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Realistic Job Previews: Reworking Your Recruitment Messaging and Strategies to Reach Today’s Candidates

Kamran Afzal, Captain, Commander, Human Resource Management Section, Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department; Jason Keckler, Lieutenant, Patrol Operations Commander, Frederick, Maryland, Police Department; and IACP Discover Policing Staff

Recruitment is an ongoing challenge for police agencies. Even during tough economic times when many employers are flush with applicants, the quality of law enforcement candidates continues to be a concern. In addition to failed background checks and poor fitness, applicants frequently drop out of the process because they lack a well-formed understanding of what the job truly entails. Training law enforcement officers is time and resource intensive, so ineffective recruitment resulting in candidates who fail or drop out can be costly. Quality recruitment is important in all professions, but its importance is amplified in the police profession where tomorrow’s command staff is nearly always drawn from today’s new recruit class.

Worcester, Massachusetts, Police Department:
YouTube Videos Offer a Realistic View of Police Work

The Worcester Police Department (WPD), located in Central Massachusetts, launched its Facebook, YouTube, and Nixle pages in January 2012, with the goal of transparency and community engagement. Police Chief Gary Gemme said, “Social media is not only the future, but the present. Communicating directly with the public and providing current information through innovative platforms is critical to maintaining trust.”

The department and community took to the new platforms quickly. By January of 2014, WPD had more than 17,400 “likes” on Facebook and 9,000 followers on Twitter. It recently ranked third in the United States in the number of Facebook “likes” for a law enforcement agency with 250–499 officers according to an October 2013 ranking by the IACP Center for Social Media.

The department’s media specialist, Kathleen Daly, is a former Worcester news reporter and used those experiences to make WPD’s social media content more useful and accessible to both the media and the public. One of her new strategies
was to increase the use of videos about department events, which she films and edits herself. Starting in October 2012, Ms. Daly chronicled an entire 25-week session of the Worcester Police Academy through a series of three- to four-minute videos that were posted to the WPD YouTube page (

Chief Gemme said, “Filming the Worcester Police Academy in a series allowed us to provide the public with a unique insight into police training that words alone can’t convey. The visual project was an accurate reflection of the rigorous and intense training that recruits go through to become police officers.”

The videos provide a realistic portrayal of the full range of the academy training process from the challenges of physical trainings and academic work to the excitement of applied patrol procedure exercises to the unique camaraderie that forms between academy classmates. By being provided with this thorough overview of the training process, the public can better understand the police, and potential recruits can determine if they would be a good fit for police work.

Beyond the practical application of the job, the series gives the department a human face. The videos feature WPD officers who lead the training exercises sharing in their own words what activities are taking place and why they are important for the recruits and community they will serve. The videos also feature interviews with individual recruits who share candid feelings about their experiences in each phase of the academy, allowing viewers to make a unique personal connection with the incoming officers.

Since its original posting, the video series has received more than 72,000 hits on YouTube. The videos are now used by the WPD and surrounding departments in presentations to potential new recruits.

Stay in touch with WPD via Twitter @WorcesterPD or on Facebook at
A significant contributor to the challenge of reaching qualified candidates is the persistence of a narrow and misleading public perception of what police work entails. The public’s concept of police work is often formed from popular culture and the media, which frequently portray law enforcement in an inaccurate or negative light. The pop culture image, and even traditional police recruitment messaging, tends to focus on the adventurous aspects of policing, singling out action-oriented parts of the job like breaking down doors and chasing criminals. This enforcement-focused messaging makes it easy for the public and potential applicants to lose sight of the community- and service-oriented components that form the core of police work.

In response to these recruitment challenges, the IACP, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, launched, a dynamic online career information clearinghouse and job board to support law enforcement career exploration and police recruitment efforts nationwide. The goal of the project is to offer clear and accurate information on law enforcement and law enforcement careers and to broaden and diversify the pool of potential applicants. Discover Policing offers an interactive Career Center through which agencies can post openings and search for candidate resumés; it also provides a variety of promotional and educational resources for recruiters, job candidates, and educators. In 2010, Discover Policing partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to develop new tools to help agencies better reach service-minded candidates who might not have otherwise considered a career in policing.

In November 2013, the Discover Policing project team brought together a group of law enforcement recruitment subject matter experts from small, midsize, and large agencies in Virginia and Maryland for an in-depth discussion about the challenges and misconceptions today’s recruiters face; how state and local agencies are meeting these challenges; and what national resources can support state and local recruiters.

