Recruitment and Retention: Part IV
Law enforcement faces three challenges: recruiting good candidates, training them to understand their policing role and do the job safely and effectively, and retaining the best officers in the profession. Kentucky has spent two decades developing and progressing police training, yet many agencies throughout the commonwealth struggle to either recruit or retain the absolute best officers.
This is the last of a four-part series diving into some of today’s biggest recruitment and retention issues or strategies that affect law enforcement agencies across the nation, but often go overlooked and unnoticed in an ever-evolving workforce landscape.
High standards are a must in law enforcement recruiting. Communities deserve the most qualified and highly-trained officers an agency can put on the streets. And as the demographic landscape of the country and the commonwealth continues to shift, communities also expect their law enforcement agencies to reflect the demographic makeup of the communities they serve.
However, more and more agencies are experiencing mounting difficulties in general recruitment, exponentiating the struggle to attract minorities, women and those of different sexual orientations into law enforcement careers to accurately reflect their communities.
What’s a law enforcement executive to do in this changing landscape to attract the best, brightest, most qualified and capable recruits to his or her agency? Maybe the answers can be found in examining agency policies first.
“Do your policies exclude people?” asked Lawrence Weathers, former assistant chief for the Lexington Police Department during a 2015 Police Executive Command Course recruitment discussion. “You might be excluding people who could bring a lot to your agency. You have to look for and actively seek women, minorities, individuals of different gender persuasions, and you have to be open to that — that’s just the way it is.”
Weathers, now serving as chief of the Fayette County Schools Law Enforcement Department, cited matters of haircuts, tattoos and other cultural factors as areas often restricted in law enforcement policy that focus more on appearance than on the character and capabilities of potential recruits.
In recent years, several lawsuits have been filed and won about policies that are seen as discriminatory against certain groups of individuals related to race-, religion- or gender-specific issues.
Face the Issues on Facial Hair
Policies requiring officers be clean shaven or only have well-trimmed mustaches are common across the country. Law enforcement agencies often maintain that beard bans are necessary to project an image of professionalism and discipline. As para-military organizations, this is an understandable and highly-popular belief. However, in 2011 a Baltimore officer sued the Baltimore Police Department because, despite a letter from his doctor seeking to be excused from an order to shave, two superior officers handed him a disposable razor and a small container of shaving cream and ordered him to shave at roll call in front of his colleagues without water or a mirror, a Fox News article cites.
The officer actually suffered from a condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae, which occurs when shaved hairs curl back into the skin and become ingrown and inflamed, causing painful, itchy pustules infected with staph bacteria. In some cases, they can leave permanent scars.
The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology estimates that the condition, though rare in white men, occurs in 60 percent of black males or other ethnic groups with naturally curly hair.
And the Baltimore officer isn’t the first to bring attention to this issue. Nearly 25 years ago, a University of Maryland at Baltimore police officer challenged his agency’s grooming policy and, after nearly a decade, won his case. Likewise, in 2007, four black police officers in Houston filed suit against the city and its police department claiming the no-beard policy was discriminatory.
But looking from a recruitment standpoint, it is possible that such beard-banning policies will keep black or other minority men from applying or getting hired in the first place. This is a concern with which the general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations agrees.
Facial hair also can be a source of contention when it comes to religious beliefs. A Muslim police officer in New Jersey filed a religious discrimination lawsuit in September, stating his inability to wear the beard on duty violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments.
One recommendation for agency administrators is to add medical and religious exemptions to current policies for those suffering from skin conditions such as PFB or with religious reasons, allowing officers to maintain a one-quarter inch beard. For those agency heads who feel facial hair does not present a professional image, today’s generation will argue against that belief, insisting that neatly-trimmed and well-manicured facial hair still exhibits professionalism and responsibility.
Wrap Your Head Around Headgear
Also in line with religious inclinations, various agencies throughout the country have had to take another look at their policies regarding headgear, specifically as it relates to Muslim traditions of women wearing hijabs or Sikh traditions of men wearing turbans.
In February of this year, in a high-profile gesture to one of the nation’s largest communities of South Asian Sikhs, the Harrison County (Texas) sheriff allowed a serving Sikh officer to wear his faith’s traditional beard and turban while on patrol.
According to a Washington Post article, the move, a longtime demand of Sikh activists, made Harrison County one of the first police forces in the nation – along with Washington, D.C. and Riverside, Calif. – to permit Sikhs to wear the articles of faith their religion requires of devout members.
“By making these religious accommodations, we will ensure that (our) office reflects the community we serve, one of the most culturally rich and diverse in America,” Harrison County (Texas) Sheriff Adrian Garcia said in a statement. “Deputies need to not only understand, respect and communicate with all segments of the population, but represent it as well.”
The outcome wasn’t as successful for a Philadelphia officer who, in 1998, requested to wear a hijab scarf, which covers a woman’s head and neck, after converting to Sunni Muslim beliefs. The department denied her request saying the headgear under her uniform cap could be dangerous, a Police Magazine article states. Though Philadelphia had agreed to allow male officers to grow beards for religious or health reasons, the administration held to the safety issue with the hijab, explaining that a quarter-inch beard is not dangerous.
Such issues of officer safety versus Title VII compliance can create issues for police departments when looking at policies and trying to attract and successfully recruit a more diverse force. While overall officer safety must take precedence, agencies must be willing to search for inclusive solutions and not simply fall back on officer-safety claims and bow out of the discussion.
Change Your Parameters on Parental Issues
Though women make up a little more than half of the nation’s population, they account for only 13 percent of the nation’s police force, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Though policing always has been a male-dominated profession, women have served in law enforcement roles for decades and have proven to excel in many ways, especially in the areas of communication and influence in high-stress situations.
In Kentucky, female recruits have to pass the same physical standards as their male counterparts, which in the past made it potentially more difficult to recruit females into Kentucky agencies. Beginning in 2009, the grading scale changed to allow testing candidates to score higher in certain areas to balance a slightly lower score in other areas. Though not done exclusively for female candidates, it does serve to balance upper-body dominant testing areas such as push-ups and bench press that tend to be more difficult for females.
But there are other issues that may deter qualified and capable women from approaching a law enforcement career – and often those issues are hiding in department policies.
“We’ve got to be smarter, and we have to know what people need,” Weathers said during the 2015 PECC course. “We’ve got to understand that the majority of people we’re hiring today are single parents; do you offer any child care? What about shift work — is it necessary that it be eight hours or 10 hours? Are you looking at things like that? And if you are, do the people you’re trying to reach know that?”
Without any flexibility in areas like these, recruiting females — especially mothers — will be very difficult. Obviously departments cannot offer special treatment for female officers or any other specific group of officers, but as long as the same benefits are offered to all officers, having ways to accommodate a diverse range of family situations will allow agencies to attract individuals who otherwise wouldn’t even consider a law enforcement career.
Another issue of reasonable accommodation that can deter women from a law enforcement career deals with maternity-leave policies. Several federal laws provide significant protections for pregnant women. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or any other conditions the same as all other applicants and employees as it pertains to their ability or inability to work and perform certain job-related functions. A Law360.com article cites that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to provide reasonable, unpaid break time for nonexempt nursing mothers to express breast milk. The Family Medical Leave Act provides covered workers with a right to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for childbirth and bonding with a new child, among other reasons. And while pregnancy itself is not a disability, The Americans with Disabilities Act states that pregnancy-related impairments can be disabilities if they substantially limit a major life activity.
For young women looking at career options, agencies need to be aware that they are not just looking down the road to what retirement may look like, many are looking down the road to what starting a family will look like in that career choice. If an agency does not allow light-duty assignments for pregnant officers the same way they would for any other temporarily-disabled officers, it can push female candidates away from desiring a career with that agency.
Likewise, the Law360 article suggests “employers should review their leave and benefit policies and practices to determine whether … employees with pregnancy-related disabilities are treated the same as other temporarily-disabled employees for accrual and crediting of seniority, vacation calculations, pay increases and temporary-disability benefits.”
Consider the Repercussions of Reducing Standards
“When I came into policing, there were 1,300 applicants; today we are lucky if we get 300 to come and take the test,” Weathers said about Lexington’s decline in applicant pool.
The 2014 Law Enforcement Executive Forum report on strategies for police recruitment looked at options for departments to bolster their supply of candidates.
“Some departments have decided to ‘open the faucet’ of supply by eliminating many traditional restrictions,” the report states. “Easing qualifications and hiring restrictions often have proved politically volatile and attracted criticism for being short-sighted. For many departments, the short-term concern for filling empty chairs on test day can be remedied by relaxing requirements. However this leads to charges that departments are lowering hiring standards.”
Decreasing restrictions in areas such as residency constraints, educational requirements, experimental drug use, bad credit history and minor arrest records most likely will raise the number of applicants agencies have for their vacant positions. For agencies struggling to receive enough viable applications to fill open positions with qualified, capable officers, some of these changes can be beneficial.
This past summer, Louisville Metro Police Department chose to alter two job stipulations for would-be Louisville officers. The first was the agency’s 60-hour college requirement. They took it back to the statewide requirement of a high-school diploma or GED equivalent. In the first four weeks, LMPD’s applications soared, said Sgt. Daniel Elliott who leads LMPD’s recruitment efforts. From July 21 to Sept. 19, the agency received 684 applications, more than half of what they received for the entire previous year.
In addition, LMPD also relaxed its policy on applicants having used, possessed or sold marijuana from within the past six years down to three years.
“We did reduce the drug requirement,” Elliot said, “but ours still is strong. It is three years for marijuana, but six for any prescription or other drugs.
“And changing the college hours does make applications go up, but there is the same vetting process for all applicants — it still is a rigorous process,” Elliot continued.
But agencies also should keep in mind the potential implications lowering hiring standards may have on the way the community views officers. The LEEF report advises that relaxing such restrictions can interfere with a department’s ability to build community confidence in the quality of its officers.
Recruitment of suitable, adept and diverse officers has been and will continue to be a struggle for many agencies. Agencies should take the time and effort necessary to review policies and recruitment tactics to see if there are areas that can be changed, tweaked or completely overhauled to ensure individuals who could make fantastic officers aren’t being turned away by outdated rules and regulations. These rules may not accurately reflect the caliber of people an agency truly wants and needs serving its community.
“Your human resources department isn’t responsible for recruiting, we are — our officers are,” Weathers said. “It’s a total agency recruiting effort.”