Most Wanted

Law Enforcement Agencies Pursue Elusive, Qualified Recruits

By Jeremy M. Wilson and Laura Werber Castaneda

Jeremy Wilson, an adjunct RAND behavioral scientist, is also an associate professor and associate director for research at the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice. Laura Werber Castaneda is a RAND management scientist.

In spite of persistently high unemployment rates, police departments across the United States face immediate staffing challenges. These challenges also complicate the attainment of long-term workforce planning goals. The ranks of qualified police recruits are diminishing, portending personnel shortages in the short term as well as potentially disruptive imbalances between junior and senior personnel for years to come.

Police chiefs today face a threefold challenge in recruiting and retaining officers: attrition resulting from budget crises and baby-boomer retirements, generational trends restricting the flow of applicants, and expanded duties requiring more officers with a greater breadth of skills. The challenge is finding affordable ways to attract and keep good officers.

In a survey of recent recruits, we found that law enforcement agencies could enhance recruitment by targeting nonfinancial incentives to specific groups: women, racial and ethnic minorities, older recruits, recruits from immigrant families, college graduates, recruits with military experience, and those with prior law enforcement experience. Yet at the same time, in another study we found that just three factors appear to have statistically significant, positive effects on police recruiting: a higher starting salary, larger city size, and, surprisingly, higher crime rates. Research on this topic is in its infancy, so ruling out any promising option at this time would be premature.

The ranks of qualified police recruits are diminishing.

Although police agencies can do little to limit the demand for officers, we found that certain practices — from analyzing local demographics to offering flexible benefits to giving officers a voice in departmental decisions — might help retain the supply of officers and thus contribute toward building stable, long-term workforces. The remainder of this essay serves as a review of our ongoing investigation, which included surveys of both law enforcement recruits and agency leadership.

National Shortages

One measure of the challenge facing U.S. law-enforcement agencies is the 2010 federal appropriation of $1 billion to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) within the U.S. Department of Justice to help stabilize the ranks of police. A better measure is the response to that appropriation. The $1-billion allocation generated more than 7,000 applications from police departments requesting more than $8 billion to support nearly 40,000 sworn-officer positions. The COPS office has also asked RAND to compile information on promising practices for police recruitment and retention.

To portray the fluid forces at work with respect to the accelerating attrition, evaporating sources of recruitment, and expanding responsibilities of police, we use the metaphor of water in a bucket (see Figure 1). The size of the bucket represents the absolute need for police officers. The water level, which rises and falls with accession and attrition over time, frequently does not fill the bucket because of resource or other limitations in meeting the demand for officers. The space between the brim and the water level represents unmet demand. The authorized or allocated level of officers (the number of officers for which an agency is budgeted) usually falls between the brim and water level.

Figure 1 — For Police Agencies, the Water Is Flowing Out Faster Than It Is Pouring In, and the Bucket Is Getting Bigger

For Police Agencies, the Water Is Flowing Out Faster Than It Is Pouring In, and the Bucket Is Getting Bigger

SOURCE: Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium, 2010.

Three forces today are lowering the water level. First, officers are “leaking out” through attrition. A pending wave of baby-boom retirements is threatening to reduce the experience levels of police departments across America. Budget crises are compelling jurisdictions to consider cutting the numbers of officers. Military call-ups have been draining away officers for lengthy periods of time on nation-building and other military missions. And younger workers appear to be more likely than older ones to shift careers.

Second, young workers today appear to be less likely than their predecessors to flow from the “faucet” of supply. Growing levels of illicit drug use, obesity, and debt have shrunken the qualified applicant pool, just as the skill requirements for officers have expanded. While many, particularly college-educated applicants, can meet these requirements, they have other options. And the same budget crises that may lead to smaller workforces may also lead to reduced salaries and benefit packages that are less likely to attract qualified candidates.

Third, the bucket is expanding as police work broadens, creating demand for more “water.” The adoption of community policing, the increased emphasis on homeland security, and the widening global and technological scope of local police duties to encompass the occasionally militaristic roles of counterterrorism, information-sharing, and immigration enforcement have placed growing demands on the numbers and skills of officers. In sum, the water is flowing out faster than it is pouring in, and the bucket is getting bigger.

Law Enforcement Recruitment

To help agencies strengthen recruitment, we surveyed new police and sheriff recruits. Our survey drew 1,619 respondents — an 80-percent response rate — from 44 of America’s largest police and sheriffs’ departments (each with 800 or more sworn staff).

Figure 2 — More Than 60 Percent of Recruits Cited Friends or Relatives in Law Enforcement as Motivating Their Own Careers

More Than 60 Percent of Recruits Cited Friends or Relatives in Law Enforcement as Motivating Their Own Careers

SOURCE: Today’s Police and Sheriff Recruits, 2010.

NOTE: Sources of influence that received 5 percent or fewer mentions included television ad, billboard, posters, radio ad, explorer and/or cadets program, college outreach, college internship, military installation, open house at police department, walk-in office, magazine/journal ad, mass mailing, community organization, and high school outreach.

When asked to indicate what first had prompted them to consider working in their current agency, more than 60 percent of recruits cited friends or relatives in law enforcement, particularly those already working in the same agency (see Figure 2). The Internet was by far the most popular advertising outlet that had prompted respondents to contact their current employer, with 18 percent identifying it as a motivating force.

Survey recruits also indicated their primary reasons for entering law enforcement, placing the greatest emphasis on job security and helping the community. Older recruits, those age 26 or older, focused on job security more than younger recruits did. Latino recruits and those with prior law enforcement experience gave greater weight to the public service aspects of law enforcement. Compared with white recruits, black recruits were more attracted to the prestige of the profession.

On the negative side, recruits often cited the threat of death or injury and insufficient salary as drawbacks they considered when deciding whether to enter law enforcement. Women were more likely to cite fitness requirements and family obligations as barriers to joining. Asians tended to note that their friends and family members found other career options more appealing. And not surprisingly, college graduates were more likely than recruits with less education to note that inadequate pay was a factor in their decision.

About 80 percent of survey respondents said their parents had weighed in on their career choice. For most recruits, their siblings and friends had also offered opinions. In general, family and friends offered neutral to supportive views, although mothers tended to be less supportive than fathers. In addition, half of the recruits received input from law enforcement professionals, and those professionals voiced the most support.

Other factors that played prominent roles in convincing recruits to work at a specific agency included job benefits (specifically, health insurance and retirement plans), agency reputation, and assignment variety. Latino and older recruits viewed retirement plans as more important than did white and younger recruits. Housing affordability also emerged as a consideration for black and Latino recruits and for those from immigrant families.

In a parallel effort, we found that most agencies targeted specific groups for recruitment, including racial or ethnic minorities, women, college graduates, military veterans, candidates with prior police experience, and foreign-language speakers. Popular recruiting methods were career fairs, the Internet, newspapers, community organizations, college outreach, and walk-in offices. Nearly every agency reported offering some recruitment incentive, such as a uniform allowance, training salary, reimbursement for college courses, pay rate by assignment, salary increase for a college degree, or some other form of supplemental compensation.

These findings are consistent with many of the views expressed by surveyed recruits. Indeed, the incentives that survey respondents overall felt might improve recruiting the most at their agencies were financial ones: a better pension, higher starting salary, support for the purchase of uniforms and other supplies, and a signing bonus. However, other strategies tended to be important to particular groups. Females, Latinos, younger recruits, and those with prior law enforcement experience viewed free training and exercise programs to help meet physical standards as more attractive than did other recruits. College graduates, recruits with military experience, and those with prior law enforcement experience rated choice in job duties or assignments more highly.

But in a separate study of police agencies with at least 300 officers, we found that only three variables made a statistically significant positive difference in police recruiting: higher starting salary, larger city size, and higher crime rates. The appeal of higher starting salary is obvious. We suspect that larger city size captures a scale effect — bigger cities typically have a greater pool of potential applicants — and may also be a proxy for the variety of police work available. Areas with higher crime rates might appeal to candidates with a “taste” for police work by offering more adventurous or nonroutine work opportunities or more chances to make a difference in a community. None of the supplemental compensation incentives had a statistically significant effect, and the advertising strategies did not seem to make a difference.

Recruits indicated their primary reasons for entering law enforcement, placing the greatest emphasis on job security and helping the community.

These findings suggest six recruitment strategies for law enforcement agencies.

First, emphasize the positive aspects of law enforcement and address negative perceptions, especially those based on inaccurate information, such as an exaggerated fear of death. The reality is that police officers have had lower fatality rates in recent years than farmers, truck and taxi drivers, construction workers, and bartenders. While policing is more dangerous than the average job, the safety record of modern policing deserves greater recognition.

Second, salary is important, but do not assume that it is an insurmountable obstacle. Regardless of their ability to increase salary, agencies should emphasize the nonfinancial benefits of law enforcement. Many recruits said they were drawn to the field for nonpecuniary reasons. Moreover, those surveyed did not seem dissatisfied with the salary and benefits offered by the agency with which they accepted employment.

Third, fully engage current officers and staff in recruiting. Friends and family working at an agency were responsible for prompting more than 40 percent of the surveyed recruits to consider that agency, with another 20 percent referred by friends and family at another agency. Half of the recruits sought the advice of law enforcement members when contemplating their career options. Accordingly, those expressly tasked with recruiting should not be the only agency employees working to attract promising candidates. A department’s current officers and civilian staff can be its most effective recruiters.

Fourth, expand the agency’s Internet presence. Eighty percent of surveyed recruits reported using the Internet at least daily. Relatively low-cost or even free vehicles for increasing an agency’s Internet presence are available, including job sites such as and social networking sites such as Facebook.

Fifth, appeal to what different types of recruits view as advantages of working in law enforcement. For example, profiling female leaders in the department can signal that women have opportunities for advancement, which is a key reason women cite for pursuing this career.

Sixth, continue learning from new recruits. Such findings can serve as benchmarks for agencies to measure their progress over time.

Law Enforcement Retention

There is little that police agencies can do to limit the demand for officers, but the research literature is rich with promising ideas for retaining the supply. Agencies can gain a better understanding of how to retain the supply through demographic and market analysis and through surveys of and interviews with officers. Four California departments are developing retention plans based on demographic and market trends, including projections of the retirement-eligible portions of their workforces and likely attrition rates.

Our review of the literature suggests that agencies can reduce turnover by offering officers realistic career expectations. The Idaho State Police attempts to demystify police work by providing, on its recruitment website, examples of daily duties expected of its troopers. In a similar way, candid videos describing a typical career path from the academy to the beat to detective work to leadership positions might be useful for retaining veteran officers. Police departments could also require new hires to sign contracts, but their use has decreased in part because of the belief that written contracts cast doubts on informal, trusting relationships.

Agencies can retain candidates directly by enhancing compensation and other benefits. Higher or well-timed salary adjustments, more-frequent promotions, visible career ladders, educational incentives, housing allowances, take-home cars, on-site child care, health-club memberships, and job flexibility are some of the benefits that can help improve retention. Benefit flexibility or a cafeteria-style approach is an option that many companies have tried, offering employees options while keeping costs down.

Agencies can also strengthen retention through greater employee engagement in decisionmaking and in evaluation and feedback mechanisms. In California, the Santa Cruz Consolidated Emergency Communication Center experiences a 1-percent turnover rate in an industry with an average rate of 17 percent. Its success is attributed to a willingness to try different approaches, listen to employees, engage them in planning and decisionmaking, and recognize good performance. When employees believe that they have a voice that can influence organizational decisions, it deepens their commitment to the organization and encourages ongoing feedback, creating a continuous, positive dialogue.

A major reason for turnover is the perceived quality of supervision. A study of resignations and transfers in ten United Kingdom police forces found that, when asked about ways to improve the agencies, respondents emphasized open and routine communication about departmental goals, fair and transparent practices, and reduced paperwork and bureaucracy. Improving organizational effectiveness in these ways can enhance an agency’s image not only with employees but also with the community.

Figure 3 — Nearly Four in Five Police Agencies Cited a Lack of Qualified Applicants as Causing “Some” or “Much” Difficulty in Filling Vacancies

Nearly Four in Five Police Agencies Cited a Lack of Qualified Applicants as Causing Some or Much Difficulty in Filling Vacancies

SOURCE: Recruiting and Retaining America’s Finest, 2010.

Few of the promising practices identified in the literature, though, have been empirically tested. Little aside from anecdotes is known about many of them. Police departments can experiment with these and other strategies but should incorporate mechanisms to assess their effectiveness.

Workforce Planning

Recruitment and retention are only tools for accomplishing a larger, more important, and less discussed goal: building and maintaining a personnel profile, by experience and rank, that satisfies agency needs and officer career aspirations. To help U.S. police agencies meet this goal, we surveyed them on how their recruitment and retention practices have affected their workforce personnel profiles.

Most of the 107 agencies (73-percent response rate) that responded to our survey had between 300 and 1,000 sworn officers; a handful had more than 4,000. As expected, the greatest difficulty the agencies reported in filling vacancies was a lack of qualified applicants. Nearly four in five agencies cited this as causing “some” or “much” difficulty (see Figure 3). Typical agency qualifications included high school graduation, psychological testing, a medical test, a driver’s license, U.S. citizenship, vision testing, and physical agility testing.

The agency survey helped us identify common career management issues. For police agencies, there is an optimal year-of-service profile that reflects the desired distribution of experience. (To maximize efficiency, there are preferred proportions of junior and senior officers.) As it turns out, the optimum profile is close to the average agency profile — with 48 percent of officers in their first decade of service, 36 percent in their second, and 17 percent in their third. This average profile, however, hides substantial variation across the agencies.

The agencies that do not resemble the typical profile are likely to move between “boom” and “bust” cycles as cohorts of differing size age. Agencies with relatively higher proportions of junior personnel are likely to face a dearth of officers for training and supervisory positions. The younger personnel within such agencies will also enjoy fewer prospects for promotion and may encounter corresponding career frustration. Agencies with higher proportions of senior personnel than average will face their own problems. The costs of providing police services will be higher for these agencies, and as senior officers retire, the younger cohorts will not suffice to fill the upper ranks.

Once such oscillations begin, they are difficult to stop. Agencies facing such oscillations will need to somehow change the normal attrition patterns or else fill the void in experience by hiring veterans from other departments.

Another common dilemma is that police agencies face numerous problems in collecting and maintaining personnel data. Not all the data are electronically available. Data that are electronically available are often not in a single database or in databases that can be easily aggregated. Personnel with access to the data are often outside the agencies and have other duties to fulfill. Agency personnel have limited time to address the problems of limited data, and there are scarce financial resources for technical innovations.

Several local and national initiatives could help overcome these problems. Chief among these initiatives would be federal leadership support for ongoing national collection of police staffing data as part of a national police personnel data center. Support for local and national analysis of the data would also be necessary to derive lessons for law enforcement agencies. Such analysis could focus on assessing whether, when, how, and under what circumstances recruitment and retention strategies work, the career and personal needs of officers are met, and the administrative goals of management are accomplished. square

Related Reading

Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium: The State of Knowledge, by Jeremy M. Wilson, Erin Dalton, Charles Scheer, Clifford A. Grammich, RAND/MG-959-DOJ, 2010, 150 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5017-5.

Recruiting and Retaining America’s Finest: Evidence-Based Lessons for Police Workforce Planning, Jeremy M. Wilson, Bernard D. Rostker, Cha-Chi Fan, RAND/MG-960-NIJ, 2010, 138 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5068-7.

Today’s Police and Sheriff Recruits: Insights from the Newest Members of America’s Law Enforcement Community, Laura Werber Castaneda, Greg Ridgeway, RAND/MG-992-DOJ, 2010, 142 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5047-2.

The RAND Police Recruitment and Retention Clearinghouse.