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Recruiting Today for Tomorrow’s Agency

By Debra R. Cohen McCullough, PhD, Senior Social Science Analyst; and Deborah L. Spence, MA, MS, Supervisory Social Science Analyst, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

In American Policing in 2022: Essays on the future of a Profession, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services invited police practitioners to share their vision of policing 10 years in the future.1 Their responses revealed a vision where collaboration, analysis, and leadership are the calling cards of a successful police department and where that success is measured by the absence of fear and an increase in community safety, rather than by arrests and Part I crime statistics. For many in the field, this is the vision of a glorious future.

It is, however, a future that will require significant organizational change, which is neither an easy nor instantaneous thing to do. In fact, the speed of organizational change can be downright glacial. Perhaps the reference to ice is appropriate since Kurt Lewin’s “three stages of change—unfreeze, change, and refreeze—continue to be a generic recipe for organizational development,” and central to many organizational change theories more than 60 years after they were first published.2

There is, however, one crucial organizational change agent that police already have at their disposal: recruitment. Over the next decade, general attrition, along with waves of Baby Boomer and older Generation X retirements, will present a tremendous staffing challenge. But it will also offer an outstanding opportunity to shape an agency’s desired future by recruiting new officers with the specific characteristics and qualifications needed to turn that desire into a reality.

In his American Policing in 2022 essay, Jim Bueermann, retired Redlands, California, chief of police, talked about the importance of cultivating intellectual capital. “Fortune 500 companies count intellectual capital among their most valuable assets. They all have some form of a knowledge management initiative to leverage what their employees know about their products, services, customers, and operating environments.”3 Where is the knowledge management initiative in police agencies? In what ways is law enforcement systematically enumerating the core competencies future officers need to have? And how are agencies making concerted, thoughtful efforts to seek out the individuals possessing these skills and abilities?

Mountain View California, Police Department: Blogging for Recruitment
The Mountain View, California, Police Department (MVPD), located in the heart of Silicon Valley, has been an early adopter of social media technologies, with a presence on nearly every major platform. The department’s robust Twitter following tops the leaderboard among agencies of comparable size, and MVPD recently expanded into Pinterest, using the platform as a virtual lost and found.

When MVPD set out to hire more officers in 2013, the agency looked to social media. According to Captain Chris Hsiung, “Part of our motivation in launching a large social media push was to align our need for hiring great people with what we know works. Social media is an extremely effective tool for law enforcement and a way for us to reach new talent beyond traditional recruiting mechanisms.” The department saw this as an opportunity to leverage a new social media and community outreach unit within the Field Operations Division to benefit recruitment.

The core of the MVPD hiring effort was a dedicated recruitment blog, With a simple, contemporary, and easy-to-navigate design, the blog provides potential applicants with all the key information they need. In addition to job requirements and qualifications, the blog’s visitors learn about physical training preparations, learn what to expect in the hiring process, and find answers to frequently asked questions, as well as links to other department social media outlets.

The site launched on July 23, 2013, and within 24 hours the department received more than 100 applications. By the time the position closed four weeks later, MVPD had received nearly 600 online applications, of which 90 percent were referrals from the blog. As a comparison, the department’s last recruitment effort in 2006 yielded a mere 70 applications.

According to Dan Vicencio, MVPD’s recruiting sergeant, not only were the numbers good, but so was the quality of the applicants: 47 percent were qualified per MVPD position requirements, and 30 percent of those qualified were invited to proceed with the recruitment process.

Despite the success of the blog, MVPD officials note they have not abandoned more traditional avenues of recruitment. According to Captain Hsiung, incorporating social media into existing outreach efforts that involve Human Resources, print media, and other channels made for a ollaborative and successful process.

Stay in touch with MVPD via Twitter @MountainViewPD or their blog at
Programs like IACP’s Discover Policing, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, help agencies get a jump-start on recruitment by identifying core competencies of good policing in an effort to attract job seekers.4 Visitors to the Discover Policing website learn that if they possess the following attributes and capabilities, then policing may be a good fit:

  • Ability to use good judgment and solve problems
  • Capacity for empathy and compassion
  • Capacity for multitasking
  • Ability to demonstrate courage and to take responsibility
  • Ability to be resourceful and show initiative
  • Demonstrating assertiveness
  • Possessing and demonstrating integrity
  • Capacity for engaging in teamwork and ability to collaborate

To this list, the authors would also add an ability to communicate, which can encompass skills in foreign languages and the ability to explain complex ideas to diverse audiences and ages, as well as competency in interacting with people with varying cultural norms and values.

