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Why police chiefs must share their recruitment success stories and failures

As law enforcement agencies face a dual crisis of attracting new recruits and retaining seasoned officers, the sharing of real-world experiences and strategies is vital

White puzzle with one missing piece shows: WE WANT YOU!

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I regularly communicate with law enforcement executives across the country. One common concern they share is the scarcity of qualified police applicants. Another issue, considered more severe by many, is the loss of experienced officers.

Some officers who leave their agencies cite hostility from small segments of society, amplified and perpetuated by social media, as a reason for their departure. Additionally, many younger officers mention that they are seeking less stressful and better-paying jobs.

Many law enforcement executives report that the loss of experienced officers has caused unanticipated problems. Several chiefs have observed a surge in officer-involved shooting incidents that, while justified, would likely not have occurred if the officers had more experience.

Another chief lamented having “rookies training rookies.” He stated that the average department-wide experience level decreased from 15 years of service to seven years of service. Consequently, line supervisors sometimes had as little as three years of service. This situation has created a “see one, do one, teach one” environment, which does not adequately prepare officers for what they will encounter on patrol. He noted that training can only prepare officers for the setting, but until an officer has experienced the event, most do not know how they will react, and perhaps more importantly, how they will recover.

One agency lost most of a squad when several of its officers, who had an average of two years of service, were involved in a shooting of a kidnapping suspect. The shooting, while justified and not controversial, so shocked the officers that several quit, some leaving that night with no notice, walking off the shooting scene.

What are law enforcement executives doing to address this crisis? Let’s take a look.

Increase starting pay

One agency, desperate for applicants, increased its starting pay by almost 30%, making the starting pay $15,000 above the median salary in the area. However, applicants are still not readily available. Another agency launched a paid cadet program that pays well above the median salary for the area, though many applicants still failed the program. One unintended consequence not thoroughly researched was the need to increase pay for every employee, which left the agency scrambling for funds to avoid exacerbating the retirement of additional older employees due to the pay differential.

Rehire retired employees

Some agencies have made legislative changes to their retirement programs, allowing them to “rehire” retired employees as part-time employees. Most pay substantial hourly rates and can only use the officers for 20 to 30 hours per week. Essentially, this involved paying the standard rate without deducting for retirement and insurance, which increased the pay by 30% or more in some cases. This strategy has been successful in some settings, where these officers take less stressful school resource or security jobs, or return as investigators or desk officers. This change required local and, in some instances, legislative amendments at the state level. One chief implemented this program to place an armed school security officer in every school. These officers carry semiautomatic carbines, wear external body armor and are tasked solely with securing the schools, in addition to school resource officers.

Promote recreational resources

Some chiefs continue to highlight the recreational resources of their area. This often attracts retired officers from other areas who want to remain involved in law enforcement but do not want the demanding schedule of a full-time job, or perhaps desire a specialty role such as an investigator. Several chiefs with agencies located in prime fishing, hunting, golfing, and beach areas report that officers often start by wanting to do part-time patrol work but soon return to their specialties. One chief noted he had a homicide investigator with 30 years of experience in his small department, while another said he managed to secure a premier traffic homicide investigator with reconstruction experience that his agency could otherwise ill afford.

Move salaries into benefits

Another medium-sized agency chief said she could not fill multiple positions, so she convinced her governing council to allow her to reallocate the funds for salaries into benefits. She obtained excellent insurance coverage, including paying for family benefits, more vacation, and a small salary increase. She surveyed her officers and determined this was what they most desired.

Flexible scheduling

Small- and medium-sized agencies have benefited from flexible scheduling, the use of part-time personnel including reserves, the use of personally owned equipment, customizing assigned patrol cars, and, in very small agencies, operations independent of direct supervision with a supervisor only on call. Several have maximized these “assets” by adapting their operations to fit the resources available and promoting these “benefits.” Most have been successful in attracting applicants even with lower salaries.

Pool resources

One rural county with more than 400 square miles and several small municipal agencies totaling fewer than 15 officers managed to address staffing issues with a “Joint Municipal Crime Suppression Unit,” agreed upon by the governing bodies of the agencies. This allowed agencies to pool resources when one locale experienced a crime or other issue and to resolve or at least suppress the problem. This collaboration included responses to gang shootings, backup issues, assistance when officers from one municipality were not available, natural disasters, fires, serious motor vehicle crashes, parades, special events, and safety checkpoints. The costs were borne by each municipality, and the police chiefs worked out the operational tempo. The program has been successful.

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Hire civilians

Others have decided to fill sworn positions with civilians and train these civilians for the specific job. While this approach decreases flexibility, it fulfills the function. This has led to civilian dispatchers, civilian crime scene personnel, civilian investigators, and the like. One agency advertised, “Too Busy to Wait for an Officer? File Your Minor Crime Report Online!” This allowed citizens to file reports for thefts, speeding complaints, overgrown lots, littering, and similar incidents online. A civilian investigator follows up with an email, text, or phone call to gather additional information. Those requiring follow-up were usually assigned to civilians performing code enforcement, and many were simply added to the crime database for area officers to review. An unanticipated outcome was that more criminal mischief, theft and code enforcement violations were reported than before the program’s implementation.

Change response models

Some programs have been used to increase agency responses to serious events, such as responding only to crimes in progress, not investigating minor thefts, non-injury motor vehicle crashes, or assaults with no serious injury. Others have lowered hiring standards. The long-term effects of these actions remain to be seen, but many veteran law enforcement executives have predicted that they will be detrimental, as the rigor previously required has been abandoned.

Looking ahead

What I have not seen is any definitive research published in these areas to address the root issues and the countermeasures that have seen success. Chiefs and law enforcement executives need to share ideas, failures and successes while considering unconventional solutions to resolve the issues at hand and assist in mitigating the observed damages.

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Colonel Jim Smith, MSS, NRP, FABCHS, CPC, CLEE, is the public safety director for the Cottonwood Police Department in Cottonwood, Alabama. He has more than 45 years of experience in public safety and has worked for a large metropolitan agency as captain and executive assistant to the police chief to public safety director for a small rural agency.

He has written several textbooks including “Tactical Medicine Essentials” (coauthor, endorsed by the American College of Emergency Physicians),"Crisis Management for Law Enforcement,” both in their second edition. He also produced the fourth edition of “Brodie’s Bombs and Bombings.”

He is an APOSTC-certified law enforcement executive and certified police chief and graduate of the University of Southern California with a master’s degree in safety. A prolific writer, he has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in an assortment of journals. He teaches for Troy University as an adjunct instructor and for the University of Phoenix online as an instructor. Smith continues to teach emergency medical technology and tactical medicine through several institutions.