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Police officer recruitment is hard but not hopeless

Create a framework for implementing short-term solutions and long-term strategies to improve police officer recruitment in your agency

BJA report recruitment2.png

Photo/COPS Office

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Staffing is one of the most significant challenges facing law enforcement. Only 10.5% of respondents to the 2023 What Cops Want survey said their department was fully staffed to its authorized staffing number.

Fortunately, law enforcement leaders have access to more reports, resources, webinars and articles to improve police officer recruitment than ever before to respond to the staffing crisis.

In late 2023, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services added another resource with the release of “Recruitment and Retention for the Modern Law Enforcement Agency.” The report is the result of an April 2023 meeting of law enforcement and community leaders, convened by the U.S. Attorney General. The goal of the discussion was to identify recommendations to “address police recruitment and retention through the modernization of the police profession.”

BJA report recruitment.png

The report is a quick read, as it is organized into eight sections, such as eligibility and hiring, training, and benefits and incentives. Each section includes a short introduction, potential solutions and action recommendations that are categorized as short-term solutions that take less time to implement; long-term strategies that take a longer time to implement; and hybrid short-long recommendations that require short-term actions followed by a longer implementation strategy.

The report doesn’t instruct leaders to make every recommendation, but it also doesn’t include an obvious framework for helping readers determine which recommendations and solutions might be best for their agency. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to decide which short-term solutions and long-term strategies might make sense for your agency.

Look inward before changing recruitment practices

Culture drives everything, including recruitment. An important first step for any department is to understand and describe its current culture by asking and answering these critical questions for recruitment.

  • What is our department’s culture?
  • What do we do and who do we serve?
  • How do we currently recruit applicants?
  • Why do we recruit applicants the way we do?
  • Who applies to work in our department?
  • How do applicants match our department’s culture, mission and values?

As you ask and answer these questions, ensure your responses are data informed, mission relevant and defensible. Collecting and analyzing data is especially important as you consider new approaches to police officer recruitment. You’ll need data about the department’s current officer demographics and officer retention stats, as well as data about recent and current applicants.
Several participants in the BJA/COPS Office discussion relayed the importance of knowing current hiring processes, questioning assumptions and assessing readiness for change. The department’s leadership, recruiters, academy instructors and field training officers all need to be willing to implement new processes for any change to be successful. Is your department ready to do something different?

Recruitment success requires continuous improvement

All the report’s recommendations, from the short-term solutions to the long-term strategies, should be thought of as opportunities for continuous improvement rather than a one-time action. Collect and use qualitative data, like interviews with academy instructors, and quantitative data like survey responses about the hiring process from applicants, to continuously improve all aspects of recruitment, training and hiring. Make sure you are collecting, analyzing and disseminating data that is collected during the:

  • Hiring process
  • Academy
  • Field training

Don’t stop data collection at the end of field training. An annual or semi-annual employee engagement survey, including an employee Net Promoter Score, is critical to the continuous improvement of a department’s culture and its processes.

Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) measures the willingness of police department members to recommend their workplace to others, serving as a key indicator of officer satisfaction and retention.

Keep in mind two of the most critical things for leaders to do with the data they collect. First, share the data with the workforce, many of whom might be interested in what is learned from the data collection efforts, as they play an important and ongoing role in making change. Second, let people know how the data is being used to inform decisions about resource allocation, budget requests and personnel assignments. More than half of 2023 What Cops Want survey respondents believe their department’s recruitment initiatives have improved recruitment. Regardless of being right or wrong, influence their perception of recruitment initiatives with transparent data communication.

Recruitment is communication and storytelling

Staffing numbers and recruitment campaigns can be objectively measured, but the impact of low staffing is a perception. It is something officers, as well as the people they serve, feel and experience subjectively. Patrol officers live the constant challenge of short staffing. Nearly every (95.6%) of 2023 What Cops Want survey respondents agreed with the statement, “I have seen direct impacts of low staffing at my agency.”

When a department’s leadership doesn’t effectively tell an accurate, reality-based story about the department, internal and external stakeholders will fill in the story’s gaps based on their perceptions and vantage points. Patrol officers may perceive the new officer recruitment situation as worse than it is, while a police department-supporting community may perceive department staffing as better than it is. Both groups need information to accurately understand the department’s challenges and needs.

Next, just as your department might use different channels for internal and public communication, consider different storytellers for different audiences. Match your messaging and communicator with the audience to best inform and motivate. In a solution discussion about trainee outreach the report states, “Potential recruits want recruiters with whom they can identify — not necessarily ones with long tenure in an organization.”

According to the BJA/COPS office discussion, potential recruits are looking for opportunities to serve their community and make a difference in the lives of others. Are those themes front and center in recruiting videos and the one-on-one conversations your recruiters are having with recruits at job fairs and community events? If not, they need to be.

Evolve department benefits to workforce needs

Department benefits, which often can only change annually and might be governed by a labor agreement or constrained by budgets, aren’t easily changed with a short-term solution. Instead, law enforcement leaders need to make sure that long-term strategies for evolving benefits match the needs and desires of the workforce.

The BJA/COPS office discussion reported that today’s recruits may have different needs and desires than past generations. For example, childcare is difficult to find, expensive and not always flexible for parents working a rotating shift schedule. Law enforcement agencies that can help their officers with affordable and police-schedule-friendly childcare will have a leg up with recruits.

Other benefits mentioned in the report that should be examined for relevancy and desirability include retirement plan options and funding, shift length and scheduling, and wellness resources. One discussion that stood out was that wellness programs and resource needs aren’t the same for every officer.

Tactics to recruit police officers

Departments that don’t try new recruitment tactics or initiatives are going to be left behind to increasingly struggle with the morale-sapping and safety-compromising impacts of low staffing. More than 20% (21.9%) of What Cops Want survey respondents reported their department has not implemented any officer recruitment initiatives. Facing one of the biggest challenges of it’s generation, a fifth of departments are not producing a recruitment video, staffing a recruitment unit, attending career fairs, offering signing bonuses, or increasing benefits.

Though police recruitment has never been harder, inaction should not be an option. It has never been easier to find assistance from federal and state agencies, private organizations and professional groups. Departments and leaders are keen to share what’s working, as well as what isn’t working. Combine the BJA/COPS office discussion, with other resources, to pick the tactics, solutions and strategies that are best suited to your department’s needs and align with your department’s mission.

As you have success, reach out to us to let us know what’s working, the lessons you learned along the way and your advice for other departments.


Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, paramedic and runner. Greg is a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Ask questions or submit article ideas to Greg by emailing him at and connect with him on LinkedIn.