Of course, knowing who you are looking for and knowing where to find them are two very different challenges. If the basic qualities listed above are accepted as desirable characteristics in the recruits who will lead police departments into 2022, then it is time to turn to the more formidable questions: Not only where are these potential officers of the future, but how can agencies entice them to join? This article offers a few thoughts to bear in mind as police departments embark on the search.

Eliminate Youth as an Excuse

This magazine has previously looked at the so-called Millennial generation that is now entering the workforce and what their arrival might mean for police recruitment and training.5 In a 2005 article, James P. Henchey raised a common issue seen in the popular media when he noted that law enforcement leaders “must begin recognizing how the different attitudes and perceptions of this new generation will affect the workplace.”6 A surplus of stories can eas- ily be found talking about the clash of generations in the workplace, frequently noting how Millennials are “different” from previous generations in ways that make traditional, paramilitary, and government organizations like police departments less appealing. Most people have probably heard the laments that Millennials are self-centered, feel entitled, have been coddled by their helicopter parents, and do not believe in hard work. But consider the following findings from numerous research studies of hundreds of thousands of Millennials as to what they look for in their careers:

  • Millennials want work that makes a difference and is enriching to themselves and to the world.7
  • Millennials believe that productivity should not be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of the work performed.8
  • Millennials prioritize workplaces that emphasize teamwork and transparency.9
  • Millennials seek a balance between their work and personal lives.10
  • Millennials have no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions, or the status quo.11

The authors believe these statements represent an age gap more than a generation gap. Is this not what many current law enforcement officers would have said if they were surveyed on their career aspirations just out of high school or college? People’s priorities change over their lives as a result of their experiences.

Whether using age-cohort regression analysis of one-time surveys or comparing the repeated administration of a survey over 40 years, what can be found is that regardless of generational affiliation, people are “searching for interesting, meaningful jobs that challenge and stretch us … and make a difference in the lives of others.”12 If that’s the case, policing should clearly be overrun with recruits because it offers opportunities to do the following:

  • Engage in interesting and challenging work
  • Work in teams and develop a strong sense of camaraderie with peers
  • Make a difference in the lives of many others
  • Balance work and home life
  • Work in an organization that places value on ensuring its employees go home after each shift to their families13

So why does the current recruitment challenge exist? Where are these future officers who are driven by a desire for public service, camaraderie, and meaning? Why do agencies struggle to find them?

The challenge in finding these individuals is not due to a failure on the part of today’s youth to step up to their civic responsibility. Rather, the challenge is due to a lack of understanding of the job seeker marketplace and agency messaging. Approaching recruitment expecting youth to respond to traditional and often conflicting messages can perpetuate a petrified hiring process, one that fails to resonate with the very groups of candidates who would be most qualified to take the agency into 2022. Approaching recruitment by meeting youth where they are and explicitly showing where they fit in the agency’s mission can draw top talent to policing and make policing their top choice for career.

Learn to Be Market Segment Savvy

The core competencies described above clearly are not unique to policing. People with diverse backgrounds, educations, and experiences have these skills. Consider the analytic capacity and assertiveness of attorneys or the empathy and compassion of social workers, teachers, and nurses or the drive to problem solve held by IT analysts and engineers. In addition, recent college graduates, regardless of their major, have spent their time in higher education learning critical thinking and communication skills. Of course, to be a police officer they also have to be willing to run to where the danger is. But they can be trained on the mechanics of policing once they have been convinced that it is, in fact, a profession where these skills will be both useful and valued.

Unfortunately for many with these diverse backgrounds, police recruitment campaigns are missing their segment of the market. Market segmentation has been central to marketing theory and practice since the 1950s and involves “viewing a heterogeneous market as a number of smaller homogeneous markets, in response to different preferences, attributable to the desires of consumers for more precise satisfaction of their varying wants.”14 Simply put, market segmentation involves dividing a broad target market (i.e., people seeking meaningful employment) into sectors of consumers with common needs (e.g., college graduates, military veterans, children of police officers, mid-career changers) and then designing strategies to target their unique needs and desires (e.g., get out of a cubicle, continue to serve your country, do something “important,” and help people) using methods that best reach them.

Take, for example, persons who are looking for a career change: the disenfranchised attorney who dreams of escaping the golden handcuffs; the returned Peace Corps Volunteer who now wants to work with people and help build a healthy community at home; the teacher who has experience in managing classrooms of teenagers and is disenchanted by standardized testing or the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Policing has an opportunity to appeal and tap into this segment.

Now think of many agencies’ existing recruitment materials. Odds are good they involve billboards, newspaper, or radio advertisements, and perhaps web videos filled with photographs of militaristic lines of serious-looking officers in uniforms, various police vehicles and equipment, and SWAT teams in full gear. The materials likely also highlight the basic qualification requirements of age, a high school education, and physical fitness and speak of policing as exciting and adventurous. Most departments excel at advertising the “enforcement” part of the job. But does this represent the day-to-day experience of most officers? And more importantly, does it sell the profession to all the different types of people who could meet the profession’s needs and are looking to “serve”?

Unintentionally, some market segments may perceive that they are over-educated or under-fit, fear that conformity will mean a lack of autonomy in their daily work, or believe they are unqualified simply because they have never handled a gun. In other words, traditional police messaging may lead them to believe that police work is not a good fit for them when, in actuality, the decision-making skills of higher education are valued, the job is highly autonomous on a daily basis, and high-level physical fitness and firearms training are skills to be learned in the academy.

One way an agency can counteract those unintended consequences for specific market segments is not only to take into account the years of higher education or other relevant experience when determining police assignments or promotional opportunities, but to be explicit in recruitment materials that these factors are given consideration. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration advertises that special consideration is given to special agent candidates with degrees in majors such as finance, accounting, foreign languages, computer science, and electrical or mechanical engineering.15 If an agency is looking for similar skills, is it actively recruiting where those graduates are likely to be? Or is it simply hoping those individuals will stumble across its website in their job search and not be turned off by the fact that they do not see people like themselves in the marketing materials?
Identifying market segments may illuminate gaps in a marketing strategy. More than any other generation before it, Millennials have grown up with and expect diversity. “The underrepresentation of minorities and women police officers in some departments creates a shortage of role models for recruitment of these populations. Police chiefs must make agency diversification an organizational core value that is understood and embraced by all members if they are to find a force that accurately reflects the composition of the community.” Leaders need to take the time to assess whether their agency is truly representative of the community’s diversity and determine how they can reach those populations who may be underrepresented in the department.16

Another piece of being market segment savvy is realizing that different recruitment methods are needed for different segments. Obviously recruitment materials need to be designed to reach people where they are—be that billboards for commuters who might be tired of their cubicles, or Tweets and Vine videos to reach the younger cohort that don’t own cars but stay in touch with the world through smartphones. Expanding the materials that are produced and increasing the available channels from which to learn can not only give each targeted segment a clear understanding of what police do daily, but also explain the core values of modern policing and how their skills are relevant and valued. This might even include suggestions for how people can try the job on for size.

Offer Trial Runs

Police explorer, cadet, volunteer programs, and citizen police academies are some programs that may not be designed as recruiting tools, but absolutely should be seen as such. They provide ways for people to see behind the scenes in a department, removing the specter of adverse television and YouTube video portrayals. Talking to people who already do the job is a great way for prospective recruits to learn if policing is the right job for them. That is why Discover Policing started a Mentoring Center where “current and future law enforcement professionals can connect and establish relationships that foster personal and professional growth and development”17 and does so in a way that capitalizes on people’s comfort with using the Internet to build and maintain social networks.

There are also other ways to provide this hands-on experience to prospective recruits.

Informal mentoring opportunities are available every day on the job in law enforcement. Offering a ride-along program can help prospective police recruits get a clear perspective on the day-to-day duties of police, as well as insight on how discretionary time allows each officer the autonomy to problem solve and establish relationships with the community.18 Similarly, advertising internship programs at two- and four-year colleges may attract recruits who may not have thought of policing as a career choice. Job fairs and presentations at high schools are still smart choices, but it might also be a good idea to set up a public safety-focused career networking event, inviting representatives from the fire department and emergency medical services to mix with police officers.

Military veteran recruitment programs are an example of how some police agencies have already been successful at targeted market segment recruitment. While the missions of military deployment are decidedly different than those of domestic law enforcement, solid steps have been taken by the law enforcement field to identify those skills acquired by veterans that are transferable to police agencies, such as sharp decision-making abilities, high ethical standards, superior firearms and tactical skills, and a willingness to put themselves in dangerous situations on behalf of others.19 Materials—such as the 2012 “Vets to COPS” brochure—have been developed that speak specifically to the call to serve their country that veterans have answered once before and are widely distributed through agencies and organizations that help retiring military personnel in their transition to civilian life.20

The challenge now is to build similar successful campaigns for all of the other market segments from which the officers of 2022 may come. It is imperative that the prospective recruits actually see themselves in the role.

