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Recruiting Character

When I started my career in law enforcement more than 20 years ago, we had 300 applicants showing up to test for three police officer openings. I tested with Denver PD in the mid-1980s, and there were over 2,000 people testing for 50 jobs. As everyone in law enforcement knows now, those days are past. Where there used to be an applicant-to-hiring ratio of 100-to-1, there now is 10-to-1, or less in many cases.

Larger departments recruit nationwide just to get enough applicants to try to fill academies. Smaller departments often struggle just to get enough applicants to fill openings. Not only is the quantity of applicants gone, sometimes the quality of applicants is just not there either. Police chiefs of smaller departments are faced with lingering openings or being tempted to lower hiring standards.

When I left a modern, highly equipped mid-size police department in the Dallas metro area a few years back to take my first police chief job, it was at a small 15-officer department in a rural town. I knew it would be a challenge to hire officers of the same quality I was used to in a large metropolitan area, but I promised to never compromise my hiring standards and expectations. For my first opening, I had five applicants, and three of those had criminal records!

I chose a plan to hire only men and women of high character. It mattered not if the person was the smartest, toughest, best looking, worst looking, etc.—the focus was on character. The downside was that some of my openings would linger, but I was willing to be patient to get the right people.

As most chiefs of smaller departments know, small police departments are usually training grounds for officers who eventually move on to larger, better paying departments. My goal was not only to increase pay and benefits for employees, which I knew would take time, but to build a department with high-quality professionals where most would want to stay for many years because of the quality of the department, good working conditions and being part of a successful team with the proper tools to do the job. Still, the main issue was to get people interested in our mission to hire and retain character.

How to Hire Character

Many tests for police applicants result in those who are smart or are good test-takers being hired or promoted, but they don’t account for character. One might respond that the character issues of applicants are checked during background investigations. But do we really check for true character?

There are outstanding background investigators across the country who “look under every rock” when investigating a recruit, so much of this may not be news. Medium or smaller departments sometimes have more time to spend delving into potential recruit’s background than bigger departments because we don’t have the dozens if not hundreds of applicants a month to work with. With this in mind, I offer the following for consideration when trying to hire character.

Rethink the recruiting process. Before entering law enforcement, I worked in the private industry and was always impressed with the recruiting efforts of many corporations. These businesses had recruiting and the application process down to a science. They made the applicant feel as if he were the most important person to that company. When I became a police chief, I wondered why law enforcement does not go to the same lengths to attract quality people. We may not be able to go to the extremes of corporate recruiting, but we can use the same principles.

Plan the initial interview. Most all agencies will have an initial interview with a potential recruit, but we take it a step further and have the applicant meet with a couple of members of the command staff and administration. The interview is not a board, per se, but a chance for the applicant to meet the staff and for the staff to get to know the applicant in a somewhat less formal setting. The applicant often feels more at ease and will sometimes reveal issues or make comments that are indicative of something we need to investigate or reveal the ominous “red flag.”

If an applicant makes a positive impression during the initial interview, we sometimes take the person to lunch. Again, many agencies can’t afford the time or money to take an applicant to lunch, but there are benefits to be realized. When applicants get into a less formal lunch setting, they tend to relax and open up about issues important in their lives versus trying to discuss matters they think we want to hear. Remember, once an applicant “opens a door” to a topic, most times we can step through that door with follow-up questions if relevant to a potential police career.

Background Investigation

We try to take steps to uncover character issues. We may contact references, friends, former co-workers, or anyone we contact who knows the applicant. One of the most important questions to be asked is, “When you think of a great police officer, does (applicant’s name) come to mind as the type of police officer you would want serving the public?” I’ve actually had people burst out laughing when asked this question. Their response is often a red flag.

While home visits are a common practice with many agencies, many do not conduct home visits for various reasons. A “surprise” home visit is often preferred over a scheduled one. Our investigators look for things in the residence indicative of character issues, such as photographs or wall hangings, books or magazines on display that point to certain interests.

Does the person take pride in how they live? Is their residence basically clean or is it littered with trash, dirty dishes, beer cans, etc.? If the applicant has a yard, how is it kept? Does the applicant show any emotions—positive or negative—in how he talks with or handles other family members present? Investigators can glean much from a home visit about an applicant’s character and priorities. How we live can sometimes relate to how we work.