Some of most common challenges recruiters experienced include

  • Competition—Law enforcement agencies are seeing a smaller pool of qualified applicants, which intensifies competition with neighboring jurisdictions. Differences in agency size, advancement opportunities, and employee benefits can make it challenging to compete for the best candidates. Likewise, law enforcement is competing against other industries that may offer better pay or more traditional hours. Additionally, the lengthy hiring process for law enforcement jobs can lead to losing candidates to other jobs mid-way through the process.
  • Degree Program Misconceptions—Over the past decades, the availability of criminal justice degree programs has rapidly expanded, changing the landscape of police recruitment. While degree programs have raised the professionalism of the field and prepared many new law enforcement candidates for the job, they have also created some new misconceptions. Agencies see a perception among prospective candidates that only criminal justice students are eligible to apply for police jobs when, in actuality, students from many other disciplines are encouraged to apply, and, for some agencies, a degree is not required at all. Recruiters also noted a belief among candidates that a criminal justice degree alone qualifies one for a policing job, disregarding the importance of some of the other qualifiers for the job.
  • Promises and Pitfalls of Technology—Technology has advanced greatly in the past five years, affecting the operations of many professions, including policing. Demand for people with technology skills is also increasing. Unfortunately, many of those people turn to more well-known technological jobs, not realizing the opportunities that law enforcement offers. While technology has made many aspects of police work easier, recruiters also reported a downside. Millennials grew up with social media and other communication-based technologies such as email, online messaging, and text messaging, making it more difficult for recruiters to find and hire young people with the interpersonal communication skills required for police work.
  • Diversity—All of the recruiters stressed the importance of having a police force that represents the makeup of its community, yet there is a noticeable lack of minority and female applicants. Recruiters noted the challenges of overcoming cultural differences and misconceptions about police when trying to recruit individuals from immigrant and minority communities.
  • Misunderstanding of Job Requirements and Advancement Potential—Some recruiters noted that candidates do not comprehend the full expanse of opportunities available to law enforcement officers once they are eligible to move up to specialized positions. A perception shift is needed to help people see that law enforcement is not just a job; it is a career and a way of life.

With these issues in mind, recruiters shared their ideas on how these challenges and misconceptions can be turned around to reach potential candidates in a way that maximizes the positive aspects while still offering a realistic portrayal of the job.

Promising Practices: Case Studies in How Local Agencies Are Changing Strategies to Reach Today’s Officers

Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department

Arlington County, Virginia, is a municipality of approximately 26 square miles located across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. The county has a population of approximately 210,000 people, and it is both a residential community and a major employment center. The Arlington County Police Department has been in existence since 1940 and has a staff of 358 sworn personnel. Arlington County Police Department is surrounded by police departments that are much larger in size and scope such as Washington Metropolitan, Fairfax County, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, and federal agencies.

Speeding Up the Recruitment Process

Arlington County Police Department recruits police officer candidates from the same pool as the much larger agencies that have better name recognition. To compete in the market against better known agencies, Arlington County has successfully implemented methodology to speed up the recruiting process to hire the most qualified candidates faster than the competition. The process is as follows:

  • Testing is offered every month to allow candidates frequent opportunities to begin the process.
  • An initial 10-minute interview is used to pre-screen applicants. All applicants schedule the entrance exam through the county’s Human Resources Department (HR). They complete a generic county application and are required to answer questions to see if they meet the basic qualifications. If eligible, the applicant completes a detailed application on the police department’s website and schedules his or her entrance exam. On the day of the test, applicants are interviewed by detectives prior to taking the entrance exam for police officer. The interview consists of verifying the information on the application, including questions about potential indiscretions that they might have committed. This allows the detectives to gauge the applicant’s honesty and suitability for employment. Previously, there was a standard 60–90-day turnaround requirement for the detectives to advise the candidates of their status; however, with the 10-minute interview, potentially good or great candidates are identified at the onset, and if they pass the entrance exam, they can be fast tracked. The initial interview also allows candidates that do not meet basic requirements to be identified and disqualified earlier in the process.
  • Panel interviews are scheduled each month on a Saturday with the goal of interviewing 20 potential candidates who passed the entrance exam. The interviews are usually scheduled two weeks after the entrance exam, giving recruiters the ability to invite candidates to the next step within a couple of weeks of taking the exam. Applicants are also advised that this is the last stage where information can be revealed that may not have been disclosed in the initial application or the 10-minute interview. Any new information discovered after this stage is grounds for disqualification from the process for one year.
  • Candidates that successfully complete the panel interview portion can be scheduled for their polygraph, psychological exam, and medical test (in that order) on successive days. As long as no issues are identified during those three phases, the candidates move on to the final phase: extensive background checks.