Congruent Messaging Is Everything

A brand is what distinguishes one product from others providing the same or similar service. It is an intangible asset, but it can be the most valuable asset a company has. The reputation of a brand, which is formed both through actual user experience as well as through word of mouth, is central to sales success, and advertising campaigns are designed to build that reputation. However, if the advertising messages are inconsistent with actual user experience, consumers will ultimately not seek out (or maybe even avoid) that particular product and sales will struggle. The most successful brands are the ones where the marketing messages and user experiences are congruent.

The same is true in recruitment. Companies with recruitment messaging that is congruent with the actual corporate culture have easier tasks in attracting top talent than those that do not. Consider Google, which for the last two years has been named the best company to work for by Fortune Magazine.21 Its current recruitment message? “Do cool things that matter.”22 Now think of all the things Google is used for every day—finding information quickly, navigating unfamiliar territory, scanning news from multiple sources around the globe, staying in touch with friends and family, translating documents, shopping, and more. These are, in fact, “cool things that matter.” And that is congruent messaging.

Thus, law enforcement leaders need to consider their departments’ brand reputations and examine if their branding is consistent with their recruitment messages. People will join only those agencies that they perceive are legitimate. To build the community policing departments of 2022, it is vital for all the messages sent—via both actions and marketing—to be congruent in promoting the values of problem solving, procedural justice, and making a difference in the community. Even when departments cultivate recruitment materials around a chance to serve, if the reputation of the department in its community is not one of service, potential recruits are not going to believe the marketing message. The consequence of incongruence is that agencies will not attract the recruits suitable for community policing, and those they do attract will quickly become disenchanted with the job, resulting in lower productivity, higher attrition rates, and a dissatisfied public.

Police “do cool things that matter” every day. But Google has already claimed that recruitment slogan. So whether an agency develops its own messaging or makes use of nationally available themes like “Hiring in the Spirit of Service” or “Discover Policing,” it needs to be certain that its message is congruent with actual user experience.

Recruitment Can Build Legitimacy

The basic function of hiring is to fill vacancies, but it can also be used to build an agency in a specific direction. Recruitment enjoys a symbiotic relationship with police legitimacy, and, in a democracy, it is the legitimate agencies that will survive the questioning of investment in public services. It is also only the legitimate agencies that will be able to entice people to join them. Therefore, the selection of the right people is crucial to any agency’s survival and success in a world where police are more visible and police discretion is more scrutinized than ever before. At the 2013 IACP Conference, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey addressed the general audience stating: “Policing is moving from low-visibility, high discretionary work, to one with more visibility on how our officers use their discretion.”23 Police agencies that hire officers motivated to serve and assist their communities stand to further the community policing mission of their department, and develop a reputation for being fair, impartial, and legitimate.

In his essay in American Policing in 2022, Baltimore, Maryland, Deputy Commissioner John Skinner wrote: “At its core, policing is about community service. It is about making neighborhoods stronger and fostering an unwavering feeling of safety and security… The police officers of the future will be forced to navigate through a complex society and will be called upon to address new challenges. They will be drawn toward new technologies and encouraged to be more efficient.”24 But if law enforcement agencies rely on the recruiting techniques of days gone by, they’ll attract recruits for a world that no longer exists and continue to face the challenge of bridging the chasm between what police officers do and what the community expects.

It is today’s recruitment activities that will ensure that police departments in 2022 are staffed with well-educated, talented individuals committed to careers that challenge and inspire them. The new recruits of today will be the leaders of police departments tomorrow. Policing already offers many of the attributes people seek in their careers, the challenge is to get that message across to those people who can carry the field into the future. The key to doing so is in understanding that people—regardless of generation—want careers that bring meaning to their lives and their communities. It also means recognizing that the recruitment market is segmented and tailoring the messages to those different sectors—pushing the messages out to where those sectors are likely to see them—will increase their impact. And, finally, it means ensuring congruence in messaging between the profession’s services, values, and recruitment promises. Agencies that market to the generation of the present will be effective at hiring officers to serve the needs of their communities well into the future and build reputations as legitimate and transparent organizations with clear, articulate missions.25

