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How the right hiring process can solve some of the recruitment problems facing small PDs

Chief James Small of the Palmyra Public Safety Department has slowed down officer turnover to nearly a stop

Palmyra Public Safety Department.jpg

The Palmyra Public Safety Department has 6.5 positions, all of them cross-trained as police, firefighters and EMS providers.

Palmyra Public Safety Department

Chief James Small heads the Palmyra Public Safety Department in a Wisconsin village of fewer than 2,000 residents, and he believes he’s found solutions for the triple bane of small departments: recruiting, retention and budgets. The answer? A hybrid public safety department reinforced with strong, flexible leadership.

Chief Small was hired in 2015 to rebuild a small department that had been churning officers and burning up budgets and bridges in the community. Sixty-four officers in 16 years had left chaos in their wake. Previous chiefs had come and gone nearly as quickly, each one weakening the department a little more.

Small is now the longest-serving chief to date, and the award-winning department is one of two “combined protective services” agencies in the state. The department has 6.5 positions, all of them cross-trained as police, firefighters and EMS providers. Another 18 volunteers are on call, trained in fire, EMS or both. There’s a BWC program, and regular training is built into the budget, allowing collaboration with neighboring agencies to share resources and control costs.

Small is a hands-on leader, covering shifts himself when needed, and communicating constantly with staff and citizens, in person and on social media.

Cultural challenges

His biggest challenge was dealing with “the internal culture of the department” and rebuilding trust in the community.

Small established expectations of civility both inside the department and out in the streets, with the idea that creating a better workplace leads to better officers and a safer community.

“Civility among staff equals safety,” Chief Small said. “What happens inside the walls is the part we can control: how we treat each other, and how we lead.”

In other words, officers expect bad behavior from bad guys; it’s what criminals do. They shouldn’t have to brace for abuse when they’re in their own “house,” too.

Building the right hiring process

Small then used his background in business training and experience with hiring and recruiting systems to redesign the department’s hiring process.

Keeping the right officers means finding the right applicants first. A poorly designed recruiting ad can result in sifting through a bucket of pebbles hoping to find a diamond. A well-designed one raises the probability that only potential diamonds apply.

“I want officers who see themselves as kind, compassionate problem-solvers, so that’s the first line in any recruiting ad. It weeds the badge-heavy ‘punishers’ out. And a public safety department isn’t for everyone. Some officers only want to be police, and that’s okay,” Small said.

In other words, the applicants filter themselves. Those who are not interested in being a “kind, compassionate problem-solver” and who don’t want to cross-train in fire and EMS simply don’t respond. That saves time and money by shortening the hiring process and reduces the risk of a bad fit in a very small department. One officer out of six who doesn’t want to be there can mean a significant proportion of the department making a mess in the community, with poor work performance or a bad attitude.

Turnover slowed to nearly a stop

Solid leadership and clearly expressed expectations have slowed turnover nearly to a stop, with the same officers now in place for years rather than months. Pay and benefits, routinely cited as reasons for turnover in small departments, don’t seem to play a role. The average wage for a Palmyra officer, according to Small, is nearly 30% below the rate paid by the nearest metro department. Palmyra PSD is just now working on joining the state retirement system; up to this point, only deferred compensation with matching employer contribution has been on offer.

Nevertheless, retention is up. So what about Palmyra PSD’s success can be repeated elsewhere?

“The PSD concept just makes it cheap,” Small said. “How the department is run makes the difference. I have to be a role model. I ask officers, ‘How are you being nice? What are you doing to solve that problem?’ but I have to ask myself, ‘How am I investing in them?’”

Them, of course, means his officers. It’s all about his officers, and the community.

Small’s personality and leadership style aside, there are some factors unique to the state of Wisconsin at play.

For one, state code requires that localities above a certain population size provide for public safety. They can choose to build their own departments, or contract with another, but not doing it is not an option.

For another, Wisconsin has a relatively modest cost of living. Therefore, an officer who works for Palmyra can expect a reasonable standard of living even considering the lower rate of pay. Also, the staggered schedule (48 on/96 off) allows time for family, recreation, or a side job if needed, without unduly interfering with the officer’s ability to train, rest or keep fit.

Officers who like their boss and job may well elect to stay despite lower pay if it’s possible to make a dignified living. No one ever chose law enforcement to get rich anyway.

Several other features of Wisconsin’s government codes and structure permit a pioneering chief the leeway needed to make radical changes.

Wisconsin has a Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, providing a degree of protection for an officer’s job, and a right to due process - including for a police chief. Oversight of law enforcement agencies is carried out mainly by police and fire commissions with rotating terms, independent of a mayor or a village board. This means a chief making difficult decisions in the pursuit of change is less subject to threats of sudden or arbitrary termination than chiefs appointed at the pleasure of an individual.

Wisconsin also requires police applicants to have an associate’s degree, or 60 hours of college credit to be certified. Education is no guarantee of character but it can be a factor in evaluating maturity and perseverance.

Think outside the box

The combined protective services model may not be the choice for every small town, but it is an option for those facing difficult budget and staffing decisions. When what you’ve always done is still failing to meet a community’s needs, it may be time to consider something never tried before.

In the end, a law enforcement agency needs two things the most: good people and an excellent leader. Choose the best you can find, train them well, then let them shine.

Small wrapped that concept up with this thought: “I hired ADULTS, smart people. I expect that they work together to accomplish goals, I expect teamwork. Hire smart people, explain your expectations - and then, leave them alone to do their job.”

Chief James Small discusses his leadership strategies with Policing Matters host Jim Dudley:

Download this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher, Spotify or via RSS feed.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.