According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), 76 percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States have fewer than 25 full-time officers. Many of these small departments struggle to attract qualified candidates and retain experienced officers who are lured away by larger departments operating more effective recruitment programs that highlight benefits, such as increased opportunities for promotion and specialized training, increased pay, physical fitness incentives and on-duty workout time, educational incentives or tuition reimbursement, and take-home cars or commuter incentives. Larger departments may or may not have formal department recruiters, but they’re willing to spend money and energy to attract and retain quality officers.
Soliciting and refreshing the potential pool of recruits should be an ongoing process, no matter the size of the agency. Too many small departments only think about recruitment after they have a vacancy, which, for some, may be years apart and cause a drastic reduction in available manpower while a new officer is hired and trained. Their recruitment process typically consists of a few inexpensive newspaper ads and word-of-mouth. The only perks they mention are the standard pay and benefits package that may include retirement programs, paid vacation and health and life insurance coverage. To compound the problem, many small agencies are seeing a fraction of the applications they received 10-15 years ago.
Small agencies also have a difficult time retaining experienced officers who may be attracted to the benefits of a larger agency. Some chiefs and sheriffs write off those officers who leave as a cost of doing business, resulting in a costly taxpayer-funded catch-and-release program with trained personnel. Depending on the region of the country, the cost to hire, train and equip a new officer can start around $10,000 and skyrocket from there. However, it’s a one-time expense if a stable candidate is selected. It’s time small agencies make a concerted effort to determine what they should be doing to attract and retain quality officers.
Finding & Attracting the Right Officer
What type of officer is a small agency looking for? Due to a possible lack of on-duty supervision, an officer must be trusted to follow policy and make many decisions without immediate supervisor approval or input. The officer must skillfully utilize verbal techniques and other alternative options to avoid unnecessary fights since there will likely be limited back-up and extended response times. When a fight is unavoidable, an officer must be physically fit and possess a warrior mindset capable of allowing them to fight alone or in small numbers for a lengthy time.
Many applicants for small departments may be approximately college age, but an older, more mature applicant (mid-20s and older) may be the ideal candidate. An older applicant is significantly more likely to be loyal to an employer and more stable than those fresh out of high school or college. While a local applicant isn’t required, officers who live in the jurisdiction before and/or after employment will likely have a greater sense of ownership, history and loyalty to the department and community than those who start or remain outside.
To attract the mature applicant, some departments may need to increase wages. Older applicants may be leaving higher paying jobs and are likely to have families to support. Provide comparisons of wages versus cost of living for your agency and for larger area agencies. Identify and emphasize the benefits you can offer that larger agencies and communities can’t, particularly smaller school class sizes, lower housing prices and lower crime rates. Promote regional benefits and activities, such as hunting or fishing and the community’s proximity to larger metropolitan areas for additional activities and shopping.
Explain that lower call volumes are an opportunity for officers to set their own pace or work on other duties and projects. Officers can take the time to solve problems and make a difference in some people’s lives instead of just bouncing from call to call and back to the same address repeatedly. Detail the ease of sharing critical information and working as a team. Point out that many options are available for continued training since officers have to be able to perform numerous functions often handled by specialists in larger agencies and that there is less competition for the specialty positions that may exist, such as K-9, investigations or SRO. Publicize other potential opportunities for officers including multi-agency task forces, regional SWAT teams or public relations activities.
Some smaller agencies are pooling their resources and attracting more applicants by regionalizing the testing process. Candidates simultaneously test for multiple agencies, increasing their opportunities for employment and the chance to learn about a variety of departments. While regionalized testing may attract more candidates, chiefs and sheriffs shouldn’t remain in the office and leave testing duties to line personnel or to non-department employees. According to Chief Jeff Tilson of the Vinton (Iowa) Police Department, “There is still nothing that can replace management’s hands-on and eyes-on evaluation of every candidate from the very beginning of the process to make sure they find what they’re looking for.” He suggests administrators should always attend testing and observe their potential recruits to see how they interact with others and to detect any ego or arrogance issues, which may not be apparent on an application or in a formal interview.
Getting the Message Out
Regardless of department size, the cheapest and most effective recruiting tools are happy current employees who go out and speak highly of the department to potential applicants. Likewise, take advantage of press releases and other free or low-cost opportunities for public promotion of the agency and its activities. Take the time to attend nearby high schools and college job fairs to plant the idea of a career in law enforcement in minds that may not have previously considered it. County and state fairs, community celebrations, DARE or GREAT programs and Scout meetings also present opportunities to promote the department to future applicants. One small town officer taking time on-duty to play basketball with teenagers at a local park can nurture a positive relationship with local youth and may inadvertently suggest a law enforcement career to some. Think long-term for potential candidates since a small agency may not be hiring every year.
Newspaper ads may still reach some potential law enforcement job seekers, but even applicants for rural agencies are Internet savvy. Department Web sites with an online application or downloadable application packet, as well as online law enforcement job posting websites, are worth considering. Maintain a list of previous applicants’ email addresses to help get the word out when the next round of hiring begins. A DVD promoting the department may seem like a lot of work and expense, but a college or high school film or advertising class may be willing to take on the task for free as a class project.