With the revised process, there are times that a candidate moves from taking the entrance test to completing the medical and psychological test in less than a month. Usually the background check, to include local checks, takes much longer than the previous stages. Using this methodology the department has successfully hired applicants in two to three months of the entrance exam date. Some local competitors take up to a year to complete the hiring process, giving Arlington County a significant edge on hiring the best candidates.

Direct Outreach to Universities

In October 2013, Arlington County Police recruiters decided to try a new approach to reach more prospective applicants. In the past two years, approximately 600 applicants took the entrance exam each year. The desire was to increase that number. Like other departments, Arlington County Police is looking for a diverse force. The recruitment staff hypothesized that without the name recognition that some of the neighboring jurisdictions have that they needed to work at the grassroots level. They sent letters out to the criminal justice departments of all of the local universities in the metropolitan DC area and offered their services as experts in the field. The intent was to provide a service to the universities and colleges and provide their students with the dos and don’ts of what it takes to be a police officer. Presenters highlight the kind of behavior and indiscretions that might not reflect favorably upon the applicant, as well as the skills and abilities that are desirable for job applicants. The hope is that by engaging students early in their career planning, they will better understand the profession and consider applying to the Arlington County Police Department. Arlington County recruitment staff have been invited to speak to students at several universities and colleges, and though it is too soon to gauge the ultimate outcomes in terms of the number of students applying, it is expected that the partnership will continue.

Frederick, Maryland, Police Department

The Frederick Police Department is a full-service, nationally accredited police agency providing police services to the more than 65,000 residents of Frederick, Maryland. The Frederick Police Department faces many of the same recruitment challenges as law enforcement agencies across the United States. Whether it is due to competition for applicants, salary, difficult hours, or misconceptions about police work, recruitment of service-oriented candidates has become increasingly difficult. Add to that the challenge of navigating tough economic conditions during the recent recession, and it is easy to see why the department sought viable solutions to these recruitment challenges.

Recognizing the need to diversify its recruitment strategies, the Frederick Police Department sought to turn the identified challenges into opportunities. In the absence of a fully staffed recruitment unit, all personnel are tasked with being recruitment ambassadors for the department. The department created informational recruitment cards that officers are encouraged to distribute during citizen contacts on patrol, at neighborhood meetings, and other situations where they interact with the community. A new recruitment website was created to make information more accessible to potential candidates, and the recruitment website link appears on all department press releases, reaching a large and diverse cross-section of the community and surrounding areas.

Changing Recruitment Messaging to Reach Nontraditional Candidates

One of the most successful strategies has been a concerted effort to reach nontraditional police candidates. The traditional police candidates are predominately applicants with a criminal justice background or military experience. Typically, these individuals already have aspirations of a career in law enforcement and actively seek out agencies to submit applications. While these two groups of candidates may be qualified and possess good characteristics, they limit the pool of potential applicants. Additionally, this traditional group of candidates has been disproportionately male and not necessarily reflective of the diverse community served by the agency. Nontraditional candidates come from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds and bring a diverse set of skills with them to the job, which are becoming increasingly essential as law enforcement continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing demands of our citizens.

The catalyst for expanding recruitment efforts to nontraditional candidates was spurred by an influx of applicants seeking stable employment during the recession. The department received an increased number of applicants with experience in the financial industry, construction, business, and other fields impacted by the downturn in the economy. Upon interviewing these applicants, the department began to see the value in the varied skills represented.

Recognizing the value of these nontraditional candidates, recruiters developed strong relationships with local colleges and universities, focusing not just on criminal justice students, but broadening their outreach to students in education, information technology, forensic science, business, accounting, and other degree programs. The recruitment message was tailored to focus on police work as a service career, while emphasizing the diverse functions that police officers perform. Recruiters further targeted and personalized the recruitment message by explaining how the potential candidate’s skill sets and interests fit into police work.

The population of Frederick has increased significantly over the past 20 years, and the department now provides service to a much more diverse community. With that in mind, the department makes an effort to recruit candidates who reflect the diversity of the community. To do this, they have strengthened partnerships with a variety of community organizations, particularly those serving the Hispanic community. Through engaging community leaders and organizing outreach events, the department has established excellent relationships and built trust among residents. These relationships open up communication and encourage nontraditional candidates to join the organization.

By emphasizing a career in policing as an opportunity to perform diverse tasks focused on working with the community to solve problems, recruiters at the Frederick Police Department have broadened the appeal to individuals who previously would not have considered law enforcement as a viable career option. Highlighting the service-oriented aspects of the job has helped to reduce the misconception of policing as being solely about enforcement and has allowed recruiters to be successful in reaching a much larger, more diverse pool of applicants.

