Why agencies must continue recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic
Total cessation of hiring during this national emergency is shortsighted, and possibly a grave mistake
By now we have all heard the “best and worst” outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic. But those outcomes will be significantly worse if we add the variable of suspending personnel hiring for the foreseeable future.
Even in a time when the only certainty is uncertainty itself with a lack of clear direction, there are still things we can do to stabilize our workforces and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on police officer recruitment.
Cancel recruiting, but don’t stop hiring
In some areas, recruiting initiatives have been canceled because they had to be. No more career fairs or classroom presentations. But I believe that total cessation of hiring is shortsighted, and possibly a grave mistake. This is a time when we should be hiring as many people as we can, not implementing hiring freezes.
Agencies should adopt the mindset that having too many officers during an indefinite crisis is a better problem than not having enough. I’ve heard several reasons why agencies are suspending hiring, such as future budget concerns, or that potential candidates may bring sickness with them to an interview, or the academy has been canceled anyway. These perceived obstacles will get heads nodding but should be challenged.
The budget: Without getting into a debate, we all know money can be reallocated from here to there. Trillions of rescue dollars were just approved with talk of another stimulus package just for the front line. First responders and critical infrastructure will be funded. Hire as many people as possible. In the event you can’t pay them, implement a layoff or furlough plan, which usually only affects the newest hires. This may sound callous but it’s only a contingency for peace of mind when deciding to keep hiring.
Potential applicants will get everyone sick: Consider doing phone and video conference interviews, at least until the coronavirus subsides. The Topeka Police Department allows phone and video interviews for out-of-town and military candidates. Those platforms would serve everyone now to practice social distancing. Take every precaution possible for hiring steps that must be done in person, such as agility tests. Dr. Charlie Scheer, a criminal justice professor and instructor at the Southern Regional Public Safety Institute in Mississippi, says some local agencies are admitting individuals with a COVID-19 test administered on-site, and one department is administering the physical test with only one individual assisting one candidate at a time, maintaining a safe distance.
The academy is canceled anyway: Many states allow agencies to put new hires on the street and work as officers until the next academy begins. The Kansas Law Enforcement Training Act allows the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training (Kansas C-POST) to issue a “provisional certificate” to a new hire. The new hire can be fully outfitted with a gun and badge and begin on-the-job training. The new hire has up to one year to attend the academy. Check your state laws; your agency may be able to take advantage of similar language.
Find alternatives and embrace change
If your academy was just canceled or suspended and new hires can’t hit the street until graduation, it’s time to adapt and overcome.
Once the pandemic hit Colorado, the Adams County Sheriff in the Denver metro area acted quickly. Training Division Chief Mickey Bethel told me that on Friday, March 13, all Colorado police academies were suspended. Later that day, his staff met with Administration and Information Technology to find a solution. They spent the next week developing and testing an online platform for the 51 cadets in training. Using Zoom and ClassMarker, the Academy resumed on Monday, March 23. The schedule was modified to front-load the classroom topics and save the hands-on and practical portions for later, when minimizing personal contact hopefully isn’t required.
Adams County didn’t put a freeze on hiring either. Sergeant Tony Carvalho reported that on April 2, they hired 17 applicants who will complete mandatory cross-training, which usually takes place after graduation. The 17 new hires will serve in civilian roles (traditionally backfilled with deputies) until the next academy starts.
Another crisis may be lying in wait
During the 2008 financial crisis and recession, agencies were flooded with applicants, many of whom had recently lost their jobs and needed immediate work. Some were attracted to the “job security” of law enforcement, but not necessarily the career field itself. It led to a measurable retention crisis several years later. With a similar phenomenon on the horizon, agencies should be cautious of the applicants who may start applying.
This caution isn’t based solely on research that’s out there; The Topeka Police Department’s numbers back it up. From 2005–2008, the Topeka Police Department hired 56 officers, four of which left before their third anniversary and didn’t re-enter the law enforcement field. From 2009–2012 we hired 72 officers, 20 of which left prior to year three and didn’t re-enter law enforcement. I believe this is due to people looking for work and being attracted to government type jobs with seemingly good benefits and a guaranteed check. Yet, some of those people quickly realized that this was not the career for them.
Not wanting a retention crisis in 3–5 years, I would spend extra time examining applicants who enter the hiring process during this period. Focus on their “why” and take steps to ensure this is the career for them.
On a side note, some research suggests that blue-collar careers with job security and pension plans are attractive to the under-40 workforce. The volatility of the private sector over the past 12 years could be a selling point for these potential applicants.
Will people want cop jobs when this is over?
I believe there will always be a desire and willingness to serve, like there always has been before the pandemic hit. The Topeka Police Department has had to cancel all military and college testing and our summer college internship program. Once we get through this, we will pick up where we left off and, with cautious optimism, look forward to having a steady flow of applicants.
Unless you’re 102 years old, you haven’t been through this before. We will get through the current pandemic because we have to, and we’ll do it together. It will require vision, adaptability and a willingness to act quickly. Don’t settle for “we’re putting the brakes on hiring.” Someone has to convince the respective leaders this isn’t the time for a hiring freeze. In fact, we need twice as many officers as we have right now. There isn’t a universal correct solution. If you move quickly and you’re right 75% of the time, you’ll be successful.