February 19, 2020 | View as webpage

While recent headlines continue to paint a grim picture about police recruitment, new strategies are helping agencies find and hire cops. Government support for recruitment initiatives in 2020 includes the $400M COPS Office Hiring Program, which provides funds directly to departments to hire new or rehire existing law enforcement officers.

Your department may be developing recruitment strategies and seeking funding to hire officers, but do you know what motivates someone to become a cop? In this month’s Leadership Briefing we share the results of a survey of 1,000 respondents aged 18-35 who were asked what would drive them to consider a career in law enforcement, and Police1 columnist Lt. Dan Marcou addresses whether nepotism policies negatively impact police hiring efforts.

P.S. Do you know someone in your professional network who would benefit from a subscription to the Police1 Leadership Briefing? Forward this newsletter and encourage them to sign up here.

Nancy Perry, Editor-in-Chief
'Why I want to be a cop': Developing recruitment messaging to match police candidate motivations

By Sharon Carothers, Sean Smoot and Dallas Thompson

It’s no secret that police departments are struggling to find recruits willing to protect and serve. Couple low unemployment rates with safety concerns, bureaucratic hiring systems, limited recruitment budgets, non-competitive salaries and negative perceptions about police among the general public and you have a “perfect storm.”

To better understand how to address these challenges and identify and recruit quality candidates, Sensis and 21CP Solutions LLC partnered to conduct a national online survey among 1,000 respondents aged 18-35 to understand the drivers and obstacles for potential candidates considering a career in law enforcement.

The purpose of the study was to:

  • Gauge career aspirations relevant to known police recruitment hurdles;
  • Assess consideration of law enforcement careers;
  • Identify external factors impacting consideration of a career in law enforcement.

Here are some preliminary results that provide insight into what young adults are thinking about when open to a law enforcement career, which in turn can inform stronger, more effective police recruitment communications.

More than one-third (34%) of respondents indicated an openness to considering law enforcement as a potential career. These potential recruits are “low-hanging fruit” in terms of messaging and engagement. Let’s take a look at some of their characteristics to consider when crafting messages and strategies targeting these groups for law enforcement employment:

1. Survey respondents seek a set of key values in their employer: respect, safety, integrity and honor with a focus on problem-solving.

Law enforcement offers these values and benefits to its employees, all of which are important to highlight in messaging and recruitment efforts. Keeping these characteristics in mind when recruiting can help convert a hesitant candidate into a yes, and ultimately will guide recruits to believe in what they are doing – working in a career that is for the greater good, not just a functional one.

2. Survey respondents view law enforcement as falling short of many of the values they seek.

Law enforcement seems to be inadequate in terms of being fun, transparent, respectful, inclusive, empathetic and having integrity. While these values are important to these respondents who consider law enforcement as a career, they don’t see this employer as possessing these traits. Therefore, this is an area that would benefit from more research about why and how these values are not believed to be prominent in law enforcement.

The testing of different recruitment messages is valuable. Agencies should compare two ads that highlight unique values and determine which one drives the most leads and, ultimately, recruits.

Being transparent and authentic about the duties, culture and lifestyle of law enforcement as a career helps underscore these stated values. We have seen police departments take a variety of approaches to this usually through first-person stories and quotes from police officers and police leaders who speak with a credible, honest voice.

3. Survey respondents believe that police should act more as protectors than enforcers.

Recruiting efforts should focus on the notion that police are protectors. Candidates may be more interested in a career with law enforcement if imagery and specific messaging highlights that police officer roles are a net positive, instead of a focus on the more tactical components of policing that is traditionally dominant in recruitment efforts.

Most survey respondents consider themselves career-driven, risk-taking team players. This group is confident, brave, adventurous and pursues a life of challenge and change. The group is diverse (38% African American, 37% Hispanic, 25% Caucasian), more career-oriented and value time over money. Messaging and advertisements that descriptively represent these groups may help recruit those who are unaware they have many of the key characteristics that fit the desired law enforcement demographic.

4. Survey respondents describe a good police officer as honest, loyal, strong and respectful.

When asked “What makes a good police officer?” most survey respondents chose the word “honest.” Interestingly, few used the word “brave.” This is an important distinction to make in messaging.

While at one point being brave was a central characteristic of a law enforcement officer, being honest is as or even more important, especially when de-escalation and community relations skills are required to be successful in modern-day policing. Making sure this is clear may attract a wider array of individuals who value honesty. This benefits not only the officer but the reputation of the police department.


While a third of the survey respondents stated they are open to a law enforcement career, there are some interesting preferences and ideas they have that should be considered when recruitment strategies are devised.

Protection is a major theme for how they view law enforcement and values of integrity and honesty are paramount. Most interesting is the juxtaposition of what they look for in their workplace that they do not think law enforcement possesses – this is where messaging can reinforce the values this group feels law enforcement falls short of, including fun, integrity, transparency and inclusiveness.

