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Back to Archives | Back to January 2005 Contents 

Using Visual Technology for Recruitment

By Gene Ellis, Chief of Police, DeWitt, Iowa; Greg Marshall, Captain, Howard County Police Department, Ellicott City, Maryland; Chris Skinner, Lieutenant, Hillsboro, Oregon, Police Department; and Gary Smith, Chief of Police, Northfield, Minnesota

or decades recruiting personnel into law enforcement was not as much of a challenge. Departments used to experience hundreds of quality applicants competing for a limited number of positions. Today, however, law enforcement agencies are having difficulty recruiting a pool of candidates for the selection process and law enforcement must rethink its recruiting methodology. Recruitment is different from selection. The objective of recruitment is to attract the best pool of interested applicants who meet the criteria for participation in the selection process. The selection process then identifies those who are best qualified for the actual position. The recruitment methods then draw in the desired candidates for the positions.

Major obstacles need to be overcome in the recruitment effort:

  • Appealing to a new generation of applicants that does not view the job market in the same way as the generation in today's leadership positions1

  • Competing aggressively with private companies for quality applicants

  • Dispelling the misconceptions caused by the mass entertainment media of police work and the real job

  • Understanding that law enforcement has changed from the once traditionally blue-collar job to a challenging profession that requires technical skills

  • Designing new and creative recruiting methods on a limited budget and limited resources

The advancement of technology has created new and more affordable methods for recruiting a very visual-oriented applicant pool made up mostly of members of Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millennials. Appealing to a large base of applicants through visual technology methods allows law enforcement agencies to follow a model set by the U.S. military by depicting a law enforcement career. Recruitment videos for law enforcement and the Internet are becoming a popular recruitment standard because they can appeal to a visual-oriented generation. No longer are videos restricted to paid television time. This same technology has also allowed for a large audience to see a misleading depiction of law enforcement work as glamorous. Questions that must be addressed concern how effective the use of visual technology is for recruiting law enforcement personnel and whether it can be done in a cost-effective manner where even the smallest law enforcement agencies can benefit from it.

Images Communicate the Type of Employee Sought
Applicants for sworn police positions have their expectations of what the duties of a police officer entail, and often these expectations are created through the mass media and entertainment industries. Images in the news media, movies, and television programs glorifying and highlighting the crime-fighter role of police send the message that police work is primarily about confrontation, the exercise of power, and the use of force. Keeping in mind the visual aptitudes associated with today's target recruiting audience, this problem is exacerbated when police agencies themselves use recruiting tools, such as videos, posters, and Web sites, that emphasize power, force, a warrior image of police that tends to reflect a confrontational rather than helping image of the police.

Police agencies desire to hire applicants who are people-oriented, emotionally stable, and not drawn to the position because of the power it gives them over others. The perceived requirements based on images in media and in images provided by police agencies in various formats, however, result in a conflict between the type of police applicants agencies need, and the type of applicant who is likely to apply for the position.

When discussing the suitability of persons to perform in a particular position, there needs to be a connection between the demands and nature of the position and the qualifications sought in applicants. The first task is to determine what police work is and what it is not in a given jurisdiction. The results of this assessment should determine the personality, background, and physical and educational characteristics necessary for persons who are recruited and employed as police officers. Recruiting and employment information should then be disseminated in a manner that is likely to reach the greatest possible number of potentially qualified applicants with the desirable traits.

Portraying the Profession
Examining the popular perception of policing, we find that it is often portrayed as primarily revolving around crime fighting, especially by the media, which has glamorized the job. This image has been embraced and publicized by police organizations for years. Part of this image is the belief that physical stamina and strength are essential to the position of police officer. In actuality, however, the core police duties require not so much physical stamina and strength but the use of people skills and the ability to effectively deal with emotional issues.

Nevertheless, most departments' recruiting processes place a heavy emphasis on physical skills that are rarely needed and are generally only tested during the selection process. Recruiters have a tendency to overlook persons who recognize that policing is about human relations, while seeking out those who fit the stereotypical role of a crime fighter. This stereotypical role of the police can be reinforced in the applicant's mind through television, movies, and the department's recruiting techniques. Unfortunately, once applicants fitting the crime-fighter role are employed, they are shocked to find out that their role primarily involves the use of people skills not emphasized during the hiring process. This difference between expectations and reality may result in some persons entering law enforcement for the wrong reasons.

Discussions about the recruitment process for police officers typically focus on the importance of the process and on various methods that can be used to reach persons who have an interest in becoming a police officer. The traditional process is usually well structured and organized and ostensibly appears to be effective in accomplishing what it set out to do. But recruitment is different from selection. Recruitment draws in the interested applicants who meet the department's criteria so that they participate in the selection process. One traditional effort has been to develop a large pool and then let selection screen out those not qualified. Actually, it would be better if recruitment messages were designed for the purpose of drawing in the type of officers the department needs. Instead of weeding out and disqualifying applicants, the department should be selecting the best applicants from a large pool of qualified persons recruited into the process.

The types of persons needed most in policing are those who like to help other people. The core of policing is not crime fighting but the use of people skills and effectively dealing with emotions. This realization must be addressed in the recruiting process. Target populations must be identified and the recruiting pitch must be customized to ensure that the target population is likely to see the information and also find the message appealing.

The descriptive information concerning the position of police officer must make the occupation appealing to those who are well qualified but would not normally consider such employment. The recruiting process can benefit from the knowledge and insights obtained through market research. Changing the content of the recruiting information and the way it is disseminated is long overdue. There may also be some tangible benefits to reaching those who should enter policing but have not considered it, instead of only those who would most likely be interested in such employment.2

Reaching Today's Applicants
The formal part of the police recruiting process generally begins with efforts to reach a large pool of potential applicants. Placing recruitment booths in high-traffic locations such shopping centers and county fairs and sending recruiters to job fairs, high school and college career days, and military installations traditionally reach persons who meeting the minimum age and education criteria necessary for police officer positions. One objective of the recruiting effort should be to expand the audience base and reach others who may be older, with more education and acquired skills as well as other work experience. Ways to reach this population could include the following:

  • Web sites

  • Classified advertisements

  • Television and radio advertisements

  • Roadside billboards

  • Advertisement placards on commercial transportation

Internet: The Internet is the latest innovation of the information age, and nearly every police agency is represented on the World Wide Web (the Web). The department's Web site represents a very versatile tool not only for image making (maintaining good public relations and educating the public about agency activities) but also for attracting eligible persons to police employment. The advantage of the department's Web site is the ability to advertise and recruit much more cost-effectively and to reach a greater number of potential applicants. The ability to conveniently publicize information about the agency, including its organizational mission, history, minimum requirements for employment, and expectations of officers and other employees, can be used as a mechanism to both attract qualified and desired applicants and dissuade others from applying.

General misperceptions about police work and agency requirements can be dispelled when a wealth of related information is readily available. In today's image-oriented society, pictures are more likely to attract immediate interest before the written word and consequently should be carefully chosen, if the intent is to attract suitable applicants. Remember, besides attracting suitable applicants, the pictures communicate and define the department's brand and image in the mind of the citizen reviewer.

The question of who will apply based on an agency's Internet presence is partly determined by the type of persons who will find the Web-based information and pictures from a particular agency appealing. The likelihood of that access, however, is in turn dependent on a person being sufficiently interested in policing to access this information on the Web. Police agencies have direct control of the content of their Web site but are less able to ensure that the best and brightest are interested in exploring police employment in the first place and find the opportunities on the Web site.

In addition to being a recruiting tool, the department's Web site can also be an indirect screening mechanism. The Portland Police Bureau in Oregon posts its police officer requirements on the department's site and states that it will accept applications only through the Internet.3 This policy does test an applicant's resourcefulness and familiarity with the computers and the Internet. Also, receiving an electronic application consumes fewer physical and manpower resources than the typical receipt and storage of paper applications.

Portland classifies all police officers as community policing officers, which to a degree makes the term sound less glamorous and downplays the crime-fighter designation; it may subtly dissuade some power-oriented persons from applying. Images displayed on police agency Web sites can be a form of advertisement, and they may attract or discourage applicants based on those applicants' own predilections.

Newspaper Advertising: While advertisement in newspapers is more limited in scope than the Internet, and reaches readers at a greater cost to the agency, it does have one important advantage. The Internet user is only likely to find recruiting information if the user is already interested in the possibility of police employment and therefore seeks out information concerning such employment. This differs from a newspaper or magazine advertisement where a reader simply comes upon the information. If the information that immediately meets the eye is sufficiently appealing, the reader may continue reading the advertisement and consequently develop an interest in the work.

The print advertisement should stimulate the reader at first glance but not make the position appealing to those seeking power by focusing on the coercive aspects of policing. Since the use of force and coercive authority should be a last-resort response by police when all other options fail, those tasks and symbols representing those tasks should not be what first comes to mind when viewing a recruiting announcement.

Personal communication skills, creativity, the ability to solve problems and deal with critical challenges, and compassion for a diverse group of people are a more proper focus of a recruiting announcement. Such an advertisement should ideally be placed not in a magazine or newspaper where most persons already interested in a career in policing would not look but in one that is read by a target population most likely to seek out positions requiring the enumerated people skills. Also, the advertisement placed may be in a paper in another community or state to widen the applicant pool.

Recruiting Videos: Police recruiting videos are another method of reaching potential applicants, but it is important for the content to be realistic and not solely focused on the glamorous and exciting parts of police work. Two recruiting videos that strike such a balance are those of the Howard County and Montgomery County Police Departments in Maryland.4

Both videos are effective in that they accurately describe such details as salaries and benefits, locale and amenities, academy training, expectations concerning the police officer position, and the various assignment opportunities that are available. Although subtle in their approaches, both videos clearly demonstrate the excellent opportunities that exist for women and minorities in both agencies.

