By Greg Barlow, CSP, CET
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on law enforcement hiring.
No More “Bad Cops”: 5 Steps to Improving Law Enforcement Hiring Practices
Improving Law Enforcement Hiring Starts from Within
Overcoming the Most Common Excuse for Poor Law Enforcement Hiring
Law enforcement is one of the most heavily regulated industries. Every year the feds require more, the states legislate more, and even many local jurisdictions mandate more requirements officers must meet—resulting in more hours spent training on specific subjects. That likely will not ever change.
In my last article, I discussed the most common excuse law enforcement agencies give to justify poor hiring practices: lack of resources (time and money). New regulations and the training requirements that come with them feed into this excuse. But they are all the more reason why every police agency should spend more time and more resources on hiring the right officers. Think of it this way: If you spend more time now ensuring you have done everything within your agency’s power to hire the right officers, that burden of time and resources will be reduced significantly over time. More on that later—now, let’s get to what I promised last time: specific strategies you can consider to improve your hiring methods.
Shake Up Your Hiring Practices
Following are just a few concepts to challenge your current approach to hiring. Can you do them all? Probably not. But if you can incorporate a few, adjusting as needed to fit your agency, you can have an immediate impact on hiring.
1. Check with your Human Resources and legal departments to find out what type of information gