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Pros and Cons of Lateral Entries

Written by Dwayne Orrick

During the last few years, most communities have endured the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of 1929. With massive unemployment across the country, more persons were seeking employment than the number of available positions. This surplus of potential candidates has made the search for good candidates easier for departments. 

However, as the economy rebounds, highly qualified individuals will have more employment opportunities. As a result, law enforcement agencies should expect greater competition for qualified candidates and increases in employee attrition. This will result in agencies having to enhance their recruiting efforts. One viable source of good candidates is officers who are employed in other law enforcement agencies.

Lateral transfers offer benefits and challenges for both officers and departments.  Traditionally, lateral transfers have been limited to entry level and command staff positions. But with the number of persons in the workforce falling over the next few years, departments may also be forced to increase their reliance on transfers to fill vacancies in mid-level and specialty positions.

For the officer, the reason for changing departments should be to find an employer where the individual will fit better and be happier. Before exploring opportunities for a lateral transfer, there are a number of issues officers should fully understand. Most law enforcement agencies are dealing with the same problems, so the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Some are just better at addressing these issues.

Second, if the officer chooses to move to another department, they will have no seniority.  Because of this, they will likely have less latitude in choosing their shift assignments and off days. This can be discouraging for some experienced officers.

When an officer moves to a new department, they are typically required to complete a mandatory orientation and field training program. Being considered and treated as a ‘trainee’ can be difficult for some officers. In addition, when an experienced officer joins another department, they will likely have to ‘prove’ themselves as being worthy of their fellow officers’ trust.

Finally, disparate retirement programs between agencies may prohibit the transfer of benefits to the new department. As a result, the officer may lose credit for their years of service toward retirement. To account for this, individuals should take this into consideration before making a decision to switch agencies.

Once a decision is made to explore other career opportunities, the officer should spend some time identifying his/her long-term career goals. When seeking to join a department, applicants are required to submit to extensive background and selection processes. It is just as important for candidates to conduct a similar investigation of the department.

 

Do the Research

Using their personal and professional goals as a baseline, the officer can better make an informed decision as to whether a department will be a good fit for him/her. There are a number of steps to accomplish.

First, evaluate the department’s website. Is the site up-to-date, professionally designed, and provide an accurate image of the agency? Conduct an Internet search of the department to identify positive and negative reports on the agency. Any questions about the organization should be closely examined and resolved.

Second, talk with a number of officers about what it is like to work in the agency. Pay careful attention to the quality of the officers’ relationships with supervisors, governing authority, and community. If possible, participate in a ride-along to get a real feel of what it is like to work within the department. 

Third, inspect how officers carry themselves. Are their uniforms neat, clean and pressed? Also, take time to examine their equipment. Are their cars in good condition or do they have peeling decals, missing hubcaps, or a significantly worn appearance? Similarly, determine if the officers are issued well-maintained personal equipment including weapons, computers, radios/portables, and other emergency equipment.

Fourth, when investigating the benefits package, look beyond salary. A robust compensation benefits program is a great indicator of whether the governing authority views their employees as an expense or investment. The best organizations are constantly investing to enhance their officers’ abilities through career development opportunities, tuition reimbursement programs, and robust training programs.

In addition, with federally mandated changes to employer-based health insurance programs and rises in the cost of medical care, increases in employee contributions and co-pays can make a significant difference in the real cost of the benefit to the employee.

 

The Big Advantage

When examining the issue of lateral transfers from the department’s perspective, the greatest advantage for seeking lateral transfers is the financial and operational savings associated with training and on-boarding a new officer. Experienced officers typically have the skills and abilities that can only be developed by doing the job. When an agency hires an experienced officer, they obtain that knowledge and ability at the other agency’s expense.

In addition, officers who have worked with other departments often have a different perspective of how to address issues. This diversity often strengthens the agency’s response to evolving issues.

Finally, an often-overlooked advantage of employing officers who are making a lateral entry is the informal connections that provide better communications between agencies.  These informal channels of communication enable officers to maneuver the bureaucratic red tape that often impedes cooperative efforts.

 

The Greatest Concern

At the same time, some leaders have the perception that all experienced officers are the same. This is simply not the case. While there are many benefits with hiring a well-qualified, experienced officer, some candidates have baggage that prevents them from being a good fit with other departments. 

One of the greatest concerns for a department hiring an experienced officer should be accepting another department’s problem employee. Oftentimes, the officer’s supervisors are so happy the problem employee is leaving, they do not warn the new agency of issues with the individual. 

While there are some potential liability issues associated with failing to notify a prospective employer of these problems, many simply neglect to provide negative information. To avoid this, it is imperative agencies conduct a thorough background investigation in which the candidate’s supervisors are interviewed and their personnel files reviewed. 

Second, years of service are not always a good indicator of an individual’s experience. If the individual worked in a department with a low call volume, he/she may have had fewer opportunities to develop a broad range of experience. In other instances, the person’s assignment may not have provided him/her with sufficient exposure to important developmental opportunities. 

In still other cases, individuals simply marked time in grade and never took advantage of opportunities to improve their skills and abilities. Essentially, these persons have little more to offer than a new officer.

Another concern may arise if the officer worked in a department with lower ethical or performance standards than the new department. When this occurs, the new agency is forced to spend more time improving the individual’s performance to comply with the higher standards. In the worst cases, the department is forced to separate the ‘experienced’ officer for bad behavior.

 

Tourists and Poaching

Agencies also have to be cautious of ‘law enforcement tourists’ who frequently move from one department to another. An employment history that is composed of multiple moves within a short period may be indicative of an officer with discipline issues or an inability to commit to a department’s mission, vision, and values. 

In other cases, the individual may simply be the type who is never happy at any job.  Regardless, these individuals seldom add value to the organization since they do not stay long enough for the department to obtain an adequate return on their investment. 

Departments aggressively poaching experienced officers from nearby departments may find the practice has the unintended consequence of adversely affecting interagency relationships. Nearby departments may fear the poaching agency is targeting their employees and limit contact with them. The fear of losing valuable talent to aggressive recruiting techniques could interfere with the coordination of activities between the departments.

In today’s labor market, individuals are constantly weighing their current situation with other alternatives. When individuals determine they will be better somewhere else, they leave. 

 

Critical-Thinking Officers

Over the next few years, the traditional employer/employee contract is likely to dramatically change. Engaged, critical-thinking individuals who are constantly seeking to contribute in a positive manner are a valuable investment for any employer. Officers seeking to make a lateral transfer must recognize the complexities associated with these moves and make an informed decision that is in their best interests.

Agencies seeking to employ lateral transfers should develop a comprehensive process to verify candidates’ performance ability, fit with the department’s values and levels of experience. These processes will maximize the agency’s ability to attract high-quality, seasoned officers.

Departments experiencing elevated levels of attrition to lateral transfers must explore those factors that are pushing individuals out or pulling them into another organization including leadership, interpersonal relations, selection processes, career development opportunities, and benefit packages. 

Once these issues are identified, organizational leaders must establish a strategic plan to minimize these losses. Failure to accomplish this will likely result in the inability to maintain sufficient numbers of experienced staff to meet their community’s needs.

 

Major Dwayne Orrick commands the Support Services Division/Training Unit with the Gwinnett County Georgia Sheriff’s Office. Persons wishing to contact him can e-mail him at dorrick@bellsouth.net.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2014

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