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5 takeaways for police recruiters from the ‘Who wants to be a cop?’ series

A journalist shadowed three Florida police recruits in the academy. Here’s how we can use their experiences to guide police recruitment efforts


AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

“One family! One fight!” – Class 219 motto

Earlier this month, the Tampa Bay Times ran a series aptly titled to answer a common question heard in today’s society: “Who wants to be a cop?” Times Staff Writer Lane DeGregory tackled this question by immersing herself in the experiences of three recruits of Class 219 from the Law Enforcement Academy of St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In the face of police recruitment challenges across the nation, this inside look at what motivates police recruits, what they experience, and what they say and think yields a valuable learning opportunity to guide police recruitment efforts. What can we learn from DeGregory’s findings?

1. Today’s recruit is here for change

The timeless rationale for entering law enforcement, as voiced by thousands of recruits, has been to help people. DeGregory’s report uncovers what may be a common rationale of the new recruits: to make a change.

Recruits were asked by academy coaches why they signed up. One recruit who grew up in Baltimore expressed that people in her community always think the cops are there to harass and arrest people. Another recruit was motivated to join because of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The positive takeaway that should not be overlooked but rather leveraged is that simply by signing up, these recruits must believe to some degree in the potential for police officers to make a change in society. This is a good thing.

Recruiters can capitalize on this positive finding with recruiting efforts that highlight changes happening within their agencies. Messaging and visual depictions of the job should also highlight how the job allows for the opportunity to make change through daily duties and special assignments.

Training that is now commonplace in American policing, but perhaps not as well known to the greater society – procedural justice, interpersonal communication, de-escalation techniques and community engagement – should be highlighted in recruiting materials to pique interest from potential recruits who are seeking change-making opportunities in their careers.

2. Recruitment efforts and materials should proportionately reflect job tasks

This one may be a ground ball. Is it possible that by accurately reflecting the reality of what a police officer does daily, recruits who are seeking opportunities to make positive changes, like the ones in DeGregory’s article, can be engaged?

As a result of movies, popular culture and media depictions, everyone knows the stereotypical, hyped-up aspects of the job. However, if recruits are reporting service and change as two of the top reasons for entering the profession, then shall we let the cat out of the bag? To a large extent, policing on a daily basis is already and exactly those things.

While there will always be a place for the exciting stuff – K9s, helicopters, SWAT teams and fast cars – these elements don’t quite “do it” for all potential recruits. Recruiting efforts and materials should accurately and proportionately reflect job tasks. The best part is all that needs to be done is to expose accurately what happens every day in policing.

3. Seek non-traditional recruits

The three recruits featured in DeGregory’s series could all be considered non-traditional candidates: A 31-year-old African-American mother with a girlfriend; an African-American former NFL player from a single-parent household; and a 25-year-old white female who is newly engaged and escaping a desk job, all of whom want to make a difference.

Recruit Class 219 was mostly white and male; however, it was the most diverse class to date. The scope of the class encompassed younger and older than average recruits, women, parents, career-changers, former military members, African Americans, Latinos and representation from the LGBTQ community.

The advantages of having a diverse police force have been long established across the research. A trend toward more diverse classes of recruits should signal efforts to seek potential candidates in unexplored arenas. How can older recruits or career changers be attracted? What events, community groups, or businesses have not yet been considered as outlets for in-person recruitment or, perhaps, for leaving recruiting materials? Thinking outside the box and identifying who the non-traditional recruits are, and where they can be found in your community, is a worthwhile endeavor.

4. Engage family, friends and the community surrounding recruits

Nobody really wants me to do this. Am I crazy? – A recruit from Class 219

One significant barrier to recruiting that is seldom discussed is the lack of support individual recruits face from family, friends and the community when they share their law enforcement aspirations. This was evident in DeGregory’s findings and it is evident to professionals who work with criminal justice students and police academy recruits. I cannot overemphasize what a barrier this has become when attracting future candidates to the profession, particularly in the current climate.

Practical ways to engage and support parents, spouses, loved ones and fellow community members of potential recruits must be considered in contemporary recruitment planning. What should be highlighted and presented about the job that would allay fears, and place minds at ease? Perhaps this goes back to accurately portraying the job and the intentions of the agency: service, change and community building. Take the time to explain what the career actually entails as opposed to allowing popular culture and the media to drive the narrative. While selling the profession of law enforcement has never been nor ever will be an easy feat, perhaps by specifically engaging the most important people in the lives of recruits and providing a forum to answer questions and address concerns, this could go a long way toward educating them and garnering stronger support for the recruit.

5. Use your people

In Class 219, one of the academy coaches remarked on the attributes of one of the recruits and how those attributes could be used to engage others who share commonalities with him:

“He’ll be great in the community, connecting with other athletes, African Americans, inspiring kids. He’ll get out there in the trenches, break down the barriers, help change perceptions.”

Who are the people in your agency? What unique roles do they hold outside of work? With what groups are they affiliated? Are they willing to mentor and engage potential recruits? Are they willing to be highlighted in recruitment literature or be interviewed by aspiring young officers? How can you use your people?

Another way to effectively use your people is to gain as much information from new recruits and recent academy graduates as possible. Who better to provide insight into how to improve recruiting?

Academy coaches asked the members of Class 219 what they thought could improve the academy. More ride-alongs, more training in interpersonal communication and more diversity of academy instructors were among the reported suggestions. Taking this one step further, recruiting officers could ask direct questions about how to improve outreach and recruiting measures, about what attracted the recruits to the profession, and what is keeping them there.

Recruiters face steep challenges

DeGregory set out to answer one question: “Who wants to be a cop?” While the reader is treated to an in-depth look at the experiences of three recruits in a valiant effort to answer that question, the recruits, now newly-minted police officers, still leave the reader guessing.

The epilogue includes a follow-up with the new officers who are in their fifth month of field training. While they report positive aspects of their experiences, uncertainty and some fear are still palpable. Given that these three officers are candidates any agency would readily hire, the reticence of the new officers demonstrates a sobering reality about the state of recruitment and the profession at large.

The job is not for everyone, especially in the current climate. Even under the best circumstances, recruiters face steep challenges. Like the earnest efforts put forth by the thousands of recruits graduating from police academies across the US this year, recruitment measures by law enforcement agencies must reflect that same tenacity. By innovating recruitment practices, engaging the community, and acknowledging recruits for who they are and meeting them where they are, we harness our best chance to attract highly qualified candidates to the profession.

NEXT: Minority applicants share their experiences during the police recruitment process

Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., is a former full-time police officer who served as a police instructor, FTO and crime scene technician. She currently works part-time for the Town of New Paltz, New York Police Department. Gasparini has taught collegiate criminal justice courses since 2009 and is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York - Ulster. She also serves as the Police Basic Training Coordinator between SUNY Ulster and the Ulster County Law Enforcement Training Group, Kingston, New York.