Avoid Recruiting Police Garbage
By Richard B. Weinblatt
“Garbage in, garbage out.” That old saying captures why the recruitment of quality people into law enforcement is so important. After all, all street-level law enforcers want their backup officer to be good at a complex and dangerous job. Now, that’s not to say that training doesn’t have its priority, but we all know marginal officers who’ve somehow slipped through the cracks and successfully entered the field. No amount of remedial field training officer stints will overcome their limitations.
So what is that stops some people, who may otherwise be ok, from getting through the intensive copper selection process? What should applicants do to make themselves appealing to the gate-keepers of LEO jobs: police chiefs, sheriffs, police academy managers, and law enforcement agency recruiters? And how can recruiters avoid recruiting garbage?
From the recruiters’ perspective, otherwise promising applicants sometimes stumble in the hiring process on items over which at least at some point they have control. In the scramble for quality law enforcement officers, there are those individuals that you scratch your head and say “he (or she) would have been a great cop if it weren’t for X issue.”
Getting a job in law enforcement is not easy. While there are many people out there that aspire to pin on that shiny star, shield or oval, few land on the sheriff or police chief’s A list of hirable prospects. Here’s where knowing what the hiring honchos want to see comes in.
The folks that go for law enforcement jobs have changed in recent years. There has been a shift from before.
“We see people that have a distorted view of law enforcement,” said Sergeant James McDonald, recruitment unit supervisor for the Orlando Police Department.
Sitting in an envious recruiter position in the land of Mickey in sunny Florida, the 16-year law enforcement veteran oversees a five person recruitment office that draws a wide cross section of aspiring O-Town officers from across the nation. That mega draw enables him and his recruiting colleagues in the Sunshine State to get a good feel for the national applicant pool.
McDonald explained that the media alters the reality people have of the job. He said that many of their 2,000 applicants per year, who are gunning for the 40 openings in the 942-employee agency, want to be in investigations right away and skip the backbone of policing, patrol. In the same vein, he pointed out that those exiting the military are looking for a SWAT position immediately.
“Before, it was the generation of ‘what can I do for the agency.’ Now, it’s ‘what can the agency do for me,’” lamented Officer Nigel Price, the recruiter for the Sanford, Florida, Police Department. “They don’t understand that a good law enforcement officer wears many hats including that of law enforcer, counselor, best friend, and community mentor.”
Price, a proud member of the U.S. Marine Corps before his cop job in the 116 sworn officer agency, pointed out “the only conflict many applicants have dealt with is on PlayStation 2.”
Price and the other police recruitment gurus said that strong interpersonal skills, garnered through life’s experiences, makes for a strong candidate. “A lot of young people have few inter-personal skills. You see that in the interview portion,” said Price who added that most applicants fail the Sanford Police Department’s oral board.
Many of the applicants are kids out of high school or college with zero work history. Price observed that the inexperience hurts them when they apply. McDonald said that the opposite also is bad.
“We see 20 year olds with 20 jobs in their employment history. What kind of stability does that demonstrate?” McDonald asked rhetorically. “Those that are successful with us have a background of responsible behavior and ideally a combination of military and educational credentials.”
Recruits that have military or college in their past are definitely sought after by recruiters. “Those individuals have longevity and don’t tend to jump around,” said Price.
College helps in a variety of ways including passing written examinations. The Orlando Police Department exemplifies the importance of the education issue with 50% failing the civil service exam.
In this age of online and flexible on-campus educational opportunities, there is little excuse not to go for a degree. However, applicants can hurt their chances if they undertake coursework from an educational institution that is of questionable repute. Transcripts or degrees from a diploma mill are worse than not having that resume line at all.
The lower exodus in recent years of military personnel has hurt the law enforcement applicant pool. The pinch is especially acute when it comes to minorities and females. In fact, those two target demographics are the only ones that Orlando has to reach out to in order to meet their recruitment goals. They do so by targeting recruitment forays at historically black colleges and military installations.
Integrity and character issues also make the list of problems that knock people out of contention for cop jobs. Falling expectations of departments are reflected in lowered standards in some agencies. It used to be that there was zero tolerance for drug use, speeding, and DUI. Now, those issues have been relegated to sliding scale formulas in a lot of agencies.
The hiring standard battle rages in many agencies. On the one hand, pressure exists to meet the staffing shortfalls by making it easier to gain entry into the profession. The flip side encompasses those that believe it is better to hire only those that meet long-established criteria for LEOs.
While the debate is framed as an issue of quality versus quantity, some contend that even the quality approach is not as it seems. Some view the “dings” and “dents” in the armor as examples of life’s experiences that make for a well-rounded and more empathetic patrol officer.
For some departments, issues such as so-called minor drug use experimentation are less of an issue if the use was limited and was anywhere from five to ten years ago. For just about all agencies nationwide, any hard drug use, transport or sale of illegal substances results in the application heading for the shredder.
Driving history is a newer disqualifier that has made the recruiter’s lot more difficult. Amid concerns of liability for the hiring of an employee who drives for hours on end, sometimes at high speeds, the track record of the aspiring police car driver becomes important.
Bad credit also looms as an issue that torpedoes many swimming in the applicant pool. Recruiters look at impulsivity or irresponsibility with credit as an indicator of future behavior as an officer. As Price pointed out, “new officers tend to be impulsive.”
Beyond the obvious tales of dishonesty and omission problems listed by recruiters across the country, another big issue stops wannabe law enforcers in their tracks. A lack of respect, organization, and care on the part of applicants are hampering their success. It manifests itself simply as they fail to read the paperwork and that lack of care hurts their chances.
By paying attention to the details, the recruiters and law enforcement execs can see a person who cares and wants to do their best. All of the long-term educational, training, employment, and character pluses will be subtracted if the application is incomplete, messy, or worse yet, contain lies and omissions.
Bottom line, the recruiters’ job should be to avoid taking garbage into the agency, so that they do not end up churning garbage out onto the street in a cruiser. Recruiters are looking for squared away individuals who have a track record of responsible behavior. Cops on the street also are hoping for quality recruits that could eventually evolve into quality law enforcement professionals.