A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century

One need only turn on the nightly news to understand that law enforcement across the United States is facing some unprecedented challenges. Those challenges, including the need to rebuild community trust and law enforcement legitimacy, are confronting agencies large and small from coast to coast. There is, however, a less visible (but, perhaps, even greater) challenge facing law enforcement: recruiting new officers. The conundrum facing all of law enforcement is the need to uphold the highest standards of professionalism in an increasingly violent society while ensuring that the applicant pool is sufficient to meet the needs of the communities they serve.1 This issue has the potential to overshadow nearly all other considerations.2

A Changing Society

It’s not difficult to see that the applicant pool for law enforcement—and for all fields—has changed and continues to change. Sociologists and authors Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch observe in Managing the Millennials that those professionals who “live to work” are largely gone, having effectively been replaced by a generation of people who “work to live.”3 Recruiting techniques that stress salary, benefits, and time off have succeeded in reinforcing the goals of a generation that focuses on “what are you going to do for me?”

Another concerning sign of the changing society and applicant pool may be the fact that the stigma previously attached to prior misconduct is disappearing. The casual observer has witnessed a relaxation of standards with respect to the prior illegal possession of drugs, while other data reveal that young adults up to age 23 now have a 41 percent likelihood of having a prior criminal (non-traffic) arrest. In the case of some minority groups, that statistic can rise to as high as 60 percent.4 Recruiters, background investigators, and the law enforcement managers who actually make the hiring decisions need to take note of this inescapable fact and consider how it might affect their recruiting and employment practices.

It is no less relevant to include what might be called the “CSI factor” in this discussion. Millennials and the generation that follows them have been bombarded with Hollywood-esque fantasies about how unlimited forensic resources make it so simple to conclusively prove guilt and how fantastically armed police can spray an area with hundreds of rounds of automatic weapons fire, but never, ever, ever make a mistake (much less spend days, weeks, or months on administrative leave while their actions are investigated). And, fear not—if the case confronting local police is itself too complex, a squad of FBI agents will simply hop in a plush private jet, swoop in to solve the mystery, and leave local law enforcement with some profound philosophical observation before jetting back to Washington, D.C.

Will modern police managers and trainers be able to adapt to and effectively supervise the modern recruit, or will they be faced with answering the question, “What’s it in in for me?”

A Changing Profession

The stereotypical old beat cop of the 1950s, knew his beat and all the troublemakers’ names, and, more often than not, he dealt out justice directly as needed. Argue with him and there were likely two beatings involved: one from him and another when the miscreant got home and mistakenly told his parents what had happened. The cop of yesteryear would never have understood body cams, mobile devices, electronic control devices, body armor, an internal affairs bureau, or the American Civil Liberties Union.

California law enforcement often looks upon itself as a leader in the profession, but even its workforce continues to age. Over the past 30 years, the average age of California law enforcement officers has risen from 35.9 years to its present level of 40.8 years.5 Over the same time period, retirement eligibility ages in many places have fallen from age 60 and 55 to significantly lower levels. Even under a multitiered retirement system, age 50 is now a retirement goal for many senior and experienced officers.

Simple mathematics implies that a recruitment crisis is at hand for law enforcement, especially if the assessment that Millennials are now far less likely to stay until retirement is correct. Research as far back as 2009 suggests that only 50 percent of adult workers at the time had been at their jobs for more than five years, and adult workers will quite likely have 10 to 14 jobs by their late 30s.6 As veteran officers retire at younger ages, and younger officers move between agencies (or careers), a critical employee gap seems likely.

Changing Strategies?

Critics and supporters of law enforcement often—if unwittingly—agree on the need for increased training and a professional leadership that can guide the police officer of the future to be even more successful. But who are these better trained leaders going to lead? If there are not qualified candidates to hire, all the technological advances, increased sensitivity, cultural awareness, improved training, and strengthened leadership will be pointless.

California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) examined law enforcement employment data that reflect a nearly 6 percent decline in the number of police officers from 2008 through 2014 in the state (84,397 versus 79,812).7 Economic realities, in the form of budget cuts, certainly caused some of this decline, but the employment data indicate other challenges, as well. For instance, the number of California female police officers in 2014 is roughly the same as it was in 2006, and other minority representation has been static since 2008. Minority recruitment is still a legitimate (and often highly publicized) concern, as it would appear that minority officers, as new hires, suffered the brunt of reductions in-force during the period of economic decline.

New strategies will be essential to fill not only the recruitment gaps, but also the tremendous loss of organizational knowledge that will accompany the impending mass retirements. Few would argue that a department full of rookies at every level is what the profession needs, especially if those rookies are from a generation that craves immediate approval and recognition. What is needed is an immediate, contemporary, and relevant recruitment plan to begin addressing a critical deficit in entry-level law enforcement (and, ultimately, a plan that will strengthen succession planning).

