Historically, law enforcement officer positions have been relatively easy to fill and often attracted many more applicants than available positions. Law enforcement careers once represented a stable work environment, promotional opportunities, good benefit packages, predictable retirement, and a generally positive career image. Over the years, some of those attractive factors have dwindled, and, simultaneously, workplace expectations have changed. This has resulted in law enforcement agencies’ failing to receive the number of qualified applicants necessary to fill the ranks. In fact, many law enforcement agencies around the United States are facing staffing shortages. In 2006, it was estimated that more than 80 percent of U.S. law enforcement agencies had sworn positions they were unable to fill.1 In 2007, vacancies were still high for many departments with the average large department (at least 300 sworn officers) having 73 vacant openings.2 In order to continue fulfilling their mission in society, today’s law enforcement administrators must find ways to actively attract quality candidates to fill their ranks. This process includes a thorough examination of internal policies and practices to ensure that agencies are attracting the maximum number of candidates. In an age of dwindling resources, administrators should also focus on the efficiency of the process.
Researchers with the Rand Corporation identified environmental and policy factors that are currently playing a role in the ability to effectively recruit police officers.3 When viewed through a different lens, these factors can be identified as internal and external to the policing agency. Internal factors relate to those issues that can be addressed within the agency, such as the hiring process, recruitment duties, and methods of recruitment. External factors are those outside of the agency’s direct control, such as media influence, officer salaries, and economic conditions. While internal factors are often more easily remedied through proper administration, it is imperative that law enforcement leaders address both internal and external factors to bolster their numbers of qualified applicants. The recruitment process is an ongoing function that is essential to the future of an agency.
While many issues are leading the decline in the number of law enforcement applicants, one of the oft-discussed reasons is generational differences. For many years, law enforcement managers drew on an applicant pool that consisted primarily of baby boomers. Baby boomers are generally defined as being born between the early 1940s to mid-1960s.4 This generation offered many high-quality candidates, many of whom had prior military experience and were well suited to law enforcement. As the majority of baby boomer law enforcement officers retired or neared retirement, police managers turned to members of generation X (born between mid-1960s and early 1980s) to fill their agencies’ ranks. Currently, the majority of law enforcement positions are filled by members of generation X, but hiring managers are increasingly recruiting millennials as the replacement generation in the workforce. While the exact timeframe of the generation varies by source, for the purpose of this discussion, the millennials are defined as those individuals born between 1982 and 2000.4 As a result, the current law enforcement workforce in the United States comprises people from three generations: baby boomers, generation Xers, and millennials.
Each of these generations has different patterns of behavior, belief systems, and workplace expectations.5 Millennials can be generally described as team oriented, intelligent, cooperative, technology driven, and interdependent. When compared to members of generation X, millennials appear to have returned to traditional family values, and thus, cherish time away from work. Millennials are money conscious and financially driven—one researcher found that 93 percent believed salary range was critical in choosing a law enforcement agency and almost 92 percent believed retirement benefits were important.6 Additionally, millennials desire a comfortable, relaxed work environment in which they have the opportunity for rapid upward mobility.
Millennials also tend to exhibit some changing attitudes toward what is considered socially acceptable in terms of police officer suitability; for example, 28.6 percent of millennials reported that those with a felony arrest record could still make a good law enforcement officer. Fortunately, of those same individuals polled, 95.3 percent reported that individual character, honesty, and integrity are the most important characteristics of law enforcement officers.7 Researchers also identified two additional cultural changes that have depleted the number of qualified applicants: increased financial indebtedness and increased levels of obesity, both changes that create challenges for a field that is not viewed as lucrative and requires physical fitness.8 The changing nature of the applicant pool is specifically of interest to law enforcement managers because millennial values are occasionally, but not always, contradictory to current law enforcement standards.
