FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Law enforcement deals with challenges every day, and in the past 50 years, we’ve certainly faced a lot—soaring crime rates, increased public scrutiny, budget crises, the plague of drugs, the scourge of gangs, the threat of terrorism, etc. We have a new challenge, though, that affects almost every department in this country and has the potential to undermine our basic ability to put officers on the street and dramatically affect officer safety.
The perfect storm of police staffing is upon us. Nearly every agency in this country is having difficulty meeting its most basic staffing needs, and it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. From the smallest departments to the massive NYPD, agencies are going short, often by hundreds of officers.
The recruiting crisis is due to a number of factors, most of which a police department has little control over. Birth rates in this country have declined, making workers in the prime employment years a valuable commodity. At the same time, the economy has grown, giving those workers a variety of employment options. Then there’s the matter of being a nation at war. Every branch of the military is actively recruiting to meet its needs and, for the most part, they dip into the same demographic group from which we recruit. On the home front, the Border Patrol has mounted the most aggressive and well-funded recruitment effort in its history—it expects to hire 6,000 new agents by the end of next year and has mounted a multi-city, single-day process that churns out new hires by the hundreds, placing them in an academy 30 days later.
Meanwhile, many agencies are experiencing an unprecedented exodus of experience due to career timing and enhanced retirement benefits. It’s commonly said one-third or more of an agency’s work force will retire within five years. Compounding the challenge, law enforcement demands a high-quality job applicant—one who can pass a background check. That background often collides head-on with a cultural shift that has changed many societal norms in terms of responsibility and values. This is a nice way of saying many in our potential job pool have engaged in behavior that precludes employment as a cop.
To combat the challenge, agencies have become aggressive about recruiting, really aggressive. Full-page ads, billboards, traveling recruiting teams and high-dollar signing bonuses are all part of the effort. In Houston and Dallas, signing bonuses for experienced officers run $7,000 and $10,000, respectively. Both agencies need several hundred officers.
But perhaps the effort underway to launch a new police department in Miami Gardens, Fla., best exemplifies the market. To get the agency up and running within 18 months, the city manager authorized the following incentive package: a $12,000 signing bonus with an additional $2,000 for detectives; a $7,000 moving allowance; a $2,000 city-residence incentive with $5,000 in-city housing assistance; a take-home car; full tuition reimbursement; and a pension with no employee contribution. The problem: Providing signing bonuses for experienced officers depletes the resources of other jurisdictions.
Obviously, staffing remains key to providing basic public safety services and can dramatically affect officer safety and morale. Agencies will find a way to meet their basic staffing needs, and I fear this will mean lowering the bar. Applicants we would have previously rejected will find their way into a position of trust, and it’s only a matter of time before society pays the price with cops who find it too easy or too tempting to engage in unethical behavior. We’ve seen it before in major cities that had to do massive recruiting drives.
OK, there’s the problem, and I’m loath to sound the alarm without offering up solutions. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’ve done hundreds of entry-level and promotional interviews, conducted countless background investigations, designed recruiting efforts for multiple agencies and served three years on the California POST Commission, the agency responsible for the hiring and training standards for all California officers. I’ve also traveled around our country and talked to representatives of agencies from every type of community and mission you can imagine. I know full well there are places where the officers make less money than the starting wage at the local Home Depot.
There are two sides to the equation, supply and demand, and we can actually work on both sides to ease the problem. Let’s take a look at the supply side first. Law enforcement has always drawn a certain element of our society, young males who are action and outdoor oriented. These folks will beat a path to our door regardless. But what about the rest of society, the folks who might not have considered law enforcement as a career? Here’s where marketing comes in.
Have you noticed the commercials for teachers? They’re designed to point out how rewarding a career in teaching can be, and they’re not geared toward hiring for one particular school district. Law enforcement should begin doing the same thing on a national scale. We should market law enforcement as public service at its finest. Imagine if at the end of an episode of “Law and Order” you see a short vignette by a real officer who, in a matter of seconds, provides a real-life example for millions of people of what it’s like to work in a meaningful career. Then the ad displays a Web site where those interested can find out more about the vocation, take a sample aptitude and written test, and view a listing of job opportunities around their zip code.
We should start even earlier in the schools. First, by taking the time to model our jobs and make that positive impression among kids often looking for real-life heroes, kids who all too often lack an authority figure at home. Second, by running cadet and explorer programs, which have proven to be a great way to build a steady source of potential officers. Yes, they must be managed, but they have this way of developing an unbelievable level of agency loyalty as youths go through some of the most important years of their life. Think of it as a long-term investment that yields big dividends by providing a steady flow of potential applicants about whom you know much more than any written test or oral interview could ever provide.
Now let’s address the demand side. Retirements and transfers make up the bulk of attrition. Let’s use the incentive tool, not to attract another agency’s officers, but to reward and retain the ones we have. We can structure incentives to encourage people to stay active in public safety even if they have formally retired by allowing them to begin to draw their retirement while working as a peace officer. Some criticize this as double dipping, but it’s no different than an officer who retires and gets another job. And most of these arrangements actually save money because they pay a set figure without benefits.
Finally, let’s encourage officers to recruit with referral incentives. Who knows better what an agency needs than the officers working the streets of that jurisdiction? In the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an agency looking to hire 1,000 new deputy sheriffs this year and next, a referral program accounts for approximately one-fourth of the new hires. Most agencies find this type of program is very effective because employees tend to recruit quality applicants. After all, they know their life may depend on the person they recruit.
We must stop looking at recruiting as a competition and instead see it as a long-term national challenge. We must collectively pool our efforts through regional advertising, public service announcements, cadet and explorer programs, career-retention incentives and similar efforts designed to improve both the supply and demand sides of the equation. This goes to the very core of our operational ability and should be a priority for us all. —Dale Stockton, editor