Television and Radio: Many departments have their own shows on local cable television stations and local radio stations. These programs can be used to reach another audience with the messages to recruit employees.

Roadside Billboards: Some departments have used billboards to advertise open positions. Again, it is important to select the appropriate image and message to communicate the type of officers the department is recruiting.

Placards: Buses, subways, and local commercial carriers often carry placard advertising. The department should explore opportunities to recruit through the placement of placards. Many local businesses would be happy to display posters for the police department recruitment effort.

Even when police agencies have rigorous selection and screening processes, serious problems still occur with those recruited and hired. Part of the problem is the divergence between what the typical applicant seeks in police work and what police work is actually about. Police agencies are partly at fault by using a recruiting process that emphasizes the part of police work that is the most glamorous but least engaged in. When a large number of applicants are ultimately rejected, this may indicate rigorous screening but also poor recruiting, since the wrong people are applying. This in turn may reflect that police agencies are looking for applicants in the wrong places and squandering their resources.

Compounding the problem is the current numbers of applicants for police positions. The current labor pool for police officer positions is lacking as law enforcement competes with the private sector.5 A refinement of current recruiting practices could help overcome some of the difficulties in making police work attractive in a competitive labor market with a shrinking pool of suitable applicants and a private sector that offers better pay and benefits. Such refinements are also necessary to attract a better applicant at a lower cost. More creativity in the recruiting process, particularly the use of the Internet, a more efficient use of the print media, and a change in hiring standards that are of no or little relevance to police work could help improve the situation.

Visual Tech.
The Future of Recruiting
In today's world, law enforcement agencies are challenged to hire qualified applicants for the position of police officer. Many agencies find themselves in a serious competition for top-quality candidates, particularly in regions of the country where a dense concentration of police departments are located. Accordingly, police administrators and their human resource specialists must decide on a recruitment strategy that best meets the needs of their agency.

Research supports the belief of many that today's police candidates are quite different from those from past generations. This new crop of candidates is thought to be motivated by considerably different ideals and values, making law enforcement employment less of a calling and career and more of an occupation attached to an income.

With this in mind, agency heads still need to fill the vacancies created by the outgoing generation of police officers. To do so, they need to tailor their recruiting approach in a way that best accomplishes the goal of attracting and landing the best available people, while at the same time doing so within the framework of limited funding and fiscal belt tightening.

To best meet their recruiting needs, many agencies have decided to make the most of available technology. The use of Internet Web sites is an example where an agency can reach out to hundreds of thousands of potential candidates nationwide. For this reason, combined with the fact that the maintenance and use of a departmental Web site is inexpensive, the Internet is an effective way to market an agency's recruiting efforts.

Advertisement in newspapers is considered more costly and limited in scope than the Internet but can have an effective place in a recruitment plan when properly used. Well-placed newspaper advertisements in military publications and college newspapers can direct potential candidates to an agency's Web site, where more detailed information about the department can be obtained. An Internet user is more likely to find recruiting information if the user is already interested in the possibility of police employment and therefore seeks out information concerning such employment within some form of publication. To be effective, a strategy such as this must be well thought out before implementation, as expenses and limited funding may preclude a department from taking this step.

The use of television advertisements and commercial spots has been used by some larger police agencies in the past, but the expense of such a recruiting tool generally precludes most departments from doing the same. However, the use of the local department's cable stations will reach a certain part of the population.

Recruiting posters, roadside billboards, and placards on commercial buses are other methods of attracting potential police candidates. To be effective with this strategy, police administrators and human resource specialists must carefully consider marketing themes and direct the messages to a specific target audience.

Police recruiting videos are another method of reaching potential applicants. Although there is an expense on the front end to produce the message, the use on the back end can be limitless and extremely versatile. For example, the completed recruiting message can be mass produced on compact discs and mailed to potential candidates as part of a recruiting package. These same CDs can be disseminated at job fairs and other similar campaigns. In addition, the same recruiting message can be incorporated into an agency's Web site through a link to the video. This particular recruiting tool has appeal to a generation of computer-literate police candidates.

For the many reasons mentioned, law enforcement agencies have had to reconsider past recruitment strategies and have been forced to become more creative in the way they do business. By using the many technologies available to them, police departments will increase the likelihood of attracting and landing the best qualified candidates available. ■

11 Bill Sullivan, "Can Traditional Work Standards and the Contemporary Employee Coexist?," The Police Chief 71 (October 2004): 99-104.
2 Robin Jones, "Recruiting Women." The Police Chief 71 (April 2004): 165-166.
3 See the Portland Police Bureau's Web site at (
4 See the Howard County Police Department's Web site at (
5 Douglas L. Yearwood and Stephanie Freeman, "Analyzing Concerns among Police Administrators: Recruitment and Retention of Police Officers in North Carolina," The Police Chief 71 (March 2004): 43-49.

Further Reading on Police Recruitment



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 1, January 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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