Police cadet or explorer programs and citizen police academies are very effective methods of promoting a law enforcement career and identifying potential recruits. Due to manpower limitations, small departments should consider joining forces with one another to provide these programs. Reserve officer units are also effective tools for recruitment and provide an available force of additional uniformed officers at little cost. Chief Tilson considers his department’s reserve program as an “incubator” for potential fulltime officers, allowing him a chance to study the officer’s skills, judgment, suitability and adaptability for the job, all while having the officer on a sort of longer-term probationary employment.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the possibility of attracting military personnel simply because of the small size of an agency. Large departments filling numerous positions often send recruiters to large military posts. Though small agencies may not have the budget to send department personnel hundreds of miles away to recruit for a single vacancy, they can certainly take advantage of whatever military facilities or personnel are stationed in their area, including recruitment stations, reserve detachments and National Guard armories. Make contact with their personnel, cultivate a positive relationship and ask them to mention your department to retiring active service members or reservists or guardsmen looking for a career in law enforcement and who may already be living in your jurisdiction.
Keeping Experienced Officers
There will always be some officers who move on to other departments. Still, agencies can take proactive steps to identify their reasons for leaving, address them and lessen further losses of experienced officers.
If you find officers leaving for increased promotional opportunities, establish additional ranks such as corporal and senior or master officer to recognize veteran officers in both pay and status. If officers leave citing a desire to have back-up more readily available, evaluate mutual aid agreements, patrol zones and current staffing levels, including the possible use of on-call officers or reserve officer back-up.
If pay is the central issue, prove to the bean counters that keeping experienced officers is cheaper in the long run. One long-time small town chief believes many small agencies could pay higher salaries to officers but haven’t yet recognized the necessity and benefits of doing so. Despite having the authority to deprive citizens of their freedom by arrest and possibly of their lives by deadly force, a new police officer in his department of fewer than 10 officers makes less than the city’s garbage collector.
Seemingly uncaring attitudes toward officers by administrators and politicians can hurt morale and convince officers to leave. One small town mayor indicated to officers that he would rather have fat and dumb officers than pay for fitness and educational incentives he felt would better enable officers to leave for other departments. In another small town, officers expressed safety concerns about an alarming number of violent fights at a recurring local event and were mocked by their mayor who stated almost wistfully that the officers may be the next to be injured at the fights and allowed the events to continue.
Chief Larry Feaker, LaPorte City (Iowa) Police Department, puts a positive spin on retention issues. He understands he’ll rarely find officers who want to work their entire career in his four-officer department, but he expresses pride when he speaks of former officers who have been hired by larger agencies, such as the state patrol and FBI, because he believes it reflects well on him and the job he did training those officers in their first law enforcement job.
Employment contracts are one of the most common and potentially damaging strikes to employee morale and retention. They require officers who leave the agency within a certain number of years to repay the cost of their training and related expenses. They also demonstrate to officers that the agency doesn’t think it can convince them to stay based on the agency’s own merits. As one chief so aptly stated, “If it was a really good place to work, a contract wouldn’t be necessary to keep people around, would it?”
If a contract alone forces an unhappy officer to stay, that officer’s attitude and work ethic may deteriorate further and create collateral damage throughout the department. Hostages are not effective employees. Many times contracts don’t work and they are bought out by larger agencies that take advantage of the bargain price for a trained and experienced officer. The smaller agency who gladly takes the buyout then mistakenly believes they broke even, despite the fact they cannot quickly regain the knowledge and experience that was lost with the officer who left.
A disturbing trend, at least in the Midwest, is for departments to try and require officers who leave an agency to pay back previously earned wages in addition to the cost of their academy tuition, room and board. Some agencies have even filed lawsuits against former officers to recover past wages. Bill Roemerman, an attorney from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, specializes in employment law and has represented officers in several of these cases. He understands the agencies’ desire to recoup the cost of training an officer, but has successfully argued that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and many agency collective bargaining agreements make wage reimbursements illegal. Roemerman urges officers facing such threats to confer with local employment attorneys.
The DeWitt (Iowa) Police Department has used employment contracts for years and continued them under Chief Gene Ellis, though he has never had to enforce a contract. According to Chief Ellis, the secret to keeping employees in a small department isn’t contracts it’s “making your employees feel valued.” It’s showing concern for them in big ways like recognizing exemplary or heroic work, defending their lawful and justifiable actions and ensuring they have the best training and equipment the agency can realistically provide. You can show concern in seemingly small ways like recognizing special events in their lives and hosting department social activities. Involve officers in decision-making when possible and consider allowing some flexibility in scheduling to accommodate off-duty activities such as sports, education or volunteer public service. Demonstrate to them that the grass is greener where they are rather than wherever they might consider going.
Small agencies face some of the same recruitment and retention problems as larger agencies, but one or two vacancies in small agencies can be much more crippling. Small agencies need to decide whether they want quality personnel and how far they are willing to go to attract and keep them. Seek nontraditional officer applicants and demonstrate to political leaders the need to pay higher salaries in order to attract slightly older, more mature applicants who may have families to support. Try spending a little money doing small but significant things to create a better work environment, rather than spending thousands of dollars on attorneys to write employment contracts and sue officers for reimbursement. At some point administrators and politicians need to look at themselves and honestly judge if they are somehow driving officers away through their attitude or actions.
While some vacancies are unavoidable, small agencies don’t have to sit by idly and accept being simply a training ground for larger agencies as officers travel through a revolving door. With the right recruitment and retention tactics, it may be possible to reverse the trend and attract some experienced officers away from larger departments.
Thanks to the following individuals for their input into this article: Chief Jeff Tilson, Chief Gene Ellis, Chief Larry Feaker and Bill Roemerman.
The Peace Officers Standards & Training (POST)
Recruitment & Retention Best Practices Update
Successfully recruiting and retaining staff while meeting the needs of the community in the rapidly changing law enforcement environment proves challenging for many agencies. The California POST Recruitment & Retention Best Practices Update, available for download at www.post.ca.gov/training/bestpractices/bestpractices-recruitment.asp , addresses these workforce management issues, and reviews best practice models to consider.