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Recruiting During the Economic Downturn

By Dwayne Orrick, Chief of Police, Roswell, Georgia, Police Department

ver the last four years, the economic downturn has impacted every employer—public, private, and nonprofit. During this time, law enforcement agencies have been forced to endure furloughs, freezes, and layoffs. Poor economic conditions are forcing agencies to reassess their service delivery strategies to effectively respond to their communities’ needs. In order to successfully face current and future challenges, agencies are more dependent than ever before on high-quality officers being recruited and retained.

Leaders cannot expect their organizations to provide exceptional service with average or mediocre employees. The competencies required for good officers such as integrity, problem-solving and conflict resolution skills, and oral and written communication proficiencies are the same abilities needed by most employers. Because of this, police agencies have to aggressively compete with many other employers—including the private sector, the military, and other law enforcement agencies—for the best talent.

This employee-employer relationship is dynamic and susceptible to many economic factors including regional differences. When the economy is thriving, employees have many choices for potential work. During these periods, employees have greater control in the relationship. As a result, employers may need to make greater concessions to attract and retain staff.

Conversely, during an economic downturn, there are fewer opportunities for individuals to find alternative employment. With the prolonged economic downturn, there are a greater number of high-caliber candidates who are seeking employment opportunities. To capitalize on this opportunity and successfully prepare their organizations for future challenges, leaders should initiate comprehensive approaches to recruit the officers needed to meet the approaching challenges. Now is the time agencies should be working to staff up their organizations, before the economy completely rebounds.

Make Recruiting a Priority

The first step for creating a comprehensive recruiting strategy is to recognize the importance of the process. To effectively recruit the best candidates, police chiefs must make recruiting a priority. What chiefs pay attention to is what gets done. Chief executives not only must give their vocal support, they also must dedicate the financial and staff resources needed to successfully achieve the department’s recruiting goals.

Retain the Great Officers

The best way to avoid having to recruit new officers is to keep the ones the agency currently has. To accomplish this, the department must maximize the factors that attract people to the department and minimize the forces pushing them out. For example, one of the primary reasons officers leave their departments is their immediate supervisors. Supervisors who micromanage, fail to provide positive reinforcement, and are quick to criticize their staff generally compel individuals to leave agencies. This is being allowed to occur at a very high cost to agencies and the communities they serve. High-performing officers are the key to an organization’s success and are likely to be targets of outside competitors. To avoid this occurrence, first-line supervisors should be provided intensive leadership training and held accountable for maintaining a positive, high-retention work environment. This environment is critical for becoming an employer of choice and for attracting the best candidates.

Identify the Number of Officers Needed

Before a department begins to search for potential candidates, the number of officers needed must be determined. This projection must be more comprehensive than the number of vacancies that currently exist. The department must also include the number of vacancies that are likely to occur in the near future. To accomplish this, police executives must work with community leaders to identify when frozen positions are likely to be reopened.

The department also must estimate how many officers are likely to resign or retire during this period. A number of techniques could be used to make this projection. One technique is to look at the average turnover experienced prior to the economic downturn. In addition, the agency should examine the number of persons who are eligible for retirement or postponed plans to start other endeavors because of the slow economy. Together, these variables provide a better estimate of the real number of persons the agency will need to employ in the near future.

Make Individuals Responsible for Recruiting

Departments must consider assigning individuals the responsibility for coordinating the agency’s recruiting efforts. If no one is assigned the responsibility and held accountable, the function will likely not occur as expected. As a result, leaders are gambling the organization’s future on the chance that good candidates will simply walk in and submit an application. The number of recruiters a department needs is dependent upon the size of the agency and the number of vacancies to be filled. As a result, the number of recruiters may range from one part-time person to a team of people.

In the past, recruiting was thought to be a mundane function that anyone could perform. This often resulted in the assignment of officers who were physically unable to perform their usual duties or persons who wanted an easy assignment. However, recruiting is not easy, and top-shelf candidates are more likely to be attracted by recruiters who are like them. This requires the department to appoint the best and the brightest officers to the recruiting program. Once appointed, these individuals must be provided the training and the resources needed to perform their assignments. Even though limited financial resources may be available to dedicate to the program, assigning creative and motivated individuals can better ensure the department will achieve its recruiting goals.

Sources for Quality Candidates

Once the department establishes recruiting quality candidates as a priority and identifies the number of officers needed, recruiters can begin their search. Five points to keep in mind when searching for great candidates are the Internet, employee referrals, the importance of female officers, the importance of officers who are or have been members of the military, and college programs.

Internet. The fastest growing source for attracting candidates is the Internet, where information is continuously available to prospects. Department websites are easy to customize to meet evolving needs. In addition, advertising on the department website or Internet sites is often less expensive than other recruitment techniques. Finally, the application process can be automated, thus reducing staff workload and reducing processing times.

To make the department appear more attractive, the website should include information regarding available positions, diversity within the organization, opportunities within the agency, and testimonials from officers. The department should require that all inquiries or requests for information receive a personal follow-up call or email within 24 hours.

In addition to the department’s website, there are a number of websites tailored for recruiting law enforcement officers, including Individuals interested in law enforcement jobs usually browse sites, such as Discover Policing, to identify agencies that are hiring.

Finally, the best candidates are likely to research an agency before submitting an application. As part of this research, most will conduct an Internet search. Inaccurate and negative information can adversely impact the department’s ability to recruit officers. To counter this, staff must be aware of negative information being posted about the department. To facilitate this process, registering for free, emailed alerts on search engines for key words such as “[the agency name, in quotations]” will trigger a message sent to the given email address when news, blog entries, and so on are posted online.

