Real-World Examples of Recruitment Strategies That Work

In 2022 the United States finds itself at a crossroads with policing. Crime rates are spiking while clearance rates for murders and other major crimes are lagging. Police departments across the country are struggling to recruit and retain officers, further compounding the problem and adding urgency to calls for evidence-based and effective law enforcement recruitment strategies.

The scale of this problem confronting law enforcement requires resources and, importantly, a willingness to try new ideas. Among the most promising new ideas are those based on data and controlled experimentation – providing a blueprint for departments across the country to fine-tune to meet their unique needs.

What follows are initiatives and fresh ideas producing the positive results needed to ‘meet the moment’ in policing.

Legislative Action

First and foremost, agencies need more resources to attract and retain the best candidates and officers. Put simply: inflation is contributing to an urgent need to grow salaries and benefits to compete with the private sector for the best talent.

One such example is the Pathways to Policing Act. Introduced this May into the U.S. House of Representatives by a broadly bipartisan group of members of Congress, this bill seeks to provide $100M of funding for national and state-level recruitment initiatives. It has already been endorsed by the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) along with several state-level professional organizations and newspaper editorial boards.

The federal funding bill is partly based on the success of a joint program (also called Pathways to Policing) in Minnesota between Bloomington, St. Louis Park, and other police departments. The program’s goal is to attract nontraditional candidates to policing by addressing some of the barriers to their participation with assistance such as tuition stipends, on-the-job training running concurrently with coursework, and pay while completing training.

Growing Grant Resources

In addition to funding from specific legislative actions, the Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a major role in disbursing funds to law enforcement, often signaling the priorities of the current administration and agency leadership. In late 2021, DOJ announced $139M in grants available to “enable law enforcement agencies across the country to hire more than 1,000 additional officers to support vitally important community-oriented policing programs.”

Furthermore, as of this writing (July 2022), applications for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program have just opened. Grant awards can be designated for recruitment and retention efforts, among other community-based policing programs. Grant applications are due in early August (the due date varies by application method) and will be awarded this October.

Residency Requirements

While greater funding resources are a top priority of virtually every law enforcement executive, leaders have found success with low-to-no-cost tactics that can reduce the barriers to recruitment while still maintaining high standards.

Residency requirements are frequently a condition of employment in many law enforcement agencies. These requirements are often a sensitive subject, with valid arguments both for and against establishing such requirements. Several cities and counties are revisiting these requirements, while cities like Kansas City (MO) have eliminated the requirement altogether to help with recruiting and retention.

A New Look

Other departments are revisiting uniform and appearance standards as a means to adapt to changing cultural norms as well as attract candidates that are more representative of the communities they serve. Bakersfield, California has an Indian Sikh community of more than 35,000 residents but had no Indian officers until the early 2000s. Recently, the department has reexamined rules concerning facial hair – finding that the beards that Sikh men typically wear as a part of their religious tradition “had no impact on whether or not they could do their job [as police officers].”

Similarly, departments are reevaluating tattoo policies. Approximately 30% of Americans now have at least one tattoo, up from 21% just ten years ago. That figure rises to 40% for those ages 18-34. With this shift in cultural norms, especially among younger candidates, agencies like Springfield (MO) Police Department are loosening outright bans on visible tattoos to open doors to the profession and increase the pool of qualified candidates.

Making Data Work

From simplifying the paper-shuffling of applications and background checks to generating actionable insights from candidate pools, data has the power to make a measurable impact on recruiting efforts. It also contributes to substantial cost savings. According to a recent paper published by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard, every one dollar of the cost associated with data analytics has the potential to return up to nine dollars in value to agencies.

From a practical standpoint, data analysis can be a catalyst for improvements across the recruitment process. A 2018 survey indicated that 30% of law enforcement professionals simply did not know how effective their recruitment strategies were. Through data analysis, law enforcement leaders can take a step-by-step look at their recruitment programs by isolating and testing various aspects of their policies and make improvements guided by these insights.

The San Jose Police Department demonstrated one example of this granular, data-informed approach to recruitment. Attrition in recruiting is something nearly all departments experience — with many highly motivated applicants already in the pipeline dropping out of the process. Recognizing this missed opportunity through data analysis, the department asked those recruits who had left the process to provide feedback to address any bottlenecks or pain points in the process. In addition to generating data points on why recruits left, the solicitation also invited applicants to reapply. As a result of this experiment, 125 recruits reactivated their applications.

Exploring New Recruitment Strategies

While recruitment has been a perennial challenge for law enforcement, rising crime and image issues have only amplified the problem and contributed to the urgency with which policing leaders must address it. While what works in one department may not consistently achieve the same results in another, a willingness to explore novel ideas and follow data insights shows excellent promise in confronting the recruiting crisis.