In these changing times, the challenges of attracting qualified applicants to forsake the gains of other careers to join the law enforcement community continue to grow. Agencies that in the past didn't have to worry about a quality applicant pool or the geographic availability of future officers now find themselves promoting themselves heavily in-state and in other parts of the country. Some are offering hiring bonuses and, in some cases, bringing officers into their department at the same promotional level as their previous department. And that's just the laterals. With new recruits, the situation appears to be even more dire as departments find themselves competing against other departments for the same candidates.
So what's a department to do? Well, there's a well known adage in the automotive racing world, Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. It refers to the importance of branding in auto racing, and it holds that a win in a big race on Sunday by a certain brand means customers will flock to the showrooms on Monday. And, for the most part, the adage holds true. Witness the explosive growth of NASCAR racing in the United States. Even non race fans, unless they live in a cave, have heard the names Earnhardt, Petty, Gordon and Stewart on TV and radio, and have seen the merchandising displays in places like The Home Depot. So, given that NASCAR has the largest sports fan base in the country, it only makes sense to think that many of these fans might be interested in pinning a badge on if properly reached. It's Marketing 101.
Enter General Motors, Tony Stewart and the Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas DPS). Recently, I was invited to the General Motors Assembly Plant in Arlington, Texas, to meet with the Texas DPS and Tony Stewart, driver of the NASCAR Nextel Cup General Motors #20 race car. The plant primarily builds the Tahoe platform, including the new 2007 PPV (reviewed in the January issue, p. 18). The Texas DPS has ordered several hundred of the new Tahoes for patrol duties, and Tony Stewart was there to meet with the UAW workers at the plant. While there, Tony drove the new Tahoe PPV, and worked with DPS officers to stop plant workers around the plant and give them tickets. These citations were actually passes to the NASCAR Busch Series race occurring later in the week, but it was interesting to see a top-rated NASCAR driver and a law enforcement officer taking enforcement action side-by-side. And while the plant employees enjoyed the spectacle, a more important venue lay outside with the film crew.
Senior Corporal Joe Applewhite is a recruiter for the Texas DPS. Stationed in north Texas, he is responsible for finding qualified candidates in 30 different counties. Trooper Lonny Haschel also works for the Texas DPS as a public information officer for the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. He assists in recruiting and educating the public on important safety issues like DUI and safety belt use. I met with both men at the Arlington plant to discuss the importance of participating in public-service announcements (PSAs) with Tony Stewart and GM, as well as the challenges they face in the recruitment area.
According to Applewhite, the agency loses ten to 12 officers a month, a rate that has remained consistent over the years due to the usual reasons of retirement, switches to other careers and the like. And, Applewhite says, the pool of qualified applicants has shrunk. Every agency in the area is now competing for the same pool of applicants. With an agency that numbers approximately 3,500 sworn officers, the need for larger pools of qualified candidates is crucial due to the number of job openings. Filling these positions has proved challenging because while the number of applications remains at a good level, the percentage of qualified applicants within that pool remains low. And, like most departments, funding for professional PR campaigns, recruitment efforts and gee-whiz marketing tactics remains difficult to come by.
So, the opportunity for the Texas DPS to integrate itself into a PSA with high-caliber partners like General Motors and Tony Stewart was a windfall that hopefully will attract NASCAR fans to the recruitment office. For GM, it was an opportunity to showcase its new Tahoe PPV and its role as a supplier of vehicles to the Texas DPS, and highlight its concern for traffic safety and community involvement. For Tony Stewart and NASCAR, it meant maintaining good sponsor relations, placed a NASCAR twist on important safety messages and placed Stewart on the television screens of millions of Texas drivers. Stewart had some personal interest in the matter as well he is in the process of completing law enforcement training for an agency in the South, and will have been sworn in as a reserve officer by the time this article is published.
On the day of my visit, several PSAs were shot with both Stewart and Haschel. The first addressed the national Click-It-or-Ticket campaign. According to Haschel, a traffic fatality occurs every two and a half hours in Texas. Texas has a primary seat belt law, so enforcement is vigorous. With Tony Stewart relating the importance of safety belts in his race car, as well as his own personal use, the hope is viewers will heed his call for seat belt use. This type of PSA is fairly common, although usually not with the level of star power as a champion NASCAR driver.
More interestingly, the second PSA with Stewart was directed at recruitment efforts. By integrating a NASCAR angle into its recruiting efforts, Applewhite says it builds positive name recognition with the public for the Texas DPS. Haschel adds that NASCAR popularity in Texas is huge, especially in the last five years, and he and Applewhite hope the PSA will strike a chord with NASCAR s huge fan base when they see Tony Stewart promoting the Texas DPS on television.
To put it in perspective, the Texas Motorplex, the sold-out site of the weekend's NASCAR races, holds approximately 160,000 people. This makes it larger than most football, basketball and baseball stadiums combined. Add that to the millions of race viewers on television, and the number of potential candidates the Texas DPS can reach is mind boggling. Imagine a fan who, while watching the race, happens to catch the ad with Stewart talking about how cool it would be to drive a Chevrolet for the Texas DPS. In the background sits a shiny new black and white 2007 Tahoe PPV, all polished up with LED lights ablaze.
For readers who have any sway over the direction of recruitment efforts for their department, my experience in Arlington with the Texas DPS, GM and Tony Stewart shows it's indeed possible to get high-profile endorsement from top-name celebrities and companies to help in finding qualified law enforcement applicants. And we all know we could use more of those.