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Everyone is a recruiter

Next time roll call complains about manpower, challenge each officer to find one applicant to take the test this year


New York City Police Academy graduates salute during the national anthem at their graduation ceremony, adding 457 new members of the NYPD, Thursday April 18, 2019, in New York.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Everyone’s a recruiter is a philosophy that can fill your applicant pool – for free. An internationally recognized author and recruiting expert told me each employee is a 24/7 talent scout, and says supervisors should be asking their troops: “Do you know anyone better than you?”

Potential applicants can be recruited anywhere, anytime. Here are some examples.

Recruiting on-duty

Every day we have dozens of contacts with victims, witnesses, business owners, reporting parties, etc. Build rapport during these contacts – you’ll know if someone has potential.

I responded to a vehicle break-in and listened as the witness gave a detailed description of the suspect, what he took and the direction he ran. The suspect was located a minute later after broadcasting the witness’s statement. My partner turned and asked the witness if she ever considered a job in law enforcement. She smiled and asked if there was an age limit (she was in her 70s). All joking aside, you see what I’m getting at.

Several Topeka police applicants have been recruited during on-duty contacts, the most recent being a bystander who translated a victim’s statement.

Recruiting off duty

You’re missing the mark if you’re not engaging the squared-away employee at the hardware store. Let’s get something straight: just because someone works a certain job and isn’t already in your hiring process doesn’t mean he or she couldn’t become a great police officer.

Some college students work “average” jobs to pay for books, some veterans didn’t have a career plan and ended up getting a “run-of-the-mill” job to put food on the table, and some School of Hard Knox alumni may be working “dead end” jobs but have clean backgrounds and remarkable work ethic. Sometimes all it takes is the nudge of showing some interest.

Topeka Police applicants are recruited by off-duty officers all the time, the latest being an employee from the tree trimming company an officer hired. The officer learned one of the crewmembers was a veteran and had a great attitude. The officer then asked, “Have you ever thought about being a cop?” The tree trimmer entered our next hiring process.

The greatest testament to everyone’s a recruiter

I listened as Gordon Graham told my class how the California Highway Patrol (CHP) doubled in size in the 1960s and 70s. He explained how simply they pulled it off: “If there’s 2,500 of you now and you each recruit one candidate, there will be 5,000 of you when you’re done.”

Gordon told the class that he was a product of that philosophy, telling the story of how an on-duty CHP officer recruited him. Gordon was working at an ice cream parlor while getting his BA in business. An on-duty CHP officer stopped for an ice cream cone and made a significant impression on Gordon. The trooper asked Gordon what time he got off, then returned and took him on a ride along. The rest is history: Gordon Graham rose through the ranks of the CHP and co-founded Lexipol, a company that standardizes policies and training in public safety professions.

Officers, firefighters and other first responders are safer, perform better and are more shielded from liability because of Gordon’s lifelong work – and because an officer followed this philosophy that everyone is a recruiter.

You can remember Gordon’s story, maybe even repeat it, or you can take steps to change the culture at your agency. I returned from the seminar and made recruitment an evaluation goal for the eight officers I supervised on third shift. Simply put, not recruiting someone wouldn’t hurt their overall performance rating, however, recruiting one person in a one-year period could help them achieve a higher rating. I gave them tools to help recruit and offered to help if needed. I even said that if I closed the deal on their referral it would still count on their evaluation. The result was several people applying who otherwise may not have.

This was just a piece of trying to change the culture of “recruitment is always someone else’s job.” The Topeka Police Department’s 16-member recruiting and hiring team has always been responsible for administering applicant testing and attending recruiting events. We evolved their mission to include actually recruiting people, on and off duty (the tree-trimmer was a product of this). When roll call complained about manpower, I said the next academy would be full if they’d each find one person to take the test. I asked one of our Marine reservists where all of his friends were – he brought us seven (it’s amazing what a little Marine-to-Marine trash-talking can accomplish).

Numbers don’t lie

Prior to 2019, we averaged a few referrals per year, with 0-1 graduating the academy. In the three hiring processes since, we’ve fielded at least 24 referral applicants, six of whom have graduated the police academy.

Budget cuts are occurring in some jurisdictions and looming in others. Agencies must adapt and overcome financial recruitment obstacles by adopting outside-the-box strategies. Putting the onus of successful recruiting on all personnel is one way to recruit at no cost. A couple of officers handing out business cards now and then isn’t going to cut it; take action and transform the culture. The next Gordon Graham is out there waiting for you to ask.

NEXT: 6 key steps to improve police recruitment and retention

Sergeant Matt Cobb has served with the Topeka Police Department for 15 years. He currently administers the Topeka Police Academy. Sergeant Cobb is a Marine Corps and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Baker University, maintains numerous law enforcement instructor certifications and owns three businesses.