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A profession in crisis: Addressing recruitment and hiring practices in law enforcement

Departments are competing with other departments, as well as the private sector, for the best and brightest employees


Recruiting and retaining qualified police officers is one of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement leaders.


This article is the first in a three-part series on recruitment and retention strategies in law enforcement.

By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Recruiting and retaining qualified police officers is one of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement leaders. Low pay, antiquated hiring practices, negative public perception, high attrition rates, exposure to chronic stress and trauma, and increasing responsibilities all contribute to the downturn in the number of police applicants. Many agencies report that the quality of applicants has also lowered significantly. Military call-ups, use of illicit drugs, obesity and excessive debt have lessened the qualified applicant pool.

Unfortunately, these employment challenges coincide with the retirement of many Baby Boomer officers. The gradual exit of this generation of officers is leaving a significant hole in personnel. These officers, who were enticed by pension benefits to join the force, generally remained at the same police organization for the duration of their career. Their departure means not only the loss of experience and knowledge of police work, but also a vital component of on-the-job training for the next generation of officers.

Hiring and training officers is time-consuming and costly, therefore, it is paramount that agencies develop an effective plan to recruit, hire, and retain the most-qualified candidates. Agencies must be committed to identifying and only employing the best candidates available, not merely eliminating the least qualified.

Recruitment Strategies

When it comes to recruitment, law enforcement organizations must seek out officers who reflect the diverse racial and ethnic cultures, genders and generational differences among their citizenry. To start, law enforcement leaders should evaluate existing gaps in their department by conducting a staffing analysis. Ideally, the demographics of the department should mirror that of the community. For example, racially diverse communities should be served by racially diverse police organizations.

It is also valuable for leaders to outline what type of person constitutes the ideal police candidate for their organization and the community. The ideal candidate should be more than just qualified for the job, he or she should integrate with the culture of the organization. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (2009) recommends identifying the top performers within their agency, gathering their background information (years on the job, military experience, college education, prior job experience, etc.), and notable skills and attributes to create an “ideal candidate” profile.

As part of a recruitment strategy, it’s important for leadership to evaluate what makes the agency unique and appealing to potential candidates. Leaders should identify and clearly articulate the core values of the organization and make sure those values permeate every facet of their organization to include recruitment.

Leaders must also assess and address issues that are likely to prevent ideal candidates from applying. For example, the agency might have high-turnover rates and low morale among current officers. What can the agency do to address those problems?

From an external perspective, how does the agency compare to neighboring agencies? Are there differences in population growth, community relations, demographics, annexations, or pay and benefit plans?

Leaders also need to consider the agency’s relationships with stakeholders and how that may affect employment. How is the agency perceived by those in the community, local politicians, the media, school administrators, and business leaders?

These are just a few reflective and internal recommendations that agencies should take into consideration before implementing recruitment or retention initiatives.

Enhance Hiring Practices with a Recruiting and Hiring Unit

Proactive recruiting is necessary in the current environment of the policing profession. If they don’t already have one, agencies should have a dedicated Recruiting and Hiring Unit (RHU). The number of personnel dedicated to this unit depends on the agency’s staffing needs and budgetary constrictions. The recruiting staff should be selected carefully and exemplify what the agency wants in their potential recruits. It should also include several officers who reflect the diversity of the community being served.

Agencies also need to regularly review their hiring practices and policies. The agency should evaluate their current qualification requirements including education minimums, residency requirements, and physical fitness standards. In addition, agencies should review their disqualifiers to determine if they are still appropriate. Disqualifiers usually include past drug use, minor arrests, visible tattoos and poor financial credit history.

Once these reviews have been conducted, the RHU should work to streamline the hiring process. In many police departments, the hiring process takes six months or more and often requires the candidate to make numerous trips to the police department, training facilities, or other venues. For applicants traveling out-of-state or even from a neighboring city, this can be a deterrent.

The reality of the shallow employment pool is that agencies need to improve their practices. Departments are competing with other departments, as well as the private sector, for the best and brightest employees. Making recruitment and hiring improvements will pay off, as enhanced selection policies often lead to lower rates of personnel turnover, fewer disciplinary problems, higher morale, better community relations, and more efficient and effective service to the community.

About the Author

Nicole Cain has been an instructor with American Military University for six years and has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than nine years. She has more than 18 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities to include patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community-oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section’s Felony Intake where she prepares all felony cases for the State Attorney’s Office. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses, and conducted interrogations. She attends Southeastern University where she is pursuing her Doctoral degree in Education (Ed.D). To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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