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Recruiting During Political Unrest

Written by Dwayne Orrick

Across the nation, many local communities recently held elections, and even more recently many of those public officials were sworn in. While many persons tend to associate politics in law enforcement with sheriff’s departments, the awful truth is that everything governmental organizations do falls somewhere on the political spectrum.

By their very nature, law enforcement agencies maintain a very high profile, and public safety is always an important issue for voters. With the recent economic recession, many communities have cut services, the costs of government operations are being debated and crime is increasing in many areas. When these issues come together during an election year, campaign rhetoric tends to become critical of police organizations.

In the nation’s largest departments, officers expect the department’s leadership to change with a new administration. Because of the size of these agencies, one person’s comments or a change in the department leadership may have a limited impact on the individual officer. But almost 90 percent of police departments in the United States serve communities of less than 10,000 persons and have fewer than 20 officers. In these departments, interpersonal relations are closer.

Due to this, political rhetoric is more likely to adversely affect morale and lead many officers to feel unsupported in their positions. As a result, politicians’ comments can be very costly for a police organization, both operationally and financially. Productivity drops when officers spend time venting or defending the agency’s performance. Even more costly is the selection and training investment that is lost when well-qualified officers resign because they are disgusted with the feeling that they are not appreciated or that supervisors do not support them.

The problem is compounded by negative publicity of the agency that impacts the agency’s reputation and makes it difficult to recruit high quality candidates. In these communities, high caliber prospects may ask, “Why would someone want to go to work for XYZ police department when they are not even supported by the City Council?”

Departments serving communities with an unstable political environment often have many good officers. Together with furloughs, hiring freezes and cuts in funding, a rough campaign season can create an uncertain work environment in an already stressful profession. When officers begin to question whether their leaders support them, whether they will have a job, or if dramatic changes may occur in the organization, they tend to become unhappy and start exploring other opportunities.

These conditions offer agencies looking for quality officers a good opportunity to reach out to potential candidates. By offering a stable environment in which good employees are appreciated and supported, departments can often acquire high caliber talent. When talking with potential officers, recruiters should be able to demonstrate a stable environment with concrete examples of how elected officials support officers’ efforts to serve the community.

For example, recruiters may provide copies of elected officials’ interviews with comments of how they support the department. During the recent economic slowdown, was the department required to make similar cuts as other departments in the city? Throughout the years, how has the agency compared to other law enforcement departments with being provided equipment and in regard to salaries and benefits?

When agencies consider hiring an officer from a department experiencing political instability, leaders should exercise care. First, do not employ an applicant simply because he possesses the requisite certifications, his department is having problems and he is looking to leave. Some persons who have worked in a department with a bad political environment may have developed bad habits.

For example, they may assume all elected officials are bad or they may be chronic complainers. In addition, the agency and the individual may sincerely have problems that need to be addressed. In some cases, these persons may be at risk of losing their jobs for legitimate reasons. Unfortunately, many agencies may be less than candid with background investigators and not reveal negative information with the hope that the person will just leave.

At the same time, in an effort to minimize the negative influence of an election on operations, police leaders should always remain positive and be a source of stability. Politicians’ comments are often outside department leaders’ control and are not easy to address. If leaders find themselves in a situation in which an election is affecting the department’s operations, they must step up and openly communicate with officers to minimize influence on the day-to-day operations.

It is important for leaders to express the maturity needed to refrain from becoming involved in these battles. By demonstrating how comments are common and have little influence on operations, leaders become a source of stability for officers.

It is also important to remember that one individual does not run the show. Outspoken individuals cannot accomplish any change if they are unable to develop coalitions with other elected officials. Criticism of operations is often viewed by incumbents as an attack on their performance. As a result, they will likely become more defensive of the police department’s operations.

Every community experiences elections. However, some communities just tend to have more political turmoil than others. These communities often have many good officers who may be tired of the criticism or question their job security. This situation often presents a great opportunity for departments with a stable and supportive environment to lure away high caliber talent. To capitalize on this, agencies must be prepared to provide concrete examples of how supervisors protect officers and elected officials support the department.

Dwayne Orrick is the chief of the Cordele, GA Police. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a past presenter at the IACP convention. He may be reached via e-mail at cordele1@sowega.net.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2010

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