The Recruitment Puzzle
Staffing a law enforcement agency is about a lot more than meeting the lofty goal of authorized strength.
It’s about people. Personalities, skills, ethics and training are just a handful of the puzzle pieces that must carefully fit together to create a successful team. Choosing the right people to offer a gun, badge and the power to hold the public’s civil rights in their hands can be a daunting task.
Meeting this challenge head-on, though, can be the difference between an engaged team with positive morale or an agency wrought with lawsuits and an onslaught of resignations.
Ask the Right Questions
Traditionally, officers have been stereotyped as “Type A” personalities; high energy, high stress, stoic and robotic. But in the two decades since “community-oriented” became the catchphrase in policing, most agencies are looking for personalities that refute those engrained stereotypes.
Traits like compassion, critical thinking, creativity, teamwork, ethics and professional responsibility are today’s buzzwords. So, how do agency hiring teams identify desirable traits in potential candidates during an interview process to ensure they meet those expectations?
Department of Criminal Justice Training Human Resources Branch Manager Tina Moss said it’s all in asking behavioral-based questions. For example, instead of asking an interviewee how they would handle a particular situation, ask them how they have handled that type of situation in the past, and ask them to offer specific examples.
Often, nervous candidates regurgitate prepared answers or tell interviewers what’s already on their resumes, she said.
“I can read the resume, I don’t need you to quote it,” Moss said. “I need to know who you are as a person. That’s probably the most difficult thing to do, is getting people to open up personally. I don’t need to worry about if you’re married, have kids, medical issues or religion. I want to know what makes you, you.”
Moss suggests asking questions about difficult situations and how the candidate overcame them.
“Sometimes that leads people to get emotional about personal things in life,” she said. “But it shows you what kind of resources they have within themselves to get past something, what their support system is or just how they manage their feelings and move forward.”
Ask questions that lead to answers about a person’s interpersonal skills, their adaptability and how they deal with difficult people. Moss also suggests being prepared to ask follow up questions to draw out more details from a candidate’s initial response.
“If you have seven questions in an interview, you’re always asking 14,” she said. “How, what and where, and ‘tell me about that,’ if you can ask those with whatever they’re saying, that will usually get them to open up.”
Many people who have great experience are reluctant to brag on themselves, Moss said, or simply don’t interview well.
“Sometimes you have to help them by asking questions,” she said. “You don’t want to miss out on somebody who could be a good employee because their interview skills are lacking. You can help them get past the nervousness and open up to the interview panel by helping them feel comfortable with talking to you one-on-one. If you don’t ask questions, they will not give it to you.”
Nearly two years ago when Richmond Police Chief James Ebert took the helm, his department was almost 20 officers short of authorized strength and still recovering from the trauma of losing an officer in the line of duty. It had been some time since a recruiting process was open, and the new chief was looking at filling his ranks. He and RPD Assistant Chief Rodney Richardson began thinking creatively about re-building a team that shared Richmond’s community values and the agency’s vision.
“A little bit of it was just lighting the fires back up,” Ebert said. “We have been non-stop recruiting since then. The key was not just getting bodies in. We could get bodies to fill up the numbers, but if you do that, you’re going to pay the consequences on down the road when those people get off probationary status, and you’re stuck with somebody who may not be a good fit for your organization.”
Ebert and Richardson began by establishing a diverse interview panel from within their agency to give current officers input into hiring decisions and capitalize on their unique perspectives.
“We brought in officers from different shifts and different talent pools,” Ebert said. “We usually try to get an officer who is a PTO (Police Training Officer), because they are going to look at a candidate in a different way than we would look at them administratively. Their first question is, ‘Is this person trainable?’”
As Moss suggested, RPD has had success with scenario-based, behavioral interview questions when identifying the traits they seek from candidates.
“We’re no longer asking about whether they want to be the police,” Richardson said. “We already know they’re here for the interview. Let’s talk about other things that are going to bring out the real deal. When’s the last time you got angry? How did you handle it? The answers they give you will shock you in what they’ll tell you about themselves – even accidentally.”
Determining a person’s level of ethics can also be assessed using scenario-based questions. For example, Richardson described a situational question in which another officer acts unethically and asks the interviewee how they would handle it.