Growing Their Own

Law enforcement agencies have experienced astronomical applicant disqualification rates in their attempts to fill existing vacancies. Failure rates during the law enforcement screening process have been reported as high as an astonishing 98.5 percent.8 Given the projections of future vacancy rates in police departments and sheriffs’ offices, sheer mathematics suggest that there may not be sufficient numbers of interested and qualified applicants to fill the positions available, especially when the field is aspiring to recruit the best of the best.

As unfilled vacancies persist, even experienced personnel may become discouraged, which may lead some to consider their retirement options at the earliest possible opportunity.

While many public safety employers have historically turned to the military as a rich source of recruitment, this resource is not without its pitfalls. The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in recently discharged veterans from conflicts in the Middle East has been conservatively estimated at between 11 percent and 20 percent.9 With the growing public concern over police use of deadly force, this mental health issue presents another challenge for the recruiters and places an added burden upon the mental health professionals retained to more carefully screen all applicants, including military veterans.

It would appear that “growing their own” may be the only realistic and productive long-term solution to recruitment needs. It has been argued that the failure of public safety agencies to intervene in the lives of young people likely means that their own personal choices may place them on an irrevocable path of ineligibility by the time they reach adulthood. The job of the modern public safety officer is more than just responding to calls for service—there is an urgent need for officers to function as recruiters, mentors, and role models, in spite of the negative press that appears almost daily in the media.

With the controversies surrounding police actions across the United States, historic applicant numbers may dwindle even more. Programs such as the Police Activities League, Boy Scouts of America’s “Learning for Life,” and college internships have existed for decades, and the occasional recruits generated by them were considered a positive outcome. There is, however, a greater urgency now, and a greater need for involvement. It is reaching the point, perhaps, of asking public safety officers to assume the role of educators and mentors, as has already been done in some programs.

Among the more exciting efforts under way is California POST’s Career Pipeline program. This program is an attempt at precisely the needed outreach to youth, began with 400 students in grades 5–8, and is designed to ultimately be expanded to begin in grammar school. It has, in many cases, used charter schools to combine the values of sportsmanship and citizenship with vocation-based learning as the “hook.” This learning extends through high school and into the early stages of post-secondary education.10

A Career Pipeline approach directly involves educators, as well as criminal justice employees. It is an ancillary program that seeks to ensure educational success as well as positive personal development for youths. Creativity, recognition, and achievement are often cited as core values of the burgeoning population of Millennials and are fundamental to a Career Pipeline. The popularity of these programs among the participants and their families suggests that it may be the key to a long-term solution.

It has been observed that “we live in exponential times.”11 While programs like California’s Career Pipeline are a positive step, the drawback shared by all of the programs described is that none represent a “quick fix.” As the 24-hour news cycle continues to publicize reasons young people might not wish to enter this career path, public safety agencies must aggressively address this human resource crisis.♦

Sid Smith has been an instructor of public safety background investigation for more than 20 years in states from Hawaii to Virginia, and he holds an MPA from California State University, Hayward. He is the former chief of police of the Belvedere, California, Police Department and the former director of village safety for Boys Town, Nebraska. Smith has served as a contract consultant on law enforcement selection standards for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. He is the author of the Public Safety Background Investigation Sourcebook, as well as articles in a variety of professional publications. Smith is a contributor to California POST’s Career Pipeline program.

1Laurie Welch, “Too Few In Blue,” Idaho Falls Post Register, April 17, 2016.
2See, for example, Michael Josephson, Assessment of the Organizational Culture and Performance of the Fresno Police Department, December 29, 2015, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2697661/FPD-Report.pdf (accessed May 18, 2016).
3Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rush, Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2010).
4Robert Brame et al., “Demographic Patterns of Cumulative Arrest Prevalence By Ages 18 and 23,” Journal of Crime and Delinquency, January 6, 2014.
5California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), “Demographics,” OpenData, https://opendata.post.ca.gov/demographics.aspx (accessed May 18, 2016).
6Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod, and Jeff Brenman, “Did You Know?” YouTube video, 4:43, posted by “traffixpider” November 19, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Yktp3x3bf0 (accessed May 18, 2016).
7California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), “Employment,” OpenData, https://opendata.post.ca.gov/employment-data.aspx (accessed May 19, 2016).
8In 2014, the California Highway Patrol reported some 36,000 applicants were screened in order to appoint 440 cadets (only one-half of those who had initially applied participated in the balance of the process). California POST Commission, OpenData.
9“PTSD: A Growing Epidemic,” NIH Medline Plus 4, no. 1 (Winter 2009), 10–14. This article also suggested that female veterans may be more prone to PTSD than their male counterparts.
10California POST Commission, Building a Public Safety Career Pipeline (2014), http://www.post.ca.gov/data/sites/1/post_docs/careerpipeline/programguideupdate-pipeline.pdf (accessed May 18, 2016).
10Fish, McLeod, and Brenman, “Did You Know?”

Please cite as

Sid Smith, “A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century,” The Police Chief 83 (June 2016): web only.