Recruitment Remains Law Enforcement Challenge

By virtually any standard of measurement, a career in law enforcement ranks among the top five most stressful occupations in the United States.  INTELLEO takes a look at the challenges faced by many police agencies in filling the ranks.

Little Shake-Up In The Top Five

For the past several decades, the job difficulty of a police officer’s work has traditionally ranked high.  The most recent example, is a story profiling a survey by CareerCast, which ranked the top five most challenging occupations.  Survey says:

  1. Enlisted military personnel.
  2. Firefighter.
  3. Airline pilot.
  4. Police Officer.
  5. Broadcaster.

Good reason why police and law enforcement agencies of all sizes and in all geographical locations often struggle to attract, train, and retain qualified LEOs.  A timely article by former police chief Sid Smith, published in, points to a variety of reasons filling and maintaining staff levels is a constant challenge.  His essay, “A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century,” illuminates that difficulty.  Three underlying reasons why are briefly noted here:

  1.  Society is changing:  Smith writes that today’s potential police employees view the job market much differently than past generations.  Whereas yesteryear’s employees largely had a “live-to-work” perspective, today’s potential police recruits largely have a “work-to-live” perspective—which means recruitment enticements such as salary, time off and other ancillary benefits become more important in attracting good candidates to police work.
  2. Police profession is changing: Long gone are the days of the “beat cop” who knew his or her neighborhood and everybody in it like the backs of their hands.  Today’s police force is under far greater public scrutiny and his high-tech driven with the use of bodycams, body armor, stronger roles of Internal Affairs and organizational mobility.  Like other professions, police officers are far less likely to remain not only with the same agency, but in the same career field.  Organizational continuity is also taking a hit where the average retirement age of career officers, once close to age 60 or 55, has declined to around age 50.  That trend leaves more holes in the ranks of the already thin blue line.
  3. Budget cuts & other issues: Public safety comes at a cost.  Many police agencies have had to respond to annual budget cuts and reductions in work force—leaving fewer officers to do more—and there’s only so much that technology and all the training in the world can do to buffer those realities.  Additionally, recruitment and retention of female and minority officers to reflect the communities they serve, often fall short of goals.

Police recruitment issues are widespread and trickle down from the level of federal agencies to small town departments.  A June 2019 article authored by J.D. Tucille for indicates as many as 66 percent of police agencies across the nation are struggling to meet personnel recruitment goals and needs.  Statistics back up that reality.  Tucille spotlights data from the Bureau of Justice that concludes the number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents has declined from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016.  Further, the total raw number of full-time officers in the United States has dropped from 724,690 in 2013 to 701, 169 in 2016.

Even the FBI is struggling to fill its ranks.  That same statistical source documents that the number of special agent applications to the nation’s most elite policing agency has plummeted—dropping from 68,500 in 2009 to just 11,500 a year ago.  Two prime reasons cited—a growing mistrust of police work in general—and the evolving perceptions and evaluations by communities served by the police.

Bringing A New Officer On Board Is Not Cheap

For law enforcement agencies, adding a new employee can be significantly more costly than many other professions.  Writing for the National Police Foundation, Brett Meade, Ed.D., Deputy Chief of Police at one of the nation’s largest universities, the University of Central Florida, notes those costs.  In many instances, the total organizational cost to recruit, hire, equip, train and put a new officer on the street can easily total $100,000 and routinely take well over a year to accomplish.  Most agencies would need to get a return of service in the neighborhood of 3-5 years from that new officer to recoup those costs.  Meade includes a number of recruitment suggestions in his story overview that could ease police officer recruitment challenges.

He writes that potential recruits are also looking at agencies in terms of what they have to offer while agencies are simultaneously looking at what potential new hires bring to the table.  Today’s effective recruitment efforts need to be able to answer common applicant questions that may include:

*Does your agency offer overtime or opportunities for special assignments?

*Do I take my car home?

*Are there opportunities for time off? (Back to today’s lifestyle concerns of the contemporary applicant)

*How well does the agency bond with applicants it hopes to convert to officers?

*Is there a sense of commitment and community in working for this agency?

Based on his 34 years behind the badge, Meade suggests police agencies can improve their recruitment and retention of officers by incorporating focused strategies to include:

*Determining and prioritizing the specific traits an agency and community desires in its police officers.

*Recruit and select officers who identify and bond with the agency’s culture.

*Ensure that recruits understand the mission and goals of your agency.

*Don’t expect potential recruits to waltz through your door looking for work or stop by your booth at a job fair.  Use social media to actively recruit and tout the benefits of coming to work for your agency.

*Don’t forget to look in your own backyard for recruits.  Ask local community advisory boards to scout for potential future officers—applicants who already live and identify where they may potentially work, play, and plant permanent roots.

*Aggressively target female and minority applicants as a reflection of the force serving that community.

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