Recruitment report | Explorer programs | Volunteers in LE
October 17, 2019 | View as webpage

In December 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) brought together 250 participants to discuss one of the most serious issues impacting modern law enforcement: the police recruitment and retention crisis. To assess the situation, PERF surveyed its members about workforce trends and found that 63% percent of agencies said the number of applicants for police officer positions had decreased either significantly (36%) or slightly (27%) over the past five years.

Out of that meeting came PERF’s latest report – The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It – the key findings of which are summarized by Chief Joel Shults in today’s Leadership Briefing. In addition, Chief Stacey White details why a police explorer program should be a key component of your agency’s recruitment campaign.

What steps has your agency taken to improve police recruitment and retention? Email

Nancy Perry, Police1 Editor-in-Chief
PERF explores the police recruitment and retention crisis
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

The opening statement of a new report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) titled The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It succinctly states what is a common refrain among police leaders: “Most law enforcement agencies are sensing a crisis in their ability to recruit new officers, and to hold on to the ones they have.”

PERF’s 72-page report is based largely on its own research and surveys of police agencies and current police officers to determine goals and expectations of currently employed police practitioners in departments of various sizes representing 45 states, Washington D.C., and Canada.

The bottom line is that the applicant shortage is not a short-term issue that can be resolved by agencies relying solely on traditional recruitment methods to fill the ranks.

Here are the key findings from the PERF report:

Policing has changed

Police officers are expected to operate in a digital age where digital crime and digital solutions are the norm. At the same time that it seems more people are forgoing personal engagement while turning to their screens for information and social interaction, populations expect more community engagement from its police officers. The competing traits of technological savvy and expertise in human interactions are both essential elements for today’s police officers.

Law enforcement continues to be the gateway for social services, but more frequently as a provider, not just a referral service. Police officers are expected to deal expertly with persons in mental health crisis with a superhuman capacity for avoiding physical coercion. Constant surveillance, instant false narratives in social media, and anti-police sentiments by politicians and civic leaders complicate the balance.

Information provided by police agencies to potential recruits is a marketing challenge. The door-kicking, chopper-rappelling action hero brochures still have an appeal to the adventure seeker, but do they appeal to the desire of candidates to provide community service as a helping profession? Do the appeals to the service-minded ignore the fact that dealing with violence is still a reality in policing?


As economic conditions and populations fluctuate, cycles of available applicants can predictably ebb and flow.

In past eras, police agencies would see dozens or even hundreds of applicants for an available opening. With a current low unemployment rate, potential police employees have more income and employment opportunities to consider.

The stability of a potential 20-year career and retirement from one law enforcement agency has far less appeal to today’s applicants. For those who are looking at long careers, the appeal of taking a lateral position with a more stable and better-paying agency with a solid retirement plan creates competition between agencies in addition to other sectors of the economy.

Just as the cycle of retirements from the 1960s and 1970s hiring created openings, the federal hiring grants and crime-stoked hiring of the 1990s that added officers to the rolls have generated a current spate of retirements. Agencies are also noting an increase in officers who leave the profession entirely before retirement. 

Lifestyle challenges

With potentially fewer military veterans seeking law enforcement employment, as well as fewer legacy officers – sons and daughters of police officers – the structured lifestyle of policing appeals to fewer employable men and women. Many agencies have altered policies on visible tattoos, reduced the number of drug-free years required before an appointment and reduced required educational levels. Faster application processes can keep candidates from being discouraged about the pace of the hiring sequence. Many agencies are attempting to grow applicants from within Explorer and internship programs.

Expectations of police leaders, community members and potential applicants create a recruitment challenge that will exist for the foreseeable future.

Additional resources:
Explorers grow up to be officers

By Chief Stacey White

When I became chief of the Blanchard Police Department in 2015, the agency was struggling with public relations.

It was thought that the best way to bridge the gap between the police department and the community would be to invite the citizens into the department through a positive program such as a Citizens' Police Academy, but there wasn’t enough money and manpower to hold a fully and properly organized academy, so we scrapped that suggestion.

I stumbled upon another idea when I found some police explorer badges and shirts while cleaning out a closet in the police station. I then learned that the department previously had a Boy Scout Explorer program at one time, but it had been closed down because of a lack of participation. 

Leadership is critical to success

The key to a successful citizen outreach program is to have the right person in place to manage the program. At that time there was but one officer in the department who had the desire and ability ‒ Officer Matthew Haines ‒ a rookie officer who loved diving into any program involving kids in the Blanchard community. Some would say that was because he was a big kid himself. In truth, he had a heart like one and was always looking for the good in society.

To ensure the viability of starting an explorer program, we conducted surveys at local schools and public events to assess interest. Information from the surveys indicated that Blanchard was a prime location for an explorer program. Officer Haines was given the reins to steer the explorer program into the future, with the full support of the city council, which backed it with policies and funding.

Once the official blessing came from the Boy Scouts of America organization, it then became necessary to canvas the community for donations and to begin fundraising events. Soon the people of Blanchard and the explorer members rallied for the program and helped fund the initial costs needed to buy uniforms and other equipment.

Explorer programs promote police recruitment

Since the beginning of the program, three explorers have been hired as city employees, either as communications officers or in other roles. Officer Chase Stinson was the first explorer to age out of the program; he went straight from it into serving as a police officer in the community where he grew up. Another explorer decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.

To say that the explorer program serves as a great police recruitment tool is an understatement. It is also a great public relations tool. Members of the explorer program help provide a level of transparency by getting information out to the community that positive changes have been made within the police department.

The explorer program in Blanchard did meet some resistance. There was quite a bit of pessimism from the community. People weren't opposed to the idea of the program but had some negativity about the police department, which was reeling from some controversial incidents. Overcoming that pessimism would not have been accomplished had it not been for the support from community leaders like the school administration, local business owners and residents who were willing to leave the past behind and support the community’s youth.

Always seek community leadership support

Any agency that wants to start an explorer program should first seek the support of community leaders. The education of the community was nearly a non-issue once community leaders got involved and pledged their support.

To decide if an explorer program is feasible in your community, find the nearest explorer programs, then compare the size of those explorer posts to the demographics of your area. If there are a large number of members in an explorer post nearby, it’s probably best not to attempt to move forward with a post of your own.

If demographics are optimal to establish an explorer post, take all the information you have accumulated and present it to your governing body. Information should include liability concerns, policies, budgetary projections and, most importantly, community interest in the form of letters and other communications.

An explorer program can only be successful with cooperation from the community, which includes elected and appointed officials of the local government.

About the author

Chief Stacey White is a 26-year veteran of law enforcement, and a six-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps, where he served as an instructor at MCCDC, Quantico, VA. Chief White holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in executive management and leadership from Purdue University. He is in the dissertation phase of his PhD in public service leadership at Walden University. In addition to 16 years of police administrative service to date, Chief White is also an adjunct professor for Northeastern State University of Oklahoma. 

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