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Onboarding the lateral entry officer

Hiring a lateral officer can be a great experience for all concerned, but the new agency still has an obligation to ensure the new hire is everything they expect

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Lateral hires are experienced officers moving from one law enforcement agency to another.

Fairbanks Police Department

Police recruiting is more difficult than it’s ever been, and agencies are relying increasingly on lateral hires to staff their patrols.

The “onboarding” process with lateral entry officers was the topic of a recent webinar from the Justice Clearinghouse.

The presenter was Tom Dworak, a sergeant retired from a suburban Chicago police department. Dworak has his own training and consulting business, largely focused on “actionable strategies for lawful and ethical decision-making, sensemaking, critical thinking and managing stress both in and out of the workplace,” called The Adaptive Way.

What constitutes a lateral hire?

Lateral hires are experienced officers moving from one law enforcement agency to another. They may have years of experience and training, as compared to a recruit officer who may not have even completed a police academy.

Lateral officers can often complete a two-to-three-week “career” course to obtain police certification in the state where their new employer is located rather than have to complete an entire basic academy course. What remains is to train and orient the lateral hire in the work rules and culture of the new employer before they begin work as a solo patrol officer.

“Cop harvesting”

Dworak has his own term for the lateral hire process: “cop harvesting.” The agencies hiring these officers often sweeten the deal with cash “signing bonuses” of up to $25,000, starting them at an advanced pay step, and offering incentives they may not have had before, such as take-home cars, extra pay for undergraduate and/or graduate degrees, and early consideration for more desirable assignments such as investigations.

Those signing bonuses can create some bad blood in the ranks. Dworak characterized the complaint as “Hey, wait a minute. You’re paying all this money to all these people who come in. What about us who stayed?” This has caused some agencies, namely Portland and Seattle PDs, to implement retention bonuses within the contracts of veteran officers who didn’t jump ship.

While it’s important to keep in mind the welfare of your long-term employees, any remedies have to be sustainable. The recruiting problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and personnel costs are already soaring with mandatory overtime to achieve minimum staffing.

Screening tool considerations

A potential pitfall for agencies hiring these officers is to use the same psychological screening tool used for new hires with no police experience. Dworak warned that these officers may be psychologically healthy, but still be subject to “vicarious trauma” from the experiences faced by nearly all officers in the course of their duty. This may alter their scores on these tests to a degree that would recommend a “do not hire” recommendation if an inexperienced candidate was under consideration. Some screening test vendors may offer a different interpretation scale for experienced officers, but it’s definitely a question to ask when selecting or employing an off-the-shelf psychological screening instrument.

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A total of 798 Police1 readers answered a recent poll on lateral transfers.

Why officers make lateral transfers

Any time an officer is looking to change agencies mid-career, a new employer is going to want to know why they want to leave their old outfit. Sometimes the motive is external. The officer’s spouse wants to move for a new job, or a child needs special education or medical treatment that isn’t available near the old employer. Dworak pointed to a rationale that people don’t leave their jobs as much as they leave their bosses. Law enforcement agencies are notoriously political, and a good officer may have simply gotten on the wrong side of a political struggle. An officer who is professionally stifled in one environment might excel in another.

Cops are leaving the profession in droves because of a toxic political environment. “It’s lack of support, it’s lack of pay and benefits, it’s training opportunities, forced overtime, canceled time off, letting people making deals that they’re currently under some type of internal investigation,” Dworak noted. “Once they leave, the investigation stops.” The officer might have been cleared in the end, but aware they would be under a cloud for the rest of their career.

The hiring and onboarding process for lateral officers

The hiring process for lateral entry officers should include face-to-face, one-on-one interviews with administrative staff. This will give decision-makers a better handle on how the prospect will fit into the new agency’s culture. Once you’ve been working for a long time at one outfit, it’s easy to forget that things may not be done the same way elsewhere. The officers at Here PD might address their supervisors by their first names and regard them more as mentors than supervisors, whereas the sergeants at There PD expect officers to come to attention and salute them when they have something to report.

Lateral hires will get their most meaningful orientation during field training, paired with an experienced officer and working a patrol beat. There is some debate on how long the field training should last with lateral hires. A poll of the participants conducted during the webinar said that 19% of their agencies kept lateral hires in field training for 16 weeks or longer, with 42% ending training in 11 to 16 weeks. Only 5% said they had laterals in field training for four weeks or less.

There was quite a bit of discussion over the length of field training. Some agencies are hiring lateral entry officers for specialized roles, such as investigations. There is an assumption that these officers will be competent investigators, but they won’t be familiar with local procedures or the social structure of the community. An experienced investigator might resent being paired with a field training officer (FTO), so a few agencies have a kind of mentorship in place, where the new hires have a go-to person they can ask for guidance without feeling smothered by close supervision.

No matter what structure or duration of field training used, documentation is critical. The more popular field training models advocate daily written observation reports and recap reports at roughly two-week intervals. It should be no different for lateral entry officers. Even the top candidates who test and interview well are an unknown quantity. Everyone with any police experience can recall an incident where an officer who everyone knew well and performed admirably did something bad that was out of character and a shock to all concerned.

In reviewing the training documentation, make a special effort to ensure that the numerical scores match the narratives. It’s accepted that even the most promising trainee will perform in a substandard way now and then, even if the shortcoming is something as trivial as having frayed shoelaces. The purpose of noting the worst performance of the day isn’t to micromanage; it’s to put the rest of the performance in perspective, to say, “This is the worst thing I could find to criticize.”

The new hire will be accustomed to going about a task the way it was handled at his previous employer. The new procedure might be anything from how a patrol car is checked out at the start of a shift to the enforcement of an act that is unlawful where the trainee came from but is not unlawful at the new place. The FTO has to ensure that the trainee knows the way things are done at the new outfit and executes the procedure that way until and unless word comes down to change.

Trainees who are resistant to change may, intentionally or inadvertently, try to sidetrack the FTO if they view a procedure new to them to be inferior or just uncomfortable with what they’re used to. Dworak emphasized that the FTO has to stand their ground on these issues. “Watch out for the lateral attempting to divert you from your training objectives, especially if it’s something that they don’t like to do or they’re not confident in,” he said. “Nobody wants to look foolish, especially experienced people. Stick to what your training goals are. You have to accomplish that stuff and make sure that they know it.”

As a contract trainer for agencies all over the country, Dworak sees some situations that can be learning opportunities for others. Without naming the agency, he described an unfortunate situation he heard about from a small agency. “They just had two laterals that they had to terminate. One [was dismissed] during their FTO program and another one out of [their] probationary term. Both officers came from a major city with more than 20 years of experience, and while they knew the job of being a big city police officer, they struggled with the transition to a smaller suburban setting. And the main issues were report writing, adapting to a new set of policies and procedures, the productivity that they were requiring and in one case, a couple of those issues along with the issue of organizational fit.”

Hiring a lateral entry officer can be a great experience for all concerned. The new agency gets the benefit of experience that can’t be found within its ranks, and the newly hired officer goes to a place where he or she is happier and can continue to serve. The new agency still has an obligation to ensure the new hire is everything they expect, and able to do the job the way they think it should be done.

NEXT: Issues assessment: Find out what police are not saying when they leave

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.