All of these are key insights that can play into marketing and recruitment strategies for police recruitment nationally. While this article captures preliminary findings, we will share our complete survey results over the next couple of months and look forward to questions and input.

About the authors

Sharon Carothers is managing director for Sensis and has more than 20 years of experience in leading research, planning and strategy and leads Sensis' behavior change practice. Sean M. Smoot serves as director and chief counsel for the Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois (“PB&PA”) and the Police Benevolent Labor Committee (“PBLC”). He is a partner at 21CP Solutions. Dallas G. Thompson is senior account director for Sensis. To discuss recruitment challenges and survey results, email Sharon Carothers and Sean Smoot.

Additional resources:
Is nepotism hurting hiring at your agency?
By Lt. Dan Marcou

Can you imagine as a police applicant being told by an agency representative, “You are not welcome here, because of your family name?” Picture them adding, “To hire you would be nepotism,” placing harsh emphasis on “nepotism” as if it was a terrible crime or at least a dirty word. This never happened to me, but I have always felt strongly that arbitrary policies prohibiting the hiring of the children of our finest are not only unfair but also un-American.

American tradition

There are many examples of children of American leaders who used the example and shared traits of their fathers to build a family legacy.

During the Civil War, Lt. Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin picked up his regiment’s fallen colors and shouted, “On Wisconsin,” as he led a charge up Missionary Ridge. He dodged countless bullets and shells bursting to plant that flag on top of that ridge. His actions proved to be the pivotal moment in the Battle for Chattanooga, earning MacArthur the Medal of Honor. Arthur MacArthur would dedicate his life to the Army and eventually become a general. His son, General Douglas MacArthur, would replicate his father’s achievements many years later as he played an important part in saving the world.

In another example, imagine the damage that would have been done if some bureaucrat had told Will and Charlie, the sons of Dr. William Worrall Mayo, that they would have to find employment elsewhere because to hire them as doctors, would be nepotism! Thanks to the fact that no such prohibition existed, the world today has access to one of the finest medical facilities on the planet, the Mayo Clinic.

These should-be-unconstitutional prohibitions exist to this day in police agencies all over the nation. However, they are rarely noticed by anyone except those who are harmed by this firewall against fairness.

My observations

In my many years as a full-time officer and part-time police trainer, I have had the privilege of working with and training the sons and daughters of many police officers. I could not help but notice that the vast majority of these officers:

  • Knew exactly what they were getting into and still were driven to pursue this career.
  • Were deeply inspired positively by their parents.
  • Often had pre-taught skills.
  • Were easy to train and seemed born to policing.
  • Demonstrated a seamless transition from recruit to veteran possessing a strong desire to succeed.
  • Became excellent additions to their departments.
  • Became trainers, leaders and role models in their own right.
  • Raised children who wanted to be police officers as well.

Agencies denying opportunities to highly qualified candidates such as these young men and women are not only harming these candidates and their parents, but they are also harming their departments. Once denied, these qualified candidates often go to and serve other agencies honorably for many years.

Questions to ask about nepotism policies

If you belong to an agency that has a policy denying an applicant consideration because of birth and you have the power to influence or change that policy, ask yourself this:

  • Can you afford to deny any qualified candidates for police officer vacancies in today’s recruitment environment?
  • Is denying a job to the child of an employee who has served your department faithfully for many years just because that applicant is that employee’s child fair to the employee?
  • Is this fair to the sons and daughters of our officers whose only disqualifier is they possess the desire to wear the uniform worn by their parent?
  • Even if you did hire someone’s family member, aren’t there different shifts, divisions, etc., you can place that family member in to avoid even the appearance of undue influence?
  • Isn’t it possible to use objective measures in all hiring and promotional decisions to avoid the perception of unfairness rather than to be overtly unfair by not hiring based on lineage?
  • Does it make sense to have a policy that is unfair on its face to prevent the possibility of unfairness that may or may not ever present itself or even be perceived?
  • Would you want your child to be denied any dream they strive for simply because they were your child?


What would have happened if the United States Army denied Douglas MacArthur’s request to enlist just because of who his father was? Knowing what we know now, would you say that decision would have been just plain unfair or quite possibly a truly harmful unforced error that would have caused historically traumatic outcomes?

With that question answered here is one more: Is denying the child of a police officer the opportunity to wear the same uniform as their father or mother really any different?

Additional resources:
spacer.gif TOP TWEET: COPS Office Funding

spacer.gif BE ADVISED
3. Form a non-profit to bridge the gap for law enforcement funding needs: Police foundations raise millions of dollars each year for the purchase of new equipment and development of officer wellness and community policing initiatives.

2. How to not win a police grant: You don’t improve your shooting skills without practice. The more grant proposals you write, the better you will get.

1. Grant-funded initiatives support tactical response in New York state: More than $11M has been awarded since 2013 to support tactical team training in the state.
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