Trending Topics

A lean and efficient agency starts with hiring

Imagine if our recruiting, training and supervision were cooperatively and competently implemented with the intention of building a skillful, ethical policer


Getty Images

By Adam P. Knowland

What does a skilled police officer look like in modern times, when most agencies are striving for lean and efficient operations? Fundamentally, the answer is the same as it’s always been: A skilled police officer is one who thinks critically, adapts strategies as circumstances change, looks to solve problems rather than putting bandages on them and can move fluidly among roles – from protector to enforcer to warrior – at a moment’s notice. Additionally, it is someone who can put aside personal beliefs when they wear the uniform.

Unfortunately, our profession has not historically recruited or hired with those attributes in mind. When I attended the San Diego Regional Public Safety Training Institute in 1995, it was evident military service was valued. Women were still largely unrepresented. Running ability, physical strength and command presence were the primary focuses. We trained to be warriors first and foremost, with an intense emphasis on officer safety, all of which was heavily reinforced during field training after graduation.

It was often said during field training that you would be wise to adopt your current field training officer’s approach and then develop and adopt your own approach to policing upon becoming a solo officer. I have had the opportunity to work with and get to know many outstanding police officers during my 28-year career. What I’ve found is that too many were what could be termed “happy accidents” in that they developed themselves into skillful and ethical policers after training. Imagine, however, if our recruiting, training and supervision were cooperatively and competently implemented with the intention of building that skillful, ethical policer.

The answer is difficult in practice

I would argue that the measure and recognition of actual competency have often been missed in our profession. It is improving, but the number of bad outcomes during police encounters and the severity of these incidents tells us we have a long way to go. In this era of difficulty recruiting and hiring, developing such measures becomes even more important. I firmly embrace the practice of running lean while remaining efficiently competent rather than filling vacancies for the sake of filling them. You have only to look at Memphis, Tennessee to see the danger in the latter mentality.


If, however, you are running lean, as most agencies are, it becomes even more imperative to hire the right people with the right qualities. Lean, competent and efficient requires agencies to redefine what services they can and cannot provide and proactively share them with the community. The focused policing strategies required to run lean will most likely result in reduced capacity for certain services like responses to traffic accidents, alarms, etc. Working with your community and managing expectations ahead of changes is absolutely necessary.

The burning question, therefore, becomes how to run lean while also remaining efficient. The answer is simple in theory but difficult in practice: Hire the right people, effectively train them in the right disciplines, and properly supervise them to ensure they follow and implement the strategies the agency has identified.

Why is the implementation so difficult? Well, mostly because change is difficult. How many times have you questioned a process or procedure only to be told “because that’s how we’ve always done it”? Bringing about true change requires a lot of effort and follow-through, most of which is in addition to one’s day-to-day work. And so great ideas may wither because there is simply no one available to implement them.

We must redefine what is important and change training and supervision to support that evolving vision. A significant component of the early molding of effective, skillful and ethical police officers lies with field training officers. FTOs should be viewed and treated as some of the most important members of any agency. Yet, many of us have a standard application that centers mostly around time on duty. Once I even had a chief who just selected everyone on the eligible list because he didn’t want to deal with officers complaining about why they weren’t selected.

To be successful, FTOs must be considered a key component of the agency’s leadership team. Leadership should meet with FTOs regularly, keep them apprised of new directions and fully integrate them with the principles and characteristics sought for new recruits. FTOs who are valued for their influence can act as the lever needed to fully implement changing directions and priorities. Carefully selecting and giving value to their voice and influence is a key to success.

Create a leadership team

Another important component is general supervision. Supervisors must be fully on board with changing priorities and directions. How do you get them there? One way would be to integrate them, along with the FTOs and other departmental trainers, into a “leadership team.” This team would meet quarterly or biannually, depending on agency size, and receive the same consistent message from the command team, city leaders and community influencers, which they could then carry through to implementation.

Supervisors’ roles have changed dramatically, with increasing administrative responsibilities reducing the day-to-day contact they have with officers, but one thing that has not changed is the dreaded annual evaluation that outlines how successful an officer was during the previous rating period. Another strategy for developing a lean and effective agency, therefore, lies in modifying the annual evaluation into a coaching opportunity that provides a framework for the employee to be successful moving forward.

Should we really be rating people on categories like trust or personal responsibility – things that should be inherent in their jobs? As agencies redefine what is important to them and their communities, a coaching model that outlines how an employee can support and implement those ideals and goals will be significantly more effective than ratings on personal attributes and deficiencies, which can be readily addressed through written policy and daily supervision.

If someone is deemed not trustworthy or accountable, a supervisor should address this immediately, not wait to put it into an annual evaluation. I have learned that employees pay attention to what we pay attention to. We simply need to tell them what we are paying attention to. Turning evaluations into coaching occasions for future development is a way to do that, as well as implement change and build upon expectations set at the hiring process.

Finally, and perhaps most important, successfully running a lean and effective agency rests on hiring the right people, rather than trying to mold them after the fact. My agency, like many others, used a personal information questionnaire (PIQ) during the hiring process, which is an important tool that allows the applicant to reveal the “good, bad and ugly” of their background. Such a tool allows an investigator to delve into those topics, assists in evaluating the truthfulness of the applicant when paired with a polygraph exam and, most important, provides the final decision-maker context to make informed decisions about issues that arose during the background.

As well, a key component to hiring good officers is an actual interview with the decision-maker. In my agency, each applicant had to interview with a captain who either stopped the process or passed them on to an interview with the chief of police, who could make the offer of employment. While a chief’s interview may not be practical in larger agencies, it is paramount that the final interviewer has the rank, influence and vision to make an appropriate and accurate assessment of each candidate. We simply cannot leave these critical hiring decisions with random police personnel or human resources.

Furthermore, in addition to the PIQ/polygraph format already in place, agencies must be deliberate in identifying the characteristics they want and in restructuring their processes and interviews around determining if applicants possess those characteristics. We must be more intentional in our hiring practices, with an eye toward supporting identified needs and expectations. Simple civil service exams don’t cut it. There are few bad outcomes in this business that cannot be traced, in some way, back to poor hiring.

What does the answer look like?

I once decided to interview some tenured officers by asking them the same questions I was asking of potential hires. I was taken aback, to say the least, when far too many provided answers I would have deemed unacceptable for a new hire. This highlights how important it is to be consistent in hiring, training and supervision. Doing so will build the foundation for effective policing and bridge the gaps between ever-changing expectations and priorities.

What does a competent, ethical police officer look like in today’s lean agency? A competent, ethical policer is an officer who can readily exchange a warrior mindset for a protector mindset and vice versa. These officers possess a keen ability to think critically and make decisions based on rapidly evolving circumstances and consider their actions in the totality. They are problem solvers, great communicators and put aside personal beliefs while wearing the uniform. While these may not be easy to find or mold, if we are intentional and focused in our recruitment, training and supervision, we can each ensure our lean agencies remain effective and efficient ones.

NEXT: Why agencies need an internal leadership training program

About the author

Adam P. Knowland has 27 years of law enforcement experience exclusively with the Oceanside (California) Police Department. His duties have included 12 years in patrol and investigations as a member of line-level staff and four years as supervisory staff. He has six years of experience as a member of the management team and five as a division commander in the Support Operations and Investigations divisions.