Realistic Job Preview: Clarifying the Image of Policing

Promising recruitment practices like those in Arlington County and Frederick makes it evident that successful recruitment of today’s candidates requires looking at new ways of reaching out and marketing the job and new ways of processing applicants. Many of the recruitment aspects commonly seen as challenges and misconceptions can be reframed into opportunities that will appeal to the right candidates for the job. Modifying recruitment strategies and messaging to emphasize the positive and distinctive aspects of the job that appeal to the interests and concerns of today’s applicants can be done in simple ways to reach a broader audience.

With recruitment, it is a balancing act of casting a wide recruitment net, while also winnowing down the pool to those candidates who are a good fit for the job. Along with the job benefits, it is important to make candidates aware of the more challenging sides of the job—the late nights, safety concerns, and heightened expectations of personal conduct outside of the job. The key is be realistic about the benefits, expectations, and responsibilities. Candidates who come in with a realistic expectation of what the recruitment process and the job entail are more likely to make it through the hiring process and have better retention rates on the job.

To help agencies better present this 360-degree view of police work, Discover Policing, in partnership with the COPS Office, Human Resources Research Organization, and ClicFlic Intelligent Media, has developed a plan for a research-based approach to develop a realistic job preview (RJP) to educate potential entry-level law enforcement officers about the diverse and rewarding opportunities offered by the profession.

RJPs are used across industries to communicate important aspects of a job to potential job candidates. An RJP may be formatted as a video, web tool, or written publication. Typically, an RJP covers a straightforward reflection of the day-to-day duties of a job, unique characteristics of the position and company, and employee benefits. RJPs highlight both the positive and the negative aspects of a job, which allows the candidate to get a holistic understanding of the position.

Using knowledge gained from an RJP, candidates can make an informed decision about their interest in and suitability for the job before applying. RJPs have shown to reduce employee turnover and improve job satisfaction by setting up reasonable expectations from the start of an employee’s tenure.

The Discover Policing web-based RJP will feature a series of animated clips depicting scenarios or interactions that a police officer might truly expect to experience on the job, with a focus on community policing and the service aspects of the job. The scenarios will use the core competencies for law enforcement officers that are outlined in the COPS Office’s publication Hiring in the Spirit of Service and through conversations with subject matter experts.1 The RJP will feature a self-assessment tool integrated within the scenarios that will allow potential entry-level police candidates to gauge their suitability for the career.
Share your recruitment expertise!
Discover Policing is always looking for new ideas and successful recruitment strategies. You can lend your subject matter expertise by
  • Writing a guest post for the Discover Policing blog;
  • Serving as a reviewer for the new Realistic Job Preview tool;
  • Mentoring an applicant or new recruit through the Discover Policing Mentor Center;
  • Emailing us your ideas for other resources to support law enforcement recruiters.

Visit or email to get involved.

The RJP is designed to be general enough to apply to the widest possible range of law enforcement agencies. In addition to being made available online to potential job candidates, the RJP and self-assessment tools can be used by local law enforcement recruiters, schools, and youth law enforcement programs to educate their students and potential applicants about the job. Assessment questions will explore the individual’s knowledge of the types of activities performed and the amount of time spent on those different activities, as well as the interest and comfort levels of the individual in doing this type of work. This self-assessment opportunity allows potential applicants to go into the recruitment process with a clearer picture of the job and to self-select out if the job is not a good fit for them, saving law enforcement recruiters valuable time and resources.

As anyone in the field knows, law enforcement is by no means a nine-to-five cubicle job. Like all jobs, it has its challenges, but, for the right candidate, it offers valuable benefits and vast potential for career advancement. Today’s entry-level candidates are different than their predecessors, and the same old strategies and messages do not always reach them. In Arlington County, Frederick, and other state and local agencies, a shift is being made toward new recruitment methods like speeding up the recruitment process, reaching out to nontraditional candidates, and focusing messaging on community-oriented responsibilities. Through these local strategies and national resources from Discover Policing, law enforcement can refocus the overall image of law enforcement and the specific nature of police work in a way that will resonate with today’s candidates. ♦

1Ellen Scrivner, Innovations in Police Recruitment and Hiring: Hiring in the Spirit of Service (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2006), (accessed December 19, 2013).

Please cite as:

Kamran Afzal, Jason Keckler, and IACP Discover Policing Staff, “Realistic Job Previews: Reworking Your Recruitment Messaging and Strategies to Reach Today’s Candidates,” The Police Chief 81 (March 2014): 30–33.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 3, March 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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