“It gives you a real quick delve into how they handle their business,” Ebert said. “Today we’re talking about candy bars. Tomorrow it’s $4,000 on that coffee table in a drug house.”
Recognizing that not everyone interviews well, Ebert and Richardson are exploring a new opportunity to draw out candidates who might perform better in a scenario-based activity as part of the hiring process. Using role players, candidates would respond to a simulated call and attempt minor resolution.
“I don’t need you to take action or put anybody in cuffs,” Ebert said. “I just want to see if, when you get dropped into an elevated-stress scenario, can you effectively communicate?”
Communication skills are a critical trait RPD hopes to identify from candidates. Observing how a candidate communicates during the activity identifies a different skillset than how they answer questions at the interview table, Ebert said.
“I want to know if they can walk into a room and take charge if they need to, be compassionate if they need to, and how they might interact with the public in general,” Richardson said. “How well are you going to do with two people having an argument and you get called to the scene? How are you going to control the situation? We’re not talking about serious cases here, we’re just talking about everyday interactions officers deal with.”
Sharing the Vision
Beyond the basic traits a law enforcement officer should possess to be effective, it’s important that in selecting candidates, you’re hiring those who share the values and vision of the department and community. While policing is somewhat universal, the culture of each department is often unique to the individual community’s needs.
To find the best fit for your department, that vision should be shared with potential candidates early in the process.
The hiring process at RPD starts with academic and physical testing. On day one, Ebert said he begins the day by explaining the department’s brand.
“Before they do the PT test, I gather them all up and basically give them the speech of, this is who we are, this is what we’re doing, this is the level of community engagement you’re going to have and this is the call volume,” Ebert said. “If you’re worried about paid days off and hours worked, this probably isn’t going to work for you, and that’s OK. That’s not a negative thing. It’s OK that this might not be the department for you, but what we’re looking for is to have happy engagement on both ends. Administratively, you know what the expectations are. And you know going in I did not promise you that you’re going to get your pick of shift or that you’re going to have light days.”
An important way RPD has further shared their brand is by encouraging all applicants to participate in at least one ride-along during the interview process. Candidates who have no prior law enforcement experience sometimes have expectations of the job based on what they have seen on TV, Ebert said. Ride-alongs offer candidates a birds-eye view of the department’s daily activities.
“People watch a lot of TV and they think this sounds fun, but in reality, law enforcement has a whole lot of mundaneness in it with short periods of hyperactivity,” Ebert said. “You have to be able to grind through the mundane and excel through the hyperactivity.”
“We average about 4,000 calls per month,” Richardson added. “So if you’re not ready to work, I’m not saying you’re not a good person, but you might want to go to a place that doesn’t have as many calls. This is run-and-gun from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.”
Successful candidates at RPD all have completed at least one ride-along, if not several, Richardson said. That combined with communicating the message often about the department’s expectations has led to well-informed new hires.
“I don’t need people,” Ebert said. “I need the right people. I think as long as you start that dialogue early and have effective communication between both parties, nobody’s shocked. I’m not shocked by a lack of performance and they’re not shocked by being overwhelmed. If we all come in with the same kind of mentality, it works itself out.”
While all these suggestions may be helpful once you are face-to-face with a potential candidate, sometimes the challenge is getting the right people to know you’re hiring and take that first step in the door.
Social media has become an increasingly popular way to reach potential applicants because of the ease of sharing with an audience. But like any effective social media post, the content must be attention grabbing for followers to engage with the post.
Moss suggests photos or videos that highlight the people and opportunities within your department. While social media is free, considering the option of “boosting” a post with a small budget on Facebook can go a long way, she said. Boosting a post entails setting a budget for what you are willing to spend to increase the number of people who see specific content you share.
As a committee chair for an organization that had a meager following of 300 people on Facebook, Moss said their posts were not receiving the attention they needed to successfully advertise their campaign.
“Boosting was the best $1,500 we ever spent,” Moss said. “If agencies can get it approved to put money into an advertising boost with their Facebook posts, it can reach so many people. I saw it firsthand. A little bit of money goes a long way. My goal was to increase our followers to 10,000, but within a six-to-eight-month period, we had grown to 20,000 followers. It’s well worth your investment, I believe.”