Employee Referrals. When departments are searching for fugitives, they do not assign one person to locate and arrest the individual. Rather, the department posts a lookout and involves all of the department’s resources. So why do law enforcement agencies not use the same approach when searching for coworkers who could potentially influence the department’s operations for more than 25 years? Every officer is a potential recruitment source.

Employee referrals are typically the most successful candidates. There are several reasons for their success. First, incumbents know what is required to successfully perform in the department. Because of this, officers informally filter possible candidates before recommending that an individual apply to the agency. Second, incumbents know potential candidates are likely to be identified with them and will often mentor them through the first year.

Because employees are likely to recruit people who have similar work ethics to them, departments should encourage their best officers to assist with finding candidates. At the same time, organizations should avoid using employee referral programs if the agency has a dysfunctional culture or lacks diversity.

Many departments offer incumbents who refer a candidate who is selected with some type of reward such as days off or a financial bonus ranging from $250 to $5,000. It should be noted that these rewards are most effective when given in stages. For example, the first part of the bonus is given when the candidate is employed and the second half when the individual completes training and a probationary period.

Female Candidates. Women make up 51 percent of the population but are the most underrepresented protected class in law enforcement. Studies demonstrate female candidates are more likely to be college educated and less likely to receive citizen complaints, misconduct charges, or claims of excessive force than male officers. With rapidly evolving gender roles, women bring unique skills and competencies to enhance departments’ service delivery strategies. By focusing efforts on attracting female candidates, agencies are likely to identify a valuable untapped resource.

Candidates with Military Experience. Every year, more than 200,000 service personnel in the United States Armed Forces complete a tour of duty. Forty-five percent of these service personnel are younger than 25 years old.1 For 10 years, the military has been at war in two major theaters. Staffing this effort has been a considerable draw from the potential labor force. As the nation experiences a reduction in these deployments, greater numbers of high-quality candidates will become available.

Persons with military experience have been taught the leadership skills required to work well as individuals and in teams. Many of the veterans returning to the workforce feel comfortable working in the structured work environment that law enforcement agencies offer. Their experiences in high-stress combat deployments have forced them to develop the skills to effectively prioritize, multitask, solve problems, and work as team members. All of these competencies are critical for differentiating exemplary candidates from mediocre candidates.

College Programs. During the last few years, young persons entering the workforce have faced fewer job opportunities. In an effort to enhance their ability to compete in the tight labor market, many have chosen to seek secondary educational opportunities. Just a few years ago, many graduating students received multiple job offers. This is not the case today. Law enforcement agencies offer the stability and the consistency that many candidates are now seeking. To capitalize on this opportunity, departments should reach out to criminal justice programs in their areas. The Rand Corporation has a college criminal justice program locator on its website. To build better relationships with the college programs, departments should consider engaging officers in discussion panels or making special presentations to college classes. Other opportunities may include staff serving as adjunct instructors, attending college career fairs, or sponsoring criminal justice honor societies.

Intermediate Approaches

Organizations that recognize they need to recruit officers but do not have full-time positions available may consider employing reserve and part-time officers. Using reserve officers during peak periods and when full-time officers have authorized time off enable departments to maintain staffing levels without increasing overtime costs. At the same time, reserve officers do not require the additional expense of employee benefits such as paid vacation time, health insurance, and retirement fund support, which can increase staffing costs by more than 50 percent in some cases. Further, reserve officers are more likely to become anchored with the agency and assume full-time positions when they become available.

Long-Term Recruiting Efforts

Police agencies should consider employing a long-term approach to attracting great
candidates. Several apprentice programs that are often used include Police and Law Enforcement Explorer programs, cadet programs, and internships. Apprentice programs are less staff intensive than traditional recruiting programs, build positive relationships with the community, and give leaders greater opportunity to interact with and develop potential candidates. Departments also can become active in local high school classes related to government and criminal justice. By investing in young people during their formative years, a law enforcement agency can gain department loyalty for when these individuals start looking for jobs.

Employ Candidates Who “Fit”

Finally, as agencies begin to select candidates, it is important for departments to avoid repeating the past mistake of simply employing persons who are capable of meeting a minimum standard. Rather, a comprehensive recruiting and selection process should focus on individuals who meet standards and fit in well with the agency. If persons do not fit in with the department, they are less likely to perform in the manner required by the department and more likely to leave the department or be involuntarily separated. To better identify persons who are good fits with the agency, the selection process should include behaviorally based interviews, thorough background investigations, and realistic job previews.

For several years, departments have been faced with poor economic conditions and substantially reduced budgets. This has impacted most law enforcement agencies’ abilities to recruit officers. However, as the economy prepares to rebound, agencies should initiate efforts to staff available positions. This will require departments to make recruiting a priority, identify their recruiting needs, and enlist the best staff available to attract potential candidates. Numerous resources exist to search for these candidates. As departments reach out to these sources, they should also begin intermediate and long-range efforts to ensure a steady flow of potential candidates for many years. ■

Dwayne Orrick is the chief of police in Roswell, Georgia. He has a masters of public administration and a bachelor of arts in criminal justice from the University of Georgia. He can be reached at

1Miles Z. Epstein and David G. Epstein, “Hiring Veterans: A Cost Effective Staffing Solution,” HR Magazine 43, no. 12 (November 1998): 106–113.

Please cite as:

Dwayne Orrick, "Recruiting During the Economic Downturn," The Police Chief 79 (January 2012): 22–24.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 79, no. 1, January 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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