Recruiting quality employees has been the focus of law enforcement agencies for many years. Even as the economy changes, public service needs continue to necessitate officers on the streets. To meet growing needs, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CA POST) compiled a Best Practices guide to assist agencies in recruitment and retention. “Leaders must place a priority on attracting and retaining the best employees,” CA POST explains. “Settling for those minimally qualified will grow a mediocre agency whose service will be, at best, mediocre.”
Agencies must focus on recruiting strategies that attract the best candidates. One technique some agencies use is hosting recreational athletic opportunities, such as baseball teams, running clubs and hockey teams, and using these as a way to attract candidates. New York Police Department has a vast array of athletic opportunities all under the NYPD logo. Offerings include baseball, football, hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, boxing, running, Gaelic football, rugby and lacrosse. Although many departments have sports teams made up of their members or members of a variety of local agencies, NYPD uses these opportunities as a recruiting strategy. Through its Web site, NYPD emphasizes recruits are part of a winning team both personally through athletics and professionally by joining the NYPD.
In 2009, the International Association of Chiefs of Police partnered with the Community Oriented Policing Service and developed the “Law Enforcement Recruitment Toolkit.” The Toolkit states individual agencies are responsible for creating their own recruiting campaign to market police work as an attractive and rewarding career choice to young people, candidates seeking a career change and those who might not have otherwise considered law enforcement as a career option. IACP President Russell B. Laine explains, “Recruiting and staffing shortfalls continue to plague law enforcement agencies across the United States. New challenges in the 21st century, including military call-ups, a greater number of retirements, homeland security obligations, and increased competition have combined to make the problem more acute.” Add to this the perception of instability in public safety employment — caused by hiring freezes, forced furlough and the uncertainty of public employee retirement system (PERS) benefits — and many agencies struggle with how to attract qualified candidates. Having enough quality police officers on the job is the priority of every department. All other priorities depend on this key foundation. The goal of police recruitment is to hire the right people. Recruits need to meet the quality standard, be team players and represent the diversity of the community.
Sports teams broaden the base of potential recruits. Although recruiters might go to job fairs or run ads in the local paper, none of these efforts will reach the amount or variety of prospective applicants that a charity ball game can. Those who attend the game will go home and talk about the event possibly creating a response such as “I didn’t know our police department had a ball team.” If all goes well, the next question might be, “How do I get on? Are they hiring?”
Another consideration in the Toolkit is agencies need recruiting strategies that reach out to the young. Generation Xers and Millennials have different values, and their outlook on employment better match each other’s than those held by Baby Boomers. These differences must be addressed if a recruitment strategy is to be successful. Generation Xers and Millennials are focused on self-reliance and cooperation. More women are going to college, so departments need to focus on how to attract them. Xers want balanced lives and time for family, leisure activities and other priorities. Athletics are a way for agencies to continue to build cooperation and teamwork among their officers and increase health and wellness, on off-duty time, which Xers and Millennials insist on.
The Discovering Policing Web site, a U.S. Department of Justice forum designed to attract career candidates to law enforcement, explains how modern policing has evolved the skill-set necessary to be a successful officer. Although physical ability is still necessary and important, other non-traditional skills are needed, such as the ability to foster relationships, build connections between people and groups, as well as the ability to solve problems with a broad community focus. Team sports rely on these abilities as well, not only between those out on the field or on the running track, but also between the athletes and the people in the stands. “Most people’s first experience (with the police) is negative,” states Dr. Richard Weinblatt, police academy instructor, former police chief and expert in law enforcement health and wellness. At a sporting event, “if they’re sitting on the side in the stands, and the officer is standing there, a person can go up and talk to them. If we can engage and interact with the public in a positive setting, that will in turn recruit young people.” Many of the core competencies and psychological competencies identified by the U.S. Department of Justice coexist in those who participate in team sports, such as capacity for engaging in teamwork, ability to collaborate, dependability, decision making, judgment and social competence.
Athletics encourage teamwork that officers take from the playing field back to the streets. “When you go on a call, you might not know the other person very well and can’t anticipate their next move,” explains Weinblatt. “In an athletic situation, you start to see how that person thinks and you get to know them. Therefore, you can predict to some degree what they are going to do on a call. It builds a cohesive team.” Group sports also build morale. “They start to feel like they’re in it together,” says Weinblatt. “When you deal with the psychology of law enforcement, they often feel isolated and get cynical. They feel alone. Most patrol alone. Being on a team, they get a chance to work really closely with other law enforcement and some of the petty differences can be dealt with. They relieve stress. They are doing something fun and it’s helping them to see the other person as a partner and not as an enemy.” A collaborative sports team allows officers from a variety of agencies to work together, get to know each other and can ease some jurisdictional tension. This also allows each agency to use the team as a recruiting tool and pool resources for marketing and media coverage.
