Regardless of the size of the agency, staffing is key to effective policing, agency productivity, and positive police-community relations. Challenges typically emerge when recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion activities are out of alignment with the strategic plan. It is vital that agencies recruit and hire personnel who reflect the community’s diversity; retain personnel by providing incentive structures, mentorship, and transparency; and provide clear, merit-based, and objective pathways to transfer or promotions. These factors are particularly important for small agencies where a single hire could have an immediate impact on the culture of the agency and reputation in the community.
Challenges and Barriers
Agency leadership has a responsibility to hire personnel who are qualified for the position and reflect the community’s diversity. The process should be valid and fair and comply with all applicable laws and guidelines. Recruiting is especially key as many agencies are experiencing high number of retirements and resignations. Competition is increasing among agencies because the number of people entering the profession is decreasing. Participants at a COPS Office forum said the most significant barrier to recruitment is the community’s changing image of law enforcement.1
Barriers exist throughout the hiring process that hinder the selection of talented personnel. Many of the traditional selection practices used to screen applicants have an unwarranted disproportionate impact on underrepresented populations.2 Some deterrents include the following:
- Length, complexity, and costs of the application process
- Reliance on inadequately tailored examinations as part of the screening process
- Reliance on additional selection criteria and screening processes that disproportionately impact individuals from underrepresented communities
- Background checks that rule out candidates otherwise qualified for the profession on the basis of credit history or minor, usually drug-related, offenses
- Personnel requirements such as residency, age, and experience
- The length of time it takes to qualify or train for the profession
- Outdated physical requirements3
Changing cultural norms have caused law enforcement agencies to revisit traditional selection and hiring criteria. For example, many have relaxed their policies on tattoos and prior drug use to prevent the unnecessary exclusion of talented job candidates, while some agencies use a case-by-case assessment.4 Experts have pointed out that entry-level testing should identify only knowledge, skills, and abilities that will allow a person to become a successful officer after appropriate training.
The following promising practices come from the COPS Office Law Enforcement Best Practices report:5
- Develop a comprehensive recruitment program based on a written recruitment strategy that is developed by a working group of command staff and rank-and-file officers. The working group should examine barriers to recruitment and identify the values and characteristics of the ideal candidate; available data should be used as available.
- Deploy personnel based upon workload and service goals, which can be conducted by internal staff or partnering with external staffing experts.
- Get creative and expand recruiting horizons by leveraging partnerships with external human resource officers, elected officials, and other agencies. Engaging community, using mainstream media and social media, and if possible, using agency’s website to tell the agency story, market opportunities, and report on activities and outcomes. Get creative by folding recruitment efforts into youth engagement and other community policing activities. Broaden the applicant pool by reaching out to high schools, community colleges, universities, and other job fairs. Activate community ambassadors to help with recruitment.
A good example of promising practice #3 is highlighted in a COPS Office publication.
The Northern Cheyenne tribe’s police department is a BIA direct-service agency; its officers are federal employees dedicated to serving the tribe through an MOU. The tribe and the police department place a priority on hiring Native officers who tend to be hindered by the lengthy application and hiring process. In response to this, the tribal council’s vice president personally helped several Native candidates go through the application materials to ensure they understood what was required. He provided ongoing encouragement throughout the process.*
* International Association of Chiefs of Police, Promising Practices in Tribal Community Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2016), https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/ric.php?page=detail&id=COPS-P359.
- Streamline and enhance the internal recruiting process by delegating an individual to lead the recruiting efforts but still engage the entire agency in raising awareness and supporting the recruitment efforts. The individual should exemplify the traits an agency is looking to recruit.
- Get proactive with recruiting methods, including maintaining regular communication with applicants and mentoring candidates. Applicants should be introduced to all ranks and levels of responsibility in the agency through open houses, ride-alongs, and other avenues to interact with personnel.
- Establish fair and flexible hiring criteria that allow an agency to stay current with societal trends, and leadership the ability to consider mitigating factors that might explain an applicants’ disqualifier. These processes should be monitored closely to ensure that decisions are consistent and fair.
- Bring job descriptions and application management into the digital age by using online platforms such as LinkedIn and DiscoverPolicing to increase the pool of eligible applicants.
DiscoverPolicing.org is a comprehensive resource on law enforcement jobs with a full-featured career center where candidates can post resumes and hiring managers can post vacancies. In addition, agencies can use DiscoverPolicing.org to post jobs and search resumes as well as to highlight their own employees. The website is provided through a joint partnership between the IACP and DOJ.
- Assure validity of—and periodically audit—all testing instruments including written examinations, physical assessments, sample job tasks, oral interviews, criminal background checks, credit checks, background investigations, and the command staff final interview, as well as medical, polygraph, and psychological examinations.6 Partnering with colleges, universities, or other industry professionals may be a good way to approach test validation.
- Engage the community and demonstrate the fairness of the process by inviting community members to participate in oral board interviews and maintain transparency where appropriate.
- Consider outsourcing the testing process to a third-party vendor who can conduct written and physical agility testing, while also addressing regular validation of testing instruments. A vendor may help an agency reach more applicants, while decreasing personnel costs.
The COPS Office Law Enforcement Best Practices report provides helpful tools and further details on the discussed practices as well as other relevant policing topics.7
Recruitment costs should be considered long-term investments to meet agency and community expectations. The cost of a single employee choosing to leave an agency not only results in recurring hiring, training, and equipment costs but also can cause immediate budget shortfalls through unexpected overtime costs to maintain minimal shift coverage.8 Throughout the hiring process, be honest about the activity level and expectations, stress the diversified workload that is seen in smaller agencies, and even focus in on the closer community engagements.
In the end, your agency may not be able to tackle every single promising practice, but by being intentional in creating your recruitment and hiring processes, you can address any barriers; recruit and hire talented, highly qualified personnel; and better serve your community.
If your agency is looking for assistance in implementing any of the practices discussed here or any other topic, see the COPS Office Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRI-TAC) for free technical assistance and training to state, local, campus, and tribal law enforcement agencies. For more information, please visit CollaborativeReform.org.
Nazmia E.A. Comrie
Senior Program Specialist, COPS Office
Recent COPS Office Resources
Hiring for the 21st Century Law Enforcement Officer: Challenges, Opportunities, and Strategies for Success
Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field
Law Enforcement Recruitment in the 21st Century: Forum Proceedings
Mitakuye Oyasin video
Promising Practices in Tribal Community Policing
1. James E. Copple, Law Enforcement Recruitment in the 21st Century: Forum Proceedings (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2017), https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/ric.php?page=detail&id=COPS-W0830.
2. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2019), https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/ric.php?page=detail&id=COPS-W0875.
3. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).
4. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).
5. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).
6. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).
7. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).
8. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Best Practices (see note 2).