In order to attract millennials into law enforcement careers, baby boomers and generation Xers who are in leadership roles must educate themselves about generational differences and workplace expectations. Recruitment strategies should be tailored to meet the needs of the agency, as well as the applicants. At the time of recruitment, managers should encourage the idea that all members of the agency can have an impact on the direction of the department. Allowing line-level officers to participate in the decision-making process within the department is important to millennials. A bottom-up approach to problem-solving and policy making is not only attractive to applicants, but it can also be beneficial for administrators in two ways: (1) creating buy in and ownership in the policies allowing for easier implementation, and (2) the officers expected to work within the policies often have the most experience and can provide the best information related to the practicality of the solution. Additionally, agencies should highlight their dedication to having a family-friendly workplace. When compared with previous generations in which work overshadowed personal life, millennials are more interested in striking a balance between the two. During recruitment, recruiters should be prepared to discuss how leave, sick, comp, and flex time are accrued (and how much) and to highlight the bonds between law enforcement officers and their families both within the agency and the profession at large. On the management side, administrators should be willing to make any reasonable changes to meet the employee’s needs, especially as those needs relate to family matters. Administrators should be creative in employee scheduling in order to ensure shift overlaps, which in turn adds flexibility in work hours. Managers should also consider the use of flex time or comp time as an option for officers who commonly work long hours. Flex time is a common strategy used by managers to allow employees more flexibility in their schedules while still meeting the required number of hours in a work week. Comp time provides employees with a secondary option of using more time away from work rather than receiving overtime for any additional hours worked within a week. Additional strategies could include off-duty family functions, on-site and off-site childcare, allowing officers to take lunch breaks at home, and allotting time and space for families to visit with officers during their lunch breaks. These simple strategies allow officers to make up family and personal time they may have missed due to long hours often associated with police work. This type of flexibility and adaptation can make the job more appealing to a wider pool of qualified millennial candidates.
While the previous suggestions do not cover all the considerations related to recruiting millennials, they provide a starting point for law enforcement managers seeking to better understand millennial applicants and their needs. Administrators can consider the use of these approaches in conjunction with other recruiting strategies to ensure their agencies are attracting the best candidates.
Internal factors are those within the immediate control of the agency and include things such as goals, strategies, resource deployment, policies, and practices. Since internal factors are discretionary for agency administrators, they have the ability to make rapid changes with dramatic effects on the dynamic issue of officer recruitment. In order to effectively recruit, managers must be willing to experiment with different recruiting ideas and practices to see what best fits their agency. It is important for managers to remember that the applicant pool is limited, and neighboring agencies are often competing for the same applicants, so creative strategies are key.
In larger agencies, recruiting units have the primary responsibility of attracting candidates to their agencies. The amount of resources and financial abilities of recruitment units vary from agency to agency. Smaller agencies often have individuals, even regular patrol officers, assigned to the task of recruitment in addition to their other duties. Conversely, many large agencies have officers solely dedicated to the task of recruiting. Regardless of how an agency decides to distribute recruitment responsibilities, proper selection and training of recruitment officers are cornerstones of success.
Recruiter selection begins with identifying officers with a demonstrated interest in the role. These individuals should view their assignment as desirable and career enhancing, possess excellent people skills, and be champions of their departments. After being selected, it is imperative that recruiters receive training about how to conduct their duties to maximize their effectiveness.
Allotted funding of recruitment units and activities is also vital to their success. Administrators should establish a recruitment budget that funds all of the necessary activities and materials for successful recruiting. In addition to providing the actual financial means of recruiting, the establishment of a budget demonstrates the administrator’s ongoing commitment to recruiting and by default the future of the organization.
Tracking recruitment performance is another important component of ensuring a recruiting unit is operating at an optimal level. Recruitment units should be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure goals are being met and to discuss successes and failures in recruiting. One way of tracking performance and gathering data can occur during at the beginning of the hiring process through the use of simple surveys. Agencies should request that applicants fill out surveys or questionnaires specific to their agencies and police work in general. Relevant information includes data such as why the applicant is interested in law enforcement and how the applicant heard about the job opening. By polling applicants, recruiters are better equipped with real-time data and information about their recruiting successes and deficiencies. These data should be kept indefinitely and reviewed to identify trends within an agency or specific locale.
Officers as recruiters
Research has shown that more than 60 percent of law enforcement officers were drawn to their professions by friends or family within law enforcement.9 This type of recruiting is happening at all levels and by all members of the agency, and not specific to only those assigned to recruiting duties. Therefore, managers must develop a culture of recruitment within the agency as well as guidelines for patrol officers to follow.
In order for existing officers to more effectively recruit applicants to their agencies, they should be educated on basic information related to employment at their agencies. This information should include material about the hiring process, benefits of being a police officer at that agency, and how to contact the department for more information. Additionally, officers should be provided with recruitment materials, which include basic information such as salaries and benefits, that can be readily given to potential applicants.
To further reinforce the importance of all members of the agency engaging in recruitment, administrators should develop an incentive program. This program would provide incentives to all employees for recruiting new officers to the agency. Some agencies have opted to provide financial incentives while others have implemented programs that provide time away from work in the form of additional leave or comp time. Providing leave hours as a form of reward also falls in line with the workplace desires of millennials.
