Interview with Bruce A. Sokolove
Bruce A. Sokolove
"From the Field Experiences" Feature
Interview conducted in October, 2009
Bruce A. Sokolove (Coach Sok) is a principal of Field Training Associates, a law enforcement consulting firm specializing in public safety human resource administration, training issues, and employment mentoring processes. Coach Sok earned a Bachelor of Arts from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a Master of Science in Police Administration/Public Safety at Michigan State University in 1970. He is a former Police Officer and Patrol Commander. Coach Sok served as a uniformed/sworn police officer in North Adams, Massachusetts and Ann Arbor, Michigan and as Executive Officer and Undersheriff for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department (Ann Arbor, Michigan). Coach Sok is a member of the State of Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) Curriculum Advisory Task Force and serves as the President of the Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice Alumni Advisory Board.
Coach Sok has published in Police Chief as well as Law and Order magazine and has been a frequent presenter at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference and at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Academy at Quantico, Virginia. He served as a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps.
During this recession, dialogue about recruitment is beginning to shift to the deeper problems associated with recruitment, such as generational differences. What is the challenge in getting young people to be attracted to policing as a career, now that we know we can get many who want just a job?
Every generation is uniquely different from the preceding generation, and people are going to be attracted to policing for different reasons. But, unfortunately, what young people today are seeing is that law enforcement isn't necessarily the stable, guaranteed employment of 30 years ago. We aren't as attractive a career option as compared to other employment sectors, particularly risk-loss/private security. Law enforcement has lost considerable footing in salary and benefits. This used to be a career where a young person with a 2- or 4-year degree could make a solid living with above average benefits, such as medical coverage and a solid, actuarially sound retirement package. Until public safety sector budgets are restored, we're going to have a very difficult time attracting and retaining the brightest and best, not just filling vacancies from the best of those who apply.
What are we doing wrong?
Not so much a question of doing things wrong. I just don't think that we've properly packaged this as a career that is unique and extraordinary in public service. There are myriad skill sets required to provide exceptional police services. I don't think we share enough with young people about the reality of what a difference they can make in the quality of life when all of their skills are challenged to full capacity. We live in the reality-show mindset broadcast non-stop on television and Web sites such as YouTube. The Fox Broadcasting show, Cops, is celebrating its 20th anniversary so we have an entire generation that has been raised and exposed to an edited and unrealistic notion of what being a street police officer is all about. It's not all "ninja warrior", not all "shots fired", not all "in progress". It's helping people resolve problems and situations that they are unwilling or unable to do for themselves. We need to start recruiting the brightest and the best that aren't afraid to get out of that car, engage people and provide solid service with a problem-solving mindset.
You wrote an article that stressed the value of mentoring and field training in creating such an officer. What role do you see that playing in recruitment?
Field training officers (FTO) provide a front-row, box seat to the greatest show in town! FTOs are literally the tour guides that facilitate transition from the classroom to the streets. Mentors make all the difference. A great FTO-mentor is going to give the probationer an opportunity to apply his or her skill set, no matter their educational background or academy training. Great street cops are not created in a vacuum. Supervisors and the rest of the force have to be equally engaged. There's an old African proverb that ...it takes a village to raise a child. I believe it takes an entire department effort to create solid street cops. It is imperative that we select FTOs from the agency's top cops; they must have a voluntary willingness to train. I would describe it as the master police coach concept—by tapping the talents of what our best street cops do exceptionally well, and sharing it with the next generation. And remember, this is a dynamic process—not a conversation across the front seat of a patrol car. What we need to do is take a hard look longitudinally and find out what makes these coaches a little bit different than other officers. What will emerge is a better model of selecting and preparing our FTOs, and ultimately, our probationers.
So you're suggesting that there are people who are good career mentors who can sell the career of policing.
Absolutely. FTO-Master Coaches must be involved in the entire hiring process. We can't lose sight of the reality that you can be a phenomenal street cop and not be a successful coach. Not all the best athletes make the best coaches! The coach has to have willingness and a passion that is transparent, and the candidate can see there is no hidden agenda. I've observed multiple situations where great street cops without the patience and flexibility to train create an environment that is more analogous to child abuse-neglect when assigned to work with probationers! Coaches have to honestly communicate to the candidate that their goal is to apply the totality of what they learned in the college classroom and academy, and learn how to transition/adapt and embrace the knowledge, and skill sets that work best for them. When you have that openness in mentoring, you're going to develop career-long relationships of uncompromised trust. There can never be a hidden agenda in the field training and evaluation process.
What is taking place at the field training stage to really make or break that future officer's desire to stay in policing as a profession, as opposed to leading to turnover?
What is crucial is whether or not that future officer fits the organization, because many of these recruits are simply looking for a job and not a career. Let's say there are pre-service candidates who have taken all the risks and responsibilities to get certified, and they have invested money to get through the academy. Frankly, they need to find a job. Very often what they will do is end up in an organization that may simply be hiring, but that might not be where they want to be long-term. So sometimes people chase where the jobs are as opposed to where the career might be. Organizations have an absolute requirement to make sure that when any person comes in, they provide that candidate with an up-front impression of who they are and what that organization is all about. Green-light candidates, those who meet the requisites for hiring, need to be scheduled for at least two mandatory ride-alongs, with a senior field-training officer who is also a background investigator. You need to integrate your hiring process to include the FTOs working with the background investigation team. Police officer candidates need to see the organization from the roll call to shift's end to fully absorb the agency's culture and the interaction between employees. It is imperative that the candidate can honestly answer the questions: Do I see myself in this organization for the next 25 years? And, do I see this as my career, not simply as an interim job? It's about minimizing the potential for a bad fit for both parties. Agencies must get a return for the phenomenal investment of recruiting, selecting and training probationers. Nobody can afford the revolving door syndrome of a bad fit.
How would this ride-along process work?
First and foremost, it has to be a mandatory part of the overall candidate screening process. Candidates need to observe different tours of duty to experience shift and calls for service diversity. One shift should be the craziest, non-stop, highest call-volume shift, so they are seeing the organization at full speed. The second ride-along should be the exact opposite, to show candidates the extreme. This is typically accomplished with the second ride-along on a Sunday day watch. Shame on an organization if all they show is "ninja warriors" when recruiting!
Are agencies really interested in showing these cold, hard realities?
Agencies better be. The reality is that unless the police officer candidate grew up around a kitchen table where there were family members on the job, their views of American policing are generally formed by television and movies, which are generally edited to entertain. They don't show the mundane calls, such as the barking dog, loud-party complaints, retail frauds and property damage crashes. Candidates may be young, but they're not dumb. If we give them an opportunity to see the whole perspective, they're in a better position to make a quality career decision. That decision may come down to concluding that a certain organization's calls for service pace are too slow for example. I'd rather somebody make that decision at the selection stage, than if they are hired and we invest a lot in that candidate, and after a few years they decide that they're bored. What generally follows is a giant sucking sound from the revolving door because there wasn't a really good fit with that candidate at the front end. A patrol shift supervisor should be available at the close of each mandatory ride-along to clarify questions and formally debrief candidates. The candidate should have to provide a narrative of their observations and impressions (without spelling and grammar check software) before they leave. This is an outstanding mechanism to screen and flag potential literacy issues that may impede the successful completion of the field training and evaluation process.
What is your impression of law-enforcement magnet schools that may serve to both attract and screen candidates early?
Attract, yes. Screen, no. In the late 1960s there weren't so-called track/magnet programs where the law enforcement candidate could complete their college studies and law enforcement basic training in one fell swoop. In my years of policing, we were pretty much limited to police internships that served two purposes: the student could be earning a degree and they were being subsidized as community-service officers or cadets. They were doing things for the agency that didn't require sworn officer powers. At the same time, we had police Explorer programs and junior police academies which got youth of all ages involved, as well as summer programs that gave young people an opportunity to take a closer look at the profession. I can't say undeniably that these things are good or not, but what is important is that we're looking for the best qualified people out there, and these candidates can be revealed at any stage. We also have to proactively look for individuals who bring life experiences to the front end of recruiting. These folks bring us something that we need as well. You can't solely focus on police recruiting from a single market of 2- to 4-year college graduates. What's going to happen when there are reductions in our military forces, and we have returning military personnel that can bring exceptional skills, life experiences and maturity? Hopefully some of these returning military personnel will think police work is something they want to do.
With respect to what our recruiting efforts are giving us so far, where are we headed?
Let's hope that the economy rebounds, and I'm hopefully optimistic. But regardless, we are heading into an era when law enforcement leadership needs to be smart enough to understand that the old "if we build it, they will come" philosophy of recruiting is not going to work. We don't need people who are simply looking for a job—we need law enforcement career-focused individuals that will make the commitment to serve. So we need to look at the larger issue of how we strategically recruit, not simply post job openings. And, I can't underscore the need to bridge the gap between the candidate and the organization. We must be committed to looking at much stronger recruiting, testing, background investigation, selection, and field training components that are intertwined. It requires an organizational commitment to minimize unsound expenditures of the community's human resource and capital assets. It is imperative that we do everything possible to ensure that our expenditures aren't going into a bottomless pit to recruit people who aren't going to stay. We need to be focused more on how we're going to get a full and mutually rewarding career out of each candidate. It's a win-win situation when that occurs!