In January, Facebook again adjusted its algorithm that affects what content is shown in an individual’s news feed. A law enforcement agency that has its own Facebook page and posts frequently, for example, is reaching far less users than it previously did unless the post meets specific criteria the algorithm is looking for, according to the Forbes article, “What You Should Know from Facebook’s Private Newsfeed Webinar.”
“Meaningful interactions” now are prioritized and a greater emphasis is placed on friends and family content generated into a user’s newsfeed rather than content from pages and groups they follow. For example, if your organization has 10,000 followers, only a small percentage of those individuals will see the content you post unless it generates meaningful interactions with users.
RPD Chief Ebert said Facebook is the number one way the department distributes its message about open recruiting. However, he has sought a variety of other outlets to reach candidates. With Eastern Kentucky University housed within the city, Richardson said the department has been successful with offering internships as a recruiting mechanism. City ordinance requires that the agency run an advertisement in the local newspaper, and Ebert said using the website Indeed.com to list openings has been successful.
In an effort to identify more minority candidates, Ebert said he recently listed a hiring advertisement with the National Minority Update website. Additionally, RPD has worked together with the city’s Human Resources department to write letters to the NAACP and universities, such as Kentucky State University, to alert them to the open positions and seek minority applicants.
However, the most significant recruiting advice Ebert and Richardson had to offer is to take a proactive stance.
“Instead of waiting for those vacancies to happen then being reactive and starting a recruiting process, go ahead and start it,” Ebert said. “Now we can have candidates in background phases or approved so the moment somebody resigns or retires, I can thank them for their service and make that phone call to find an academy slot for the next person up.”
Because the hiring process for law enforcement is a lengthy one, Ebert said taking the aggressive stance in recruiting and creating a standby list has reduced the long gap between losing an employee and filling the empty slot with a trained officer.
“If you wait until you have an opening, you’re already behind the game,” Ebert said.
Richardson said the agency has taken the same approach to internal promotions. With several sergeants eligible for retirement soon, the process to promote the next group of supervisors already has begun so that those selected for the promotion can move in immediately when a departure is announced.
Know Your Candidates
While the age of entrance to law enforcement varies for many, the state requires that an applicant be at least 21 years old. This means many new, age-eligible applicants were born in the late 1990s, making them millennials.
While the generation has often received a bad rap, they also have many traits that are highly sought in the law enforcement field. In the article, “Millennials and Improving Recruitment in Law Enforcement,” published in Police Chief magazine, author Ben Langham notes that millennials often are “team-oriented, intelligent, cooperative, technology-driven and interdependent.”
In successfully recruiting applicants from this generation, it’s important to know what these candidates are looking for in a career. For example, Langham wrote that millennials are more interested in “striking a balance” between their personal and professional lives. Officers who are married to the job are no longer among the norm. Langham recommends recruiters address the familial bonds in law enforcement and encourage a family-supportive mentality.
Flexibility is key for millennials to be happy in their careers, but can often be a challenge in law enforcement scheduling.
“On the management side, administrators should be willing to make any reasonable changes to meet the employee’s needs, especially as those needs relate to family matters,” Langham wrote. “Administrators should be creative in employee scheduling in order to ensure shift overlaps, which in turn adds flexibility in work hours. … Additional strategies could include off-duty family functions, on-site and off-site childcare, allowing officers to take lunch breaks at home and allotting time and space for families to visit with officers during their lunch breaks.”
In the Fortune magazine article, “Three Things Millennials Want in a Career,” author Adam Miller also reinforced the importance of flexibility.
“Millennials view the workplace through the same lens of new technology as any other aspect of their lives: instant, open and limitless,” Miller wrote. “The era they have grown up in has shown them that nothing is a guarantee. Instability and rapid change are the norm. To millennials, time no longer equals money. It is a limited resource to be spent wisely and actively managed.”
In addition to flexibility, Miller identified inspiration as a key theme millennials seek in the workspace. He directly attributed this shift to the training realm, and how training is no longer considered a time-consuming mandate and instead is sought as an opportunity for growth.
“Millennials don’t just want to spend their time earning a paycheck; they want to invest time acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to grow both personally and professionally,” Miller wrote. … “The best training program today is a rich learning experience that taps into employee interests, passions and career goals.”
There are many other traits millennials seek, such as the importance of social causes and a sense of purpose in their work that make their drive toward law enforcement a sensible career choice. Younger generations have become known for moving around instead of committing a lengthy career to one employer. Miller quoted numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating the average young adult holds 6.2 jobs by the age of 26.
“Why not enable them to shift careers within your organization?” Miller wrote. “Give them access to the training and learning they need to move both vertically and horizontally. Let them experience the company holistically and build a lasting bond.”
In recruiting, remember that you are not just seeking an employee. Your potential candidates are seeking a career where they can thrive. Any opportunities your agency has to meet the aforementioned desires young applicants seek should be highlighted and demonstrated.
Selecting the Right Person
If your department has found itself understaffed with low morale among frustrated officers, it’s easy to feel the rush to quickly fill those slots. Lakeside Park-Crestview Hills Police Chief Christopher Schutte encourages law enforcement leaders to resist the urge.
Today, LPCH is a fully-staffed agency with a lengthy retention rate. But that wasn’t always the case, Schutte said.
“There were some times in the early 2000s when people would come here who just weren’t fitting in and needed to go be successful somewhere else,” he said. “It was best for them and for the agency. For maybe two-to-three years, we always seemed to be short staffed.”
While LPCH has a variety of opportunities it offers potential candidates, it is still a small northern Kentucky agency. Some officers joined the department without a full understanding of the department’s values and vision. While those years of being short staffed were difficult, Schutte said they occurred because the department became much more selective in its hiring process to avoid the scenario that led to the short staffing originally.
“We really had to find the people we thought would fit here, who would want to make a career here,” Schutte said. “It took us awhile. But now, looking at 2018, we don’t have those retention issues. With the exception of two people, everybody has over five years here.”
Schutte said the LPCH administrative staff were not afraid to be inconvenienced by re-advertising an opening if they didn’t get the best candidates in the first round, or by waiting to send a new recruit through the academy instead of hiring a lateral officer, if it meant finding the right fit for the individual and the department.
“You have to realize the awesome responsibility we give men and women when we give them a gun and a badge and tell them to go enforce the law,” Schutte said. “The one thing I have been able to convince our city council members is that if you need surgery, you’re going to want the best surgeon. If you want someone who you’re possibly authorizing to take someone’s civil rights away, don’t you want the best person for the job?”
To ensure they have selected the best candidate, RPD has begun its own pre-academy, which allows new hires to spend about six weeks with the department before beginning the DOCJT basic training academy.
During this pre-academy, new hires have an opportunity to run through firearm qualifications, practice their physical training entry requirements, ride with PTOs to begin learning the geographic boundaries and interacting with the community.
“They learn just as much sitting in roll call,” Ebert said. “A lot of things that are nerve-wracking for people who have never had to do it, at least they have had a couple run-throughs of the whole qualification process, and it helps their confidence levels going into the academy.”
The pre-academy has been a burden on the department, Richardson said, but it is something the entire department embraced because they could see the potential benefits.
“We have had people step up to the plate and pull this off,” Richardson said. “It’s easy for us to write on a sheet of paper that this is what we want to be done. But we have guys and gals out here planning and working their shifts, coming in on their days off to make sure this pre-academy is pulled off and done the right way. It takes the whole department to not only accept it, but also to participate.”
New recruits in those early weeks have the opportunity to meet and spend time with their new co-workers, which has allowed the veteran staff to offer their input into who has been selected. In those weeks before the 20-week DOCJT basic academy begins, Ebert said it gives both parties an opportunity to identify whether they made the best choice and, if necessary, part ways before investing a lot more time and money into a candidate who isn’t going to work for the department.
After the recruits complete their DOCJT basic training, their field training is smoother after having spent those six weeks on the front end learning the community and the department’s culture.
“At the end of the day, the quicker we get a well-qualified officer on the street, it means those rank and file have the ability to take vacation days and go to additional training sooner,” Ebert said. “Everybody was involved, and they felt like they had a piece of the pie.”
“Those who make it to the academy are those who made it,” Richardson added. “They have done what everybody thinks is required of them to do. They get the opportunity to go to the academy now. I think it’s probably one of the best things we’ve ever done.”