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10 steps to recruiting and retaining Gen Z cops

The next generation of LEOs want to feel included in agency decision-making around policies and organizational direction


New York City Police Academy graduates raise their right hands as they take their oath during their graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden, Friday, July 1, 2022, in New York.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

By Sergeant Scott Sylvester

The next generation of law enforcement officers are tech-savvy, connected globally through social media, and have innovative ways of approaching crime prevention and community issues.

These new LEOs have a desire to be more socially responsible and are upset at how prior generations have handled many aspects of politics, society and the environment. They want to feel included in agency decision-making around policies and organizational direction. They like ongoing rewards and incentives to encourage and motivate. But they also need the same lures of a good pension and excellent benefits that drew many of us into the profession.

Here’s a 10-step strategy to meet these diverse needs:

1. Develop a career roadmap like a military occupation specialty (MoS). Give new hires a roadmap to follow. For example, an academy recruit with an interest in riding a motorcycle is put on a Traffic Enforcement MoS. After field training, they need two years of experience and will be assigned to DUI checkpoints and targeted enforcement and sent to accident investigation schools. When these requirements are met and there is an opening in traffic/motors, this candidate is guaranteed a chance to get the position.

This can apply to technical jobs as well and open up recruitment to other markets police are not reaching. How about an MoS in a technical service like LAN admin, computer maintenance, drones, radios, or surveillance cameras? There are so many tech opportunities agencies could recruit for where the officer is a police officer first but with a primary specialty assignment.

2. Not every bonus needs to be cash. Have supervisors keep a supply of gift cards for local restaurants, movie theaters, or coffee shops. When officers complete a difficult investigation, make a high-risk arrest, or just go above and beyond in the community, an instant reward showing gratitude for good work goes a long way.

3. Be like Google. Google creates an environment that is fun. Why can’t a police department be a fun place? Free (healthy) food options, a latte machine, a sleeping space, or a lounge area are low-cost incentives to boost morale. I can’t believe agencies are still not offering on-duty workout periods. Healthier officers decrease workers’ compensation claims and increase longevity. These are easy in-house solutions to create a fun work environment.

4. Looks count. Equipment and uniforms tell a lot about your agency. To attract candidates, having clean, new, or well-maintained vehicles and uniforms is critical. If your cars are buckets and your staff uniforms look unprofessional, it is detrimental to your recruitment efforts.

5. Fairness is the key element. How many times at your agency has a senior officer been passed over for a specialty position in favor of the “captain’s kid”? The “good ole boy” system kills morale and agencies lose officers because of it. If an officer is qualified and passed any interviews, then they should get the opportunity or promotion. Period! If an agency isn’t fair, the officer may leave, and if the officer stays, they may become bitter and undermine the agency, which will cost you more officers.

6. Make sure bonuses meet needs. Hiring bonuses are great but in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a $15k bonus is useless when the median home price is almost a million dollars. How about offering pro-rated, 1%-2% loans for LEO candidates to purchase a home near the jurisdiction they work in? Open this program up to veteran officers for retention.

7. How about retention bonuses? Cities and counties could create investment accounts as officers are hired. As money accumulates over time, the officer receives a cash reward for staying on. For every 5 years, you get a $5k bonus check. If the officer leaves before the retention date, the money goes back to the city/county.

8. Offer commute programs. These can attract candidates from farther away, broadening your recruitment area. In the Bay Area where I work most officers live around an hour from the jurisdictions we serve. A bus with power outlets, workstations and recliners for naps before and after work would do a lot to improve officer wellness. Get them to and from work safely. With 10- and 12-hour shifts being the norm, plus mandatory overtime, you get chronically tired officers. A rest period on the way to and from work increases officer safety. Rested cops make better decisions and will lead healthier lives.

9. Offer good retirement, benefit and compensation plans. One lure of public safety is good pay and benefits and a solid pension. Officials must keep these a priority and not bargain away the important elements drawing people into public safety careers.

10. Include and recognize. Overall, remember this: Gen Z cops want to be included, recognized and have an influence. Include new officers in policy decisions. Explain the “why” and listen to the opinions of young officers. They are the future and should have a say in the shape and direction of the agency. It’s competitive out there, so make your agency as attractive to new recruits as you can.

About the author

Scott Sylvester has served with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office for 22 years. He has worked patrol, court services, and detention and corrections, and has been a sergeant for 10 years. Sgt. Sylvester has served as a hostage negotiator, training officer, training manager, defensive tactics and use of force instructor, and is also an EMT-B and tactical medical technician. Sgt. Sylvester teaches TECCC along with in-service and academy first aid/CPR courses. Currently, he is assigned to D&C Division compliance and accreditation unit.

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