Additionally, law enforcement agencies should not overlook recruiting from within their current non-sworn staff. These positions can include administrative staff, evidence custodians, and dispatchers. These non-sworn employees can be a good source of applicants due to their interest in working in public service and having inside knowledge of how police work and the agency functions.
Recruitment materials and events
Recruitment materials and events are important components of successful officer recruitment. Some common avenues of distribution include printed handouts, billboards, newspapers, magazine, radio, television, Internet, and mailings. Events often attended include job fairs, college fairs, and military fairs. Unfortunately, many recruiting units are unable to provide data about the usefulness of any one method. However, most generally agree that using the Internet reaches a significant number of applicants and is one of the most cost-effective means for recruiting. Researchers found that more than 80 percent of those recruited into law enforcement used the internet on a daily basis.10 When using the Internet as a recruitment tool, agencies should ensure their jobs are being posted to advertising sites as well as being posted on their own websites. Agency websites should be easily navigated and provide sufficient information for potential applicants to learn basic facts about a specific agency and how to apply. Each agency must evaluate the workforce in their communities to determine which materials and events are likely to be most successful.
Regardless of the recruiting medium used, research has repeatedly shown that citizens are attracted to law enforcement for the public service aspect of the work. Materials should emphasize public service and community oriented policing, as well as detailed information about the hiring and testing process to becoming a police officer. Furthermore, recruiting materials should provide basic information about salaries and benefits.
Hiring and testing process
The hiring and testing process of becoming a police officer is one of the most important functions to the future of any agency. This process is the primary means for identifying which applicants are the most suitable for police work and which applicants represent potential liabilities to the agency. It is during this phase that managers have their first opportunity to continue public trust by eliminating applicants who do not reflect the values required of law enforcement officers. In order to better their hiring and testing processes, police managers should review their current practices to see where improvements can be made. Each component of the process should be reviewed to ensure peak performance and efficiency.
Many applicants cited a lack of contact from the agency during the hiring process as an obstacle.11 This can be easily remedied by continued interaction with applicants and creating a point of contact within the department’s recruiting unit for applicants to follow up with. Maintaining rapport with applicants helps to demonstrate the department’s interest in the individual and further shows that the department is a welcoming workplace. Failing to follow up with applicants can have a chilling effect on their interest in working for a specific agency.
In a review of the San Diego Police Department’s recruitment practices, researchers found that more than 50 percent of applicants cited the lengthy hiring process as a deterrent to becoming police officers.12 When the duration of a hiring process takes too long applicants are likely to accept jobs in other locations or fields of work. To reduce wait time for applicants, agencies should consider streamlining their application processes such as utilizing open enrollment for applications rather than set dates. The practice of continually accepting applications gives an agency the option of larger applicant pool and the ability to quickly contact perspective employees. Additionally, required portions of the testing process could be offered more frequently and at numerous locations. Another example of streamlining the process is to permit perspective employees to turn in their applications at multiple locations rather than a single place. Agencies should consider accepting applications at numerous locations (police department, city hall, job referral agencies) as well as permitting applicants to apply online. These simple remedies are especially important to millennials who have become accustomed to immediate feedback.
During any hiring process, it is not uncommon for perspective employees withdraw their applications for a variety of reasons. As a means of ensuring that all suitable applicants are considered for employment, agencies should make a practice of following up with applicants that drop out of the hiring process. This simple phone call or email to the applicant may encourage applicants to return to the pool at a later date and could provide information to the agency as to why the applicant withdrew. This practice does not apply to those screened out by the agency.
External factors are those issues outside of the immediate control of the law enforcement agency. Much like internal factors, external factors—such as salaries and financial considerations and the media’s impact on recruiting—can have a direct impact on an agency’s ability to recruit officers. While police administrators do not have the ability to make immediate changes in these areas, they might wish to consider long-term planning strategies to mitigate any negative effects of these external factors.
Salaries and incentive considerations
Police officer salaries are outside of the immediate control of police administrators. Salaries are important to millennials and can carry weight when an applicant is deciding to which agency to apply.13 Unfortunately, low salaries are one of the most oft-cited reasons for not entering careers in law enforcement. Although administrators do not have the ability to immediately raise the salaries of their officers, they must be aware of the market conditions and how their agencies compare with other agencies. In order to do this, law enforcement agencies should demonstrate how their salaries compare favorably with other local agencies. When similar area agencies have large discrepancies in salaries, the lower paying agency is likely to experience fewer applicants. If an agency’s salary is significantly lower than surrounding agencies, administrators should begin working on strategies to raise those salaries. Although salaries are one of the most difficult things to control, it directly affects an agency’s ability to recruit the best officers.
While immediate salary increases are unlikely, police administrators should focus their efforts on emphasizing the intrinsic value of police work and highlighting the public service aspect of the job and how their agency provides that specific service.
Although research shows the effectiveness of financial incentives is inconclusive, they offer employees with opportunities to earn more money than their baseline salaries. Furthermore, incentives provide law enforcement agencies with a means of attracting applicants at a lower cost than simply raising entry-level salaries. Incentives not only add to a benefit package, but also give employees something to work toward. Common incentives used by some agencies include special education, tuition reimbursement, signing bonuses, recognition of police officer’s accomplishments, paid academy salaries, health club membership, relocation reimbursement, mortgage discount, scheduling preference for school, uniform pay, salary increases for further education, unlimited overtime, take home cars, bonuses for multilingual and hazardous pay, shift differential, and housing assistance. Agency managers should evaluate which incentives would be most appropriate for their agencies and work toward implementing them. Recruiting managers should highlight how incentives can significantly bolster base pay.
Too often, in today’s media, law enforcement–related issues have negatively dominated the headlines. As a result, many believe that law enforcement’s image has been tarnished. The recent Black Lives Matter social movement has caused many in U.S. society to reevaluate their perceptions of law enforcement. In an era of law enforcement agencies attempting to diversify their workforces, some police administrators have reported that the negative attention is undermining recruitment efforts. Furthermore, many police agencies are failing to uphold public expectations and making bad press on a routine basis. Scandals are being published and become representative of specific departments and blemish the entire law enforcement community. These scandals include acts such as sexual assaults, suicides, and domestic violence.
In order to mitigate negative media attention, agencies can identify and release those officers with a demonstrated high-liability track record. Additionally, officers at all levels of an organization should work hard to instill and maintain a positive public reputation for their agencies. Building partnerships with existing media outlets may provide law enforcement with avenues to publicize good deeds and to provide transparency about the operations of the police department.
Shortages in adequate recruits are a complex problem for today’s police managers. Recruiting police officers is often amorphous and rapidly changing, leaving police managers without a one-size-fits-all approach to the solution. As a result, many agencies continue to repeatedly face recruiting woes. Rather than continue with this cycle of poor recruitment, police managers must take a proactive approach by staying abreast of applicants’ workplace needs and expectations. While the internal and external factors identified in this project are not fully comprehensive of all recruitment-related issues for law enforcement, they represent a starting point for managers to begin making improvements. It will be through these efforts that law enforcement managers make strides in recruiting today’s and tomorrow’s law enforcement officers.
1 William J. Woska, “Police Officer Recruitment: A Public Sector Crisis,” The Police Chief 73, no. 10 (October 2006).
2 Jeremy M. Wilson, Bernard D. Rostker, Cha-Chi Fan, Recruiting and Retaining America’s Finest: Evidence Based Lessons for Police Workforce Planning (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2010), 15.
3 Greg Ridgeway et al., Strategies for Improving Officer Recruitment in the San Diego Police Department (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2008).
4 Tim Lindquist, “Recruiting the New Millennium Generation: The New CPA,” The CPA Journal (August 2008).
5 Francis L. McCafferty, “The Challenge of Selecting Tomorrow’s Police Officers from Generations X and Y,” The Journal of the American of Psychiatry and the Law 31, no. 1 (2003): 78-88.
6 Laura Werber Castaneda and Greg Ridgeway, Today’s Police and Sheriff Recruits: Insights from the Newest Members of America’s Law Enforcement Community (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2010).
7 McCafferty, “The Challenge of Selecting Tomorrow’s Police Officers from Generations X and Y.”
8 Barbara Raymond et al., Police Personnel Challenges After September 11: Anticipated Expanded Duties and a Changing Labor Pool (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2005).
9 Castaneda and Ridgeway, Today’s Police and Sheriff Recruits.
13 McCafferty, “The Challenge of Selecting Tomorrow’s Police Officers from Generations X and Y.”
Please cite as
Ben Langham, “Millennials and Improving Recruitment in Law Enforcement,” The Police Chief (May 24, 2017), http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/millennials-and-improving-recruitment.