How lateral thinking can help you hire cops

If good officers are leaving your agency, find better ones from other departments


This is the fifth in an ongoing series providing tips and best practices law enforcement agencies can deploy to improve police officer recruitment. In the last article, we set the record straight on law enforcement retention. Email your police recruitment tips to editor@police1.com.

If your agency thinks poaching from other agencies is an unfair play, it’s time to start thinking rationally.

Lateral transfers may be the answer to the on-going recruiting, hiring and retention crisis – now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and political climate. If good officers are leaving your agency, find better ones from other agencies.

“No one wants to be a cop anymore.”

Never mind looking for someone who wants to be a cop. It’s easy to find a good cop who would be a great fit for your agency.
Never mind looking for someone who wants to be a cop. It’s easy to find a good cop who would be a great fit for your agency.

Despite how much we keep hearing it, it isn’t true. This statement baffles Dr. John Sullivan, an expert in recruiting, hiring and retention, who says: “You want to find someone who wants to be a cop? Start speeding.”

There are 800,000 officers in the United States alone. Never mind looking for someone who wants to be a cop. It’s easy to find a good cop who would be a great fit for your agency.

Think of all the interactions we have with other cops: training, joint initiatives and my favorite: career fairs. Networking is no longer in the context of “I’ll look you up if I’m ever in town.” Now it’s “You seem squared away. My agency and community would be lucky to have you.”

Rethink your recruitment audience 

Most agencies recruit to the masses. Some narrow it down to college students and members separating from the military. It’s time to tailor your message to other cops.

Last year, I watched a police recruitment video produced by the Grand Junction (Colorado) Police Department. Why was it so memorable? It specifically targeted already-sworn law enforcement – the first in-your-face lateral transfer recruiting initiative I had ever seen.

The video begins with the narrator saying, “This city…this agency…it’s burning me out.” My initial thoughts of “Is this what we’ve become?” quickly evolved to “They’re on to something.”

Most agencies wouldn’t turn down a good lateral transfer, but many – based upon some flawed sense of chivalry – will draw the line at actively recruiting from a neighboring jurisdiction. Those departments will soon realize they are the only ones holding on to an erroneous philosophy that no one else subscribes to.

Don’t wait for them to come to you

Have you ever thought to recruit the Officer of the Year from a neighboring jurisdiction? How about recruiting officers who save lives?

In the past few years, I’ve listened to award citations at the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police Conference. I’ve heard everything from cops performing CPR to pulling a resident from a burning house to uncommon valor in the line of duty. It seems to me that any of those officers would serve my community well.

Looking to fill your applicant pool with females and minorities who buy-in to this profession so much they will try to convince other people to be cops? Go to the next career fair and check out the other law enforcement booths (if career fairs survive the pandemic).

I don’t attend career fairs to hire students and veterans – I give presentations to those groups directly. I spend my time at career fairs meeting the 1-5 year officers the other 36 agencies sent. After 5-10 minutes of gathering intel and building rapport (they’re on rotating 8-hour shifts, they make $17/hr, we’re both veterans, etc.) the conversation takes a dramatic turn when I say they’ll make $23/hr (with more amenities and a lower cost of living) and work 4-on-4-off-then-5-on-3-off 10-hour shifts. If you’re ambitious, check the list of agencies attending and do your homework beforehand.

Training: The lateral transfer honey hole

Whether you’re at a shooting school, leadership seminar or something in between, training classes are a great place to recruit. You can learn a lot about someone at training – their professionalism in class, how they act off-duty when you go to dinner or hang out afterward. The icing on the cake is they are trying to better themselves to better serve their community. Why not make it your community? No analogies or further explanation is needed – you get it. 

Do your part

You can’t control who leaves your agency or when they do. You can control documenting the terms and circumstances in which they left and how open and honest you are with their next employer.

The Topeka Police Department recently removed a civilian candidate from the hiring process after the candidate’s supervisor (a 20s-something store manager) called to report conduct issues that took place after the background and reference checks. The manager was concerned that the conduct wasn’t what the community would expect from its officers. What’s ironic is that we struggle to get that level of candidness from sergeants, lieutenants, chiefs and sheriffs. Do everyone a favor – follow the manager’s lead.

Prepare for what’s coming

The Topeka Police Department fielded eight lateral transfer applications for the past two hiring processes. Hopefully, your agency has a plan and policy to handle lateral transfer hires:

  • Will they have to attend a full or abbreviated academy?
  • Is it the chief or sheriff’s discretion?
  • How will they get up to speed on policies, tactics, laws, etc.?

Lateral transfers may happen just infrequent enough that no one’s sure of the answers. Figure these things out because now more than ever, good officers may be looking for a change of pace and scenery.

Lateral transfers can help your agency quickly fill its ranks and bring valuable experience and diversity to your community. Certified law enforcement officers should come with documented work history and performance ratings. Chances are, you may even know the candidate through another contact – the more references the better. The fresh perspective and attitude can be a shot in the arm for other officers too. Forget the stigma that the officer must be running from something. Be thorough in the hiring process like you would with other applicants.

The stakes of recruiting and hiring are constantly changing, but the stakeholders – your department and community – do not. As you’re reading this, your best officers are being actively recruited and are applying elsewhere. Diversify your recruiting strategies and put your agency and community first.

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