Police departments throughout the nation are facing a hiring and retention crisis. A strong economy with a relatively low unemployment rate reduces the pool of available applicants. More lucrative salaries in the private sector also make a career in law enforcement less attractive, particularly to the highly desired college graduate. Addressing the critical need to hire police officers to replace the ever-increasing number of retiring baby boomers is a challenging issue for police chiefs and recruiting supervisors.
How do police departments package a law enforcement career to be more alluring to potential applicants? A search of several major city police recruitment Web sites reveals an approach that either emphasizes or exclusively promotes the basic needs of money and benefits, and the appeal of the excitement of a police career. Obviously, accenting these issues addresses, in part, the very reasons why there is a paucity of applicants clamoring to become police officers. At first glance, that makes sense.
However, no matter how the salary scale and benefits are pitched, they are what they are. There are still more profitable occupations with more attractive benefit packages in the private sector. As for the excitement, potential applicants generally see through the Madison Avenue appeal. Those who buy the hype do sign up, only to become disillusioned by the mundane nature of most police work. Finding frivolous, unjustified lawsuits and unfounded civilian complaints more a part of their lives than glamour and excitement, many resign.
It seems another recruitment approach might be more suitable. While salary, benefits, and degree of action varies between departments, all police officers do have one thing in common. Simply put, law enforcement personnel have the potential to make a positive difference in their communities. Emphasizing this aspect of police work minimizes the need to sell the basic needs or action factor particular to a given department. Generally, these are only secondary considerations for the altruistically inclined.
After all, no cop ever got rich off a police officer’s salary. But, as Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” For the caring individual, helping people and making a difference in the world trumps money and glamour.
This notion of making a difference, an opportunity unique to only a handful of professions, should not only be featured by chiefs, but should be front and center as a recruitment tool.
A life of public service is its own reward. As truly dedicated law enforcement professionals know, there is an exhilarating sense of self-fulfillment that comes from making a positive difference in the community. Law enforcement is an honorable profession. This is what a chief is offering the prospective candidate—an opportunity to make a difference by doing good, easing pain and suffering, saving lives, bringing a calm presence to stressful situations, and helping and serving those in need.
Recruiters need to stress this humanitarian nature of police work. Frankly, do chiefs want their workforce to consist of police officers hired primarily for the pay or benefits? Should supervising recruiters covet individuals who are principally looking for excitement? While these basic needs and wants are not in and of themselves undesirable characteristics, should they be the focal point of the appeal to pursue a police career?
Police officers are unique in the sacrifices they are willing to make in the service of humanity. Seek the idealists. Not all college students are MBAs chasing the dollar. Universities are populated with principled individuals committed to making the world a better place. Convince these people that your department affords them the perfect opportunity to do so. Sell the nobility of this profession.
Actively pursue the individual who possesses that abiding sense of social responsibility. Your department and your community will be the better for it.
Robert Roy Johnson is a 35-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, Johnson is an adjunct professor in the Law Enforcement Management Program at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.