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How to fix police hiring today

These six steps have produced proven results – they can help you too

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Anyone in the industry reading this knows our current hiring and retention challenges are the most daunting we’ve ever faced.

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When I started in police work 15 years ago, every department in the area had vacancies. It was reportedly the largest number of vacancies we’d seen around here, with departments clamoring over a limited candidate pool. The baby boomer generation was retiring en masse, and many traditional candidates were deployed overseas with the military. I remember seeing news articles where local chiefs talked about how difficult it was to find good candidates. One chief of a small town relayed he’d just received the first rejected job offer in his career (that was me!).

It was truly a buyer’s market, where choice candidates could review and consider where they wanted to be. You didn’t just have to get your foot in the door; the doors were wide open and plentiful. In the end, I turned down two offers while waiting for my top two choices, which were racing to complete my background checks and draft final offer letters. To be honest I was just along for the ride. The recruiting administrators were driving up the market value, calling and encouraging me to assess their wares via conversations about my goals and inviting me on ride-alongs. I am grateful I was able to learn so much about what I wanted in a department and career.

Anyone in the industry reading this knows our current hiring and retention challenges are the most daunting we’ve ever faced. Politics, media rhetoric and divisive social media have made it an uphill battle to attract the volume of candidates we need. That is changing slowly but surely. I’ve spent the last six months working as the supervisor for my department’s recruiting and hiring unit, and I’ve heard several accounts of candidates who grew up wanting to be police officers. The past couple of years jarred them, as it did many of us and our colleagues. However, more and more I am hearing prospects relay that despite the media, stigmas and doubts of their friends and families, they are committed to taking up this career. They reaffirmed they want their faces connecting with the community, and they want their hands doing the work to keep the public safe.

To that, I say, “Let’s go!”

THESE MEASURES WORKED FOR US

In six months I have helped shift my department’s recruiting and hiring efforts. We are a midsize department, approved for just under 170 sworn officers. At one point in the past couple of years, between vacancies and long-term medical leave, we had 25%–30% of our positions unfilled. Prior to my assignment to the unit, we were averaging 12 hires a year. Command staff had tracked this against average attrition and projected it would take 18 years to get up to full staffing. I’d recently come from the Patrol Division, where inadequate staffing was a living nightmare. It did not provide what we needed to be safe or address the needs of the community.

Now my team has nearly tripled our annual average, which has narrowed our vacancies from the dozens to just one, which I expect to fill shortly. The stress is far from alleviated, as training officers struggle with unprecedented volume, and we still have a tight timeline to transform new recruits into effective solo-status officers. However, these large strides have put us in a position where the light at the end of the tunnel is getting larger and brighter.

Regardless of department size or extent of need, there are key factors I have learned firsthand that can help alleviate our national hiring crisis.

1. Commit to making an investment

You have to spend money to make money. But when I say “money,” I’m not talking about radio ads and digital marketing. In six months nearly every media form or outlet has come out of the woodwork to tell us how much they can help. Neighboring agencies are dropping upward of $200,000 for extensive marketing strategies and pushes. This may help, but at the end of the day, ads can only generate interest, not get people hired. They can drum up excitement, but they can’t flip a lead into a viable prospect.

When I say “investment,” I’m talking about your own people. Effective recruiting takes a lot of time, intention and effort. My current job didn’t exist previously as it does now – hiring was an ancillary duty of an administrative sergeant. With concerns about fleet, equipment, scheduling and as an FTO, my predecessors simply did not have the bandwidth to be hands-on and influence the challenges we face as a profession. My department leaders had to discuss, debate, plan and ultimately decide to allocate resources to create this new position, as well as that of a full-time recruiting officer.

There are other ways you can build a cohesive investment even if you cannot manage full-time roles in this endeavor. You have to be organized, innovative and, most important, committed.

2. Build your brand

Every agency is different. It’s all police work, but it has extreme variability, even within the same geographical area. Lean into developing your agency’s brand. Nike isn’t just the shoe; it’s the motto. It’s the athlete promoting it. It’s the CEO. It’s the features and benefits. It’s the statements and attitudes derived from its employees and PR spokespeople. Some people want Nike; some people want Adidas. Some people want dress shoes or Crocs. We know there are employers for those people too.

3. Find the right people

Proactivity is a major aspect of good police work. Everyone knows the officer who sits and waits for calls to come in. Yet every department has people who can see problems, engage and work to fix them. Recruiting is no longer a reactive role. We cannot afford to sit at a desk and wait for people to call with questions or knock on our door. You need to identify those who are truly passionate and driven to the cause.

In six months my recruiter and I have been to dozens of job fairs and events. We have seen other police recruiters at their tables. Many were quiet. Many were stoic. Some were just sitting, waiting. There has not been an event where we’ve sat at all. You have to engage. Candidates I have hired have recalled other recruiters offering to take calls, questions, set up tours and meet. But when it came time to follow up, those recruiters were unresponsive or hard to schedule.

Recently an applicant said it was refreshing to talk to my recruiter and me. He liked hearing about all the assignments we’ve had and seeing we still wear many hats in the department. He liked that we were young(er) and appeared to take care of ourselves and our fitness. In the end, your recruiters are the face of your department for this audience. They are your front men and -women. They are your brand.

4. Try everything and be ready to fail

When I started I was told all the things I was thinking about had been tried and wouldn’t work. I listened to those voices and told them I heard them but, much to the chagrin of some, told them we needed to try again. We were in a crisis and had to try everything. I was told career fairs wouldn’t work. I was told adjustments to the background logistics and scheduling wouldn’t work. That said, we found success in most things we tried. Just as important, my new unit and I were able to learn from our own experiences why some things hadn’t worked and how to tweak our approach. It is much less about what you do than how you do it.

5. Identify resources and be creative

Readers of this article will hail from every size agency, from small towns to large metropolis. Everyone has resource limitations and abundance. Perhaps your monetary budget is constrained, but your individual passions and creative energy are plentiful. A solid strategy is to break down the various tasks, obstacles and problems and coordinate efforts to address them all for a recruiting program with holistic vision and efficacy.

6. Stay positive, be patient and keep planning

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your staffing numbers won’t be either. By focusing more on committed effort and specifying intent, and with the right planning and guidance, you can develop a robust and holistic strategy. Police work is a calling – for those who want to serve others, solve problems and double down against all adversity. Hiring enough people – the right people – is an extension of that. Its importance cannot be overstated, and its impact will be far-reaching, forming the future of your agency’s personnel and culture.

Do not let up. When your agency is close to full, plan ahead. Many large staffing dips have occurred because recruiting efforts and engagement halted when staffing was near full. By looking at upcoming retirements and other anticipated attrition, your organization can maintain optimal personnel and serve its community most effectively.

NEXT: 10 steps to recruiting and retaining Gen Z cops

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, bluegritwellness.com and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.