Contact instructors, the academy director and fellow students of the applicant. We’re looking for character issues such as leadership, commitment, ethics, honesty and citizenship.

Peel the onion. Most applicants expect their references to give a positive response to a background inquiry about them. Like many police agencies, we try to go two or three layers deep into the background to find friends of friends or co-workers of co-workers who know the applicant. Neighbors are also sometimes a good source of information.

Obviously, we have to be careful with how far or deep we go into an applicant’s private life, but it seems in my experience that more officers have lost their jobs or ruined their careers over off-duty issues than on-duty issues. Early on in a recruit’s training, if problems arise, we must determine if the problems are training issues or character issues. There is a major difference. Training problems can be addressed through remedial training. Character issues usually take a completely different and complicated turn through the disciplinary process—thus, the importance of recruiting and hiring character.

The Standards Bar

As part of the recruiting character philosophy, I teach in police academies. This allows me to get to know the recruits on a personal basis during the class; to see the natural leaders; to see those truly committed; and to see those dedicated to service with honor and, yes, character. As part of my teaching, I introduce the “standards bar.” I tell the cadets that we all have an imaginary bar or level in our lives where everything above it is acceptable and everything below it is not acceptable, unless we compromise our standards.

No two people have their personal standards bar at the same level, but good people of quality character have their bar on average at a higher level than others because we expect more of ourselves and refuse to compromise our standards for anyone or any reason. I want those people in my department serving our community.

That person may or may not be the smartest when it comes to taking a test or board, but he usually becomes a high character officer in the department. Becoming part of an organization with others of the same high quality and character makes being in that organization more enjoyable, and as a result, I have seen an increase in average years of service before moving on—if they do decide to move at all.

To achieve success, we are all walking up a downward-moving escalator. Progress is slow but we are moving ahead. The moment we stop walking forward, we lose progress, and our goal quickly becomes more distant, if not unreachable. It takes commitment and action to work toward our goals without ceasing. My recruiting targets are men and women with such a commitment to keep moving forward.

Commitment Umbrella

As another part of my instruction, I introduce the “commitment umbrella.” When I started my police career, most officers were dedicated and committed to most areas of their lives. But in recent years, I’ve seen that people who made very good officers and who were highly dedicated to their profession have failings or lack of commitment in most other aspects of their lives.

I talk about wanting people who are highly dedicated and committed to all aspects of their lives. I am aware that police administrators cannot delve too much into personal lives of our employees. But if they are truly committed to all aspects of their lives, being around cadets in a police academy class or talking extensively to references and others during background investigations will reveal this.

Under the commitment umbrella are divisions of our lives: job, family, marriage, health, finances, spiritual life, goals, friends, etc. The recruits I search for are equally committed to all aspects of their lives but have different priorities for each aspect. There is probably no way to determine all the aspects of one’s priorities in life, but finding a person who is equally committed has potential to make a better police officer.

By the time I left my first police chief job four years later, there was usually a waiting list of decent applicants when we had an open position, which was becoming less frequent. It didn’t matter to most applicants that there were larger, better paying departments in the region. Applicants had heard about our department, knew the type of men and women who served there and wanted to be a part of such a quality organization.

As a final segment of recruiting character, and something that normally only a smaller department can do, I have an interview with the applicant, usually with one or two of my command staff present. This is not a highly intense interview but a “meet and greet” visit just to get to know the applicant and to learn the type of person he is to determine if he may be a fit for the department. Certainly, there are some low-stress scenario-type questions we discuss, but only to observe and hear his thought process. My opinion is that you tend to see the real person in a less intrusive situation than a stressful interview board.

It may not be feasible or possible for some chiefs to have the added benefit of teaching in an academy to get to know potential applicants, but you can keep in contact with academy directors and let them know the type people you want for your department. If nothing else, designate a person to spend time at the police academy to learn the recruits and determine who the leaders of the class are and why they are looked upon as leaders.

Recruiting character is not a perfect system, and certainly there are those hired under the philosophy who do not make it after all. But the upside is for those who do make it in the system. Those officers are usually far better officers than those under the more traditional recruitment methods.

Chief Jay Burch is a 20-year veteran police officer and has been a police chief for seven years, currently with the Mount Pleasant, TX Police. Burch has a master’s degree in law enforcement administration from Sam Houston State University, is a master certified peace officer in Texas, and a state licensed police instructor. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2008

Rating : 10.0

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