'Why I want to be a cop': Developing recruitment messaging to match police candidate motivations

Understanding how young adults view a law enforcement career can inform more effective police recruitment communications

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Recruitment messaging | Nepotism and hiring | COPS grants, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

By Sharon Carothers, Sean Smoot and Dallas Thompson

It’s no secret that police departments are struggling to find recruits willing to protect and serve. Couple low unemployment rates with safety concerns, bureaucratic hiring systems, limited recruitment budgets, non-competitive salaries and negative perceptions about police among the general public and you have a “perfect storm.”

To better understand how to address these challenges and identify and recruit quality candidates, Sensis and 21CP Solutions LLC partnered to conduct a national online survey among 1,000 respondents aged 18-35 to understand the drivers and obstacles for potential candidates considering a career in law enforcement.

The purpose of the study was to:

  • Gauge career aspirations relevant to known police recruitment hurdles;
  • Assess consideration of law enforcement careers;
  • Identify external factors impacting consideration of a career in law enforcement.

Here are some preliminary results that provide insight into what young adults are thinking about when open to a law enforcement career, which in turn can inform stronger, more effective police recruitment communications.

More than one-third (34%) of respondents indicated an openness to considering law enforcement as a potential career. These potential recruits are “low-hanging fruit” in terms of messaging and engagement. Let’s take a look at some of their characteristics to consider when crafting messages and strategies targeting these groups for law enforcement employment:

1. Survey respondents seek a set of key values in their employer: respect, safety, integrity and honor with a focus on problem-solving.

Law enforcement offers these values and benefits to its employees, all of which are important to highlight in messaging and recruitment efforts. Keeping these characteristics in mind when recruiting can help convert a hesitant candidate into a yes, and ultimately will guide recruits to believe in what they are doing – working in a career that is for the greater good, not just a functional one.

2. Survey respondents view law enforcement as falling short of many of the values they seek.

Law enforcement seems to be inadequate in terms of being fun, transparent, respectful, inclusive, empathetic and having integrity. While these values are important to these respondents who consider law enforcement as a career, they don’t see this employer as possessing these traits. Therefore, this is an area that would benefit from more research about why and how these values are not believed to be prominent in law enforcement.

The testing of different recruitment messages is valuable. Agencies should compare two ads that highlight unique values and determine which one drives the most leads and, ultimately, recruits.

Being transparent and authentic about the duties, culture and lifestyle of law enforcement as a career helps underscore these stated values. We have seen police departments take a variety of approaches to this usually through first-person stories and quotes from police officers and police leaders who speak with a credible, honest voice.

3. Survey respondents believe that police should act more as protectors than enforcers.

Recruiting efforts should focus on the notion that police are protectors. Candidates may be more interested in a career with law enforcement if imagery and specific messaging highlights that police officer roles are a net positive, instead of a focus on the more tactical components of policing that is traditionally dominant in recruitment efforts.

Most survey respondents consider themselves career-driven, risk-taking team players. This group is confident, brave, adventurous and pursues a life of challenge and change. The group is diverse (38% African American, 37% Hispanic, 25% Caucasian), more career-oriented and value time over money. Messaging and advertisements that descriptively represent these groups may help recruit those who are unaware they have many of the key characteristics that fit the desired law enforcement demographic.

4. Survey respondents describe a good police officer as honest, loyal, strong and respectful.

When asked “What makes a good police officer?” most survey respondents chose the word “honest.” Interestingly, few used the word “brave.” This is an important distinction to make in messaging.

While at one point being brave was a central characteristic of a law enforcement officer, being honest is as or even more important, especially when de-escalation and community relations skills are required to be successful in modern-day policing. Making sure this is clear may attract a wider array of individuals who value honesty. This benefits not only the officer but the reputation of the police department.


While a third of the survey respondents stated they are open to a law enforcement career, there are some interesting preferences and ideas they have that should be considered when recruitment strategies are devised.

Protection is a major theme for how they view law enforcement and values of integrity and honesty are paramount. Most interesting is the juxtaposition of what they look for in their workplace that they do not think law enforcement possesses – this is where messaging can reinforce the values this group feels law enforcement falls short of, including fun, integrity, transparency and inclusiveness.

All of these are key insights that can play into marketing and recruitment strategies for police recruitment nationally. While this article captures preliminary findings, we will share our complete survey results over the next couple of months and look forward to questions and input.

About the authors

Sharon Carothers is managing director for Sensis and has more than 20 years of experience in leading research, planning and strategy and leads Sensis' behavior change practice. Sean M. Smoot serves as director and chief counsel for the Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois (“PB&PA”) and the Police Benevolent Labor Committee (“PBLC”). He is a partner at 21CP Solutions. Dallas G. Thompson is senior account director for Sensis. To discuss recruitment challenges and survey results, email Sharon Carothers and Sean Smoot.

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