1Debra R. Cohen McCullough and Deborah L. Spence, eds., American Policing in 2022: Essays on the future of a Profession (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012), (accessed December 5, 2013).
2Kurt Lewin (1880–1947) was a pioneer in the psychological study of group dynamics and organizational development; Karl E. Weick and Robert E. quinn, “Organizational Change and Development,” Annual Review of Psychology 50 (1999): 361–86.
3Jim Bueerman, “Preparing the Police for an Uncertain Future: Four Guiding Principles,” in American Policing in 2022: Essays on the future of a Profession, ed. Debra R. Cohen McCullough and Deborah L. Spence (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012).
4Debra R. McCullough, “Meet the New DiscoverPolicing.Org,” Community Policing Dispatch 6, no. 7 (July 2013), (accessed December 5, 2013).
5The Millennial generation is generally considered those who were born between 1982 and 2000. 6James P. Henchey, “Ready or Not, Here They Come: The Millennial Generation Enters the Workforce,” The Police Chief 72 (September 2005): 10, (accessed December 5, 2013).
7Karsten Strauss, “Do Millennials Think Differently About Money and Career?” Forbes, September 17, 2013, (accessed on December 5, 2013).
8Dennis Finn and Anne Donovan, PwC’s NextGen: A Global Generational Study: Evolving Talent Strategy to Match the New Workforce Reality, Summary and Compendium of Findings (PwC, the University of Southern
California, and the London Business School 2013), (accessed January 24, 2014).
11Ron Fournier, “The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington if They Hate It?” The Atlantic, August 26, 2013, (accessed on December 5, 2013).
12Brenda Kowske, Rena Rasch, and Jack Wiley, “Millennials’ (Lack of) Attitude Problem: An Empirical Examination of Generational Effects on Work Attitudes,” Journal of Business Psychology 25, no. 2 (2010): 265–279; Adam Grant, “What Millennials Really Want Out of Work,” The Huffington Post, August 2, 2013, (accessed December 5, 2013).
13While policing often requires shift work, especially at the start of one’s career, consider that for the most part, it is still a 40-hour week and there are typically time limits on how long someone has to work “graveyard” shifts.
14Wendell Smith, “Product Differentiation and Market Segmentation as Alternative Marketing Strategies,” Journal of Marketing 21, no. 1 (1956): 3–8.
15Drug Enforcement Administration, “DEA Special Agent Careers Frequently Asked questions,” (accessed December 5, 2013).
16COPS/IACP Leadership Project, Law Enforcement Recruitment Toolkit (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2009), 5, (accessed December 5, 2013). 17DiscoverPolicing.Org, “Mentoring Center,” (accessed December 5, 2013). 18Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, “Ride-Along Program,” (accessed December 5, 2013).
19International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leader’s Guide on Combat Veterans (Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice), 6, (accessed December 5, 2013).
20Vets to COPS (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, June 2012), (accessed December 5, 2013). 21CNN Money, “100 Best Companies to Work For 2013,” Fortune Magazine, (accessed December 5, 2013).
22Google, “Jobs,” (accessed December 15, 2013).
23“Commissioner Charles Ramsey on the Future of Policing,” YouTube video, 17:19, from the 2013 Annual IACP Conference, (accessed December 5, 2013).
24John Skinner, “The Future of Policing Can Be Found in the Past,” in American Policing in 2022: Essays on the future of a Profession, ed. Debra R. Cohen McCullough and Deborah L. Spence (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012).
25The authors would particularly like to thank Sgt. Christopher Cognac of the Hawthorne, California, Police Department and Det. Christopher Tracy at the Tacoma, Washington, Police Department for their insights on branding and non-traditional recruitment during the development of this article.

Please cite as:

Debra R. Cohen McCullough and Deborah L. Spence, “Recruiting Today for Tomorrow’s Agency,” The Police Chief 81 (March 2014): 24–29.

Both authors currently work in the Research & Development Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). Together they edited American Policing in 2022: Essays on the Future of a Profession, published by the COPS Office in 2012.

Debra R. Cohen McCullough, PhD, has managed grants and cooperative agreements for research, training and technical assistance, and publications dedicated to public safety for the COPS Office since 1996. She is the program manager for a portfolio of projects that includes Discover Policing, as well as de-escalation tactics for military veterans in crisis, enhancing cultural competency, unmanned aircraft systems and community trust, and police consolidation. She is also a staff writer for the Community Policing Dispatch, authoring articles highlighting projects on interoperability, 3-1-1 non-emergency systems, police facility architecture, and more. Her article “When Police Encounter Persons Who Stutter” won first place in the 2013 Excellence in Journalism Awards by The Stuttering Foundation of America.

Deborah L. Spence, MA, MS, joined the COPS Office in 2005. Currently, she supervises the design and implementation of grant programs and resources that advance the knowledge and practice of community policing. In 2008 she led the effort to launch the Community Policing Dispatch e-newsletter, serving as its editor-in-chief for six years and earning two honors from the National Association of Government Communicators for its work. She is the author of numerous speeches, articles, and other COPS Office publications including The Relationship Between Economic Conditions, Policing, and Crime Trends; Guidelines for Starting and Operating a New Police Department; and Call Management and Community Policing



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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