So, you know who often make the best recruits? Believe it or not, it's the Starbucks barista. It's a Costco cashier, or it's a restaurant server. We're serious when we describe police work as customer service. When we go out into the community, the citizens we serve are our customers, so people trained in this tend to be incredible officers.

Have you ever been a customer and dealt with an unfriendly employee? Your first instinct about them is probably right—they just don't care about you, or they're too stressed out to care. The people who make the best officers are the ones who care, always, and every day, no matter how tough the job gets.

Sergeant Esmerelda Tagaban and Detective Sergeant Jonathan Lowe are always on the lookout for passionate police recruits. (image/GovX)
Sergeant Esmerelda Tagaban and Detective Sergeant Jonathan Lowe are always on the lookout for passionate police recruits. (image/GovX)

How do you confront the negative associations some people have about police work? How do you address the dangers of the job and the tendency of many citizens to distrust police officers?

Tag: From the start, we tell recruits that they will be well trained in every skill that's vital to an officer's job. In the academy alone, you will receive 928 hours of training time. Then there's in-service training, including crisis response training. And then, once you leave the academy, there are four months of riding with a training officer.

We make sure that every officer gets the proper time before the job to ensure they're able to deal with the worst possible scenarios. From fitness to actual physical confrontations, we make sure recruits experience everything. We want recruits to know what it's like to get hit, kicked, and assaulted. And we have a number of officers who have been personally involved in shootings visit with graduates. Everything is covered.

And as far as distrust of police officers goes, we tell them that the more active you are at listening to people you serve, the more likely you are to be respected. Being able to relate to people and be observant to their needs will go a long way in building trust in the communities we serve. For years, San Diego has been at the forefront of Community Policing. We've been a model to other agencies not just around the state, but around the country. When was the last time you saw a riot or a protest against the police in San Diego? We have the kind of relationships with our communities that many other agencies wish they had.

Is it getting harder to find recruits? What challenges do you face finding people?

Lowe: The average age in the academy is 27. That means the people who join may not be prepared for the expectations of the academy. Take physical fitness for example. In public schools these days, physical fitness isn't emphasized, so by the time someone makes it to the academy, they're stunned at the level of training we expect out of them.

We also see how technology changes people's lives. As a police officer, you need to write reports, and those reports need to be written well with good grammar and free of spelling errors. These days, younger generations don't write as well as the older ones because texting and technology basically do all your writing for you.

But these are obstacles that can be overcome with practice and training. What we continue to see in today's recruits is a willingness to learn and a passion to do something meaningful, and in that sense, the recruits we train today aren't any different than ones from generations ago.

A look at one class of police recruits eager to protect the communities they serve. (image/GovX)
A look at one class of police recruits eager to protect the communities they serve. (image/GovX)

Who makes it as officers? Who doesn't? What instincts do you have when looking at a new Academy class?

Tag: There are people you think won't make it who ultimately become some of the finest officers on the team. Then there are people you think will become police rock stars who put their badge on the desk after their first day. You can give a recruit all the training in the world, and still be surprised by how things turn out.

There was one recruit who looked like the model recruit. He had a master's degree, he was physically fit, well-spoken, and enormously capable. Then one day, out of nowhere, he cheated on a test. We had to dismiss him, and it was a big shame. But integrity matters more than any skill we can teach you.

And despite all the training, you still get officers who quit, sometimes on their very first day on the job. I've heard "It wasn't what I expected," from officers whom I sincerely wanted to see succeed. One time, one of my star students witnessed the aftermath of a police shooting and quit right then and there. It broke my heart.

But then there are others who surprise you in the other direction. I've seen officers lose themselves emotionally, nearly quit, then come back stronger than ever.

We're not expecting people to be perfect. No one is perfect. But we want you to be honest with yourself before choosing this career. When I look for recruits, I give them the hard facts about the pay, the benefits, and the offers. Then I tell them that in this job, you'll get a car with a full tank of gas, and you will go out and help people. You will have busy days, and you will have days when you respond to just a single incident. But at the end of every shift, you will be able to go home feeling satisfied. Not everyone can say that about their job. But here, I believe that you can.

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