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Poaching Experienced Officers, Part 1: Benefits and Risks

Written by Dwayne Orrick

Let’s assume for a moment you have the opportunity to obtain a perfectly operating, previously owned piece of equipment with a legal title worth about $80,000 for the great price of just $5,000. What would your governing authority say? “Go for it!”

That is what happens when an agency recruits an officer from another department. One agency has invested valuable resources into recruiting, selecting and developing the officer with the experience he needs to perform the job. Then another agency offers a little more money, special assignments or some other perk to lure them away.

Essentially, for just a little more money than you would have to pay anyhow, the second agency buys the individual’s skills and talents in which the first agency invested heavily to develop.

Poaching officers, i.e., recruiting officers from other agencies, is not new. For decades, some agencies have been known as being stepping stones for larger departments. Larger police agencies often use the variety of assignments and specialties which are a byproduct of their size as a tool to successfully attract well-qualified candidates from smaller communities. But is this the best way for an agency to attract talent?

The Benefits

The practice of hiring trained officers with experience has many potential advantages and risks which must be considered before an agency seeks to recruit the individual. One of the greatest incentives for an agency to hire an officer from another department is that it reduces the costs, and allegedly the risks, associated with hiring an individual who has no training or experience.

Studies in Florida and California report that 25 to 33 percent of new officers will resign within the first 36 months, and 50 percent of officers leave their first agency in the first five years. An Urban Institute Study found that 50 percent of the officers in departments serving communities of less than 50,000 people had less than five years of experience.

When studies from across the country suggest that a great number of new officers will leave as soon as they are trained, it is easy to see how the chance to hire someone already trained with experience is viewed as being a good opportunity to minimize the risk associated with new employees.

Hiring experienced staff speeds the process of putting a new officer to work. Bringing in seasoned officers may also reduce the number of cases lost because of mistakes that are often made by new officers. Similarly, the number of unsolved cases that result from less experienced officers missing clues and evidence may be lowered.

In addition, poaching officers from other agencies helps to fill large gaps that may exist between the number of inexperienced officers and very senior staff. This ensures continuity of succession and provides more balance to the organization’s operations.

Finally, many departments are caught in a vicious cycle of trying to recruit and hire new officers. Poaching experienced officers can inject new ideas and additional skills into an agency and reinvigorate the department’s operations.

The Risks

Conversely, hiring experienced officers is not without its potential pitfalls. First, officers are not cogs in a wheel who are simply interchangeable like parts on an assembly line. Law enforcement agencies cannot simply replace the loss of a highly talented individual with another officer.

Having worked for several years as an officer does not ensure an individual has experienced a variety of situations to make him a well-rounded officer. This can only be determined with behaviorally based interviews and a thorough background investigation. At the same time, if an individual has worked for several agencies within a short period, it is likely he will leave as soon as he is presented with another opportunity.

Another potential problem with employing experienced officers is that an individual may bring bad habits from other agencies to the new department. It may not be that the individual is bad, but rather that he has bad work habits and continues to perform in the same way upon accepting his new assignment. Unfortunately, many of these bad habits may be contagious and continue to disrupt operations long after the individual leaves.

One of the greatest threats posed by poaching officers is that the individual may possess a different set of values than those of the agency. A person’s values are hard to change. A problematic employee can likely remain on his best behavior until he completes his probationary period. But inevitably, his behavior will align with his personal values.

Eventually, the individual will leave the organization, voluntarily or involuntarily, and the department will be faced with the same situation of needing a replacement officer. Unfortunately, the department may have passed up on a much better candidate, and the agency’s reputation may have been unnecessarily tarnished, making it more difficult to attract quality candidates.

In summary, poaching well-trained and experienced officers from other departments offers many potential benefits and challenges. To successfully maneuver this environment, the agency should consider several precautions.

First, do not short-circuit the department’s selection process for trained and/or experienced officers. Second, avoid hiring candidates who have worked with several departments within a short period. These individuals have developed a track record of not staying very long with an agency and will likely continue this work record. In many instances, problematic employees have a unique ability to recognize when they are about to be invited to explore other career opportunities and resign before they are terminated.

Finally, beware of individuals who appear to be too focused on money. If a candidate is simply interested in higher salaries, he will likely leave as soon as the next opportunity to make a little more money arises.

Leaders should stay focused on the big picture. Recruit and employ people who meet the department’s employment standards and “fit” with the organization. Sometimes, the best option for the department is to take the path less traveled and turn down what appears to be an easy choice.

Director Dwayne Orrick has been the police chief in Cordele, Ga., for 20 years. He may be contacted at dorrick@bellsouth.net.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2010

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