Health & wellness
A main focus of many departments is physical and mental wellness. “There have been so many studies that show officers who are engaged in a wellness program supported by the agency in which the police chief participates have numerous benefits — injuries go down, sick leave goes down,” Weinblatt explains. “This is not an area where agencies can skimp. If an officer is in good shape mentally and physically, they will serve their community better. Lifting weights, playing ball or even throwing a Frisbee around is extremely beneficial.”
Another focus of agencies has been the increase in diversity. Trust-based policing demands the police force be representative of the community it serves. Lack of diversity in the department not only hinders good community relations, but also obstructs recruitment of these populations due to the lack of role models within the department. Sporting teams can be used to help attract diversity. For example, soccer is incredibly popular within the Latino community. An agency soccer team could draw members of that community to the event and encourage a positive interaction. In turn, members of the Latino community might be encouraged to apply for the department.
Candidates attracted to athletics
Surveys asking the main reasons people, especially Generation Xers and Millennials, choose a company to work for have found several common factors. These factors also apply to choosing between law enforcement agencies. Two important factors are agency reputation and friends.
A CA POST survey of academy recruits found 80 percent considered agency reputation a factor in accepting employment. Athletics allow a department to increase its positive reputation in the community and decrease the potential for a negative reputation to serve as a detractor that dissuades good candidates from pursuing employment with the agency. On a broader level, community athletic events (including charity events) can help dispel a lack of value or negative perception of law enforcement in general.
Friends and family
“Studies show young people aren’t choosing their work based on the pay,” explains Weinblatt. “They go to work because their friends are working there, they like the lifestyle and they get a sense of belonging. Athletics will do this for a law enforcement agency.” Current law enforcement officers are some of the best recruiters. A survey conducted by CA POST found “the overwhelming majority of top performers were recruited by current employees, they were actively involved in intramural sports, and they frequently attended professional sporting events.” When an officer plays on an agency team, he or she represents another desirable aspect of working for that agency. An officer might recruit someone to apply for the department by recruiting them to join the sports team.
Connecting with those who influence career choices is also an important recruitment strategy. During athletic events, the family of team members socializes with those who attend the event. This increases the opportunity for an officer’s spouse to share his or her experience and might persuade the other person to encourage his or her spouse to apply for a position with the agency. Those in police work and their loved ones belong to the law enforcement family. Positive interactions in the community increase the desire for others to join that family.
Using athletics as a recruiting tool
Agencies looking to support athletics need to know how to use them as a good recruiting tool. First, agencies need to know how to develop teams or clubs. “Most don’t cost a whole lot of money,” says Weinblatt. “Go to sporting goods stores. Most would be glad to help and either defray the cost or donate the equipment. The local schools are often very good and allow officers to utilize their facilities, such as the weight room or baseball field.” Once developed, photos can be posted on the Web. Agencies can tweet about the event and market using social media sites, such as Facebook.
Agencies can utilize sporting events to increase community engagement and improve relations, especially with elected officials and influential members of the community. The Toolkit explains, “The nature, scope, and intensity of police recruitment problems warrant total government commitment. Such commitment begins with the highest-ranking elected official and administrator.” Departments can invite elected officials and other members of the community to come out and throw the first ball, drop the puck, etc. Any chance to increase community partnerships is a good department strategy. Inviting an important figure in an ethnic community can improve relations within that population, as well as encourage attendants and potential recruits.
When an agency hosts an event, such as a charity game with police versus fire department, media coverage can be invaluable in presenting a positive story to the community and attracting candidates to police work. “You would see it in the newspaper,” explains Weinblatt. “It’s a great media event. The TV station will cover it. You get a lot of bang for the buck. The teams impacted and all these people watching the news are impacted.”
This impact might draw more candidates. A Toolkit survey found many young people do not consider law enforcement work because they lack information about it as a career. Sporting events can increase knowledge. “The community will turn out and start to see the department on a human level,” says Weinblatt. “They might start to consider a career, even a person who might not have considered law enforcement as an option.”
Agencies find another barrier to recruiting good candidates is the time it takes for applicants to get through the process. A complicated and lengthy hiring practice often hinders qualified recruits from making it into the ranks of an agency. Today’s job pool generally does not want to wait the three to six months it takes to become a police officer. Agencies that have lengthier processes may lose their candidates to other agencies with more streamlined techniques. By having desirable benefits, such as a sports team, a department gains more time because a candidate sees a reason to wait for that offer.
Law enforcement agencies need strong recruitment strategies as policing roles continue to evolve. Agencies need to market themselves as attractive career choices for this new generation of young people. The IACP and U.S. Department of Justice emphasize the importance of reaching a larger, qualified and diverse applicant pool with the right message. Agency supported athletics can do just that while also increasing intra- and inter-departmental teamwork and helping maintain a physically and mentally healthy workforce. Department athletics are a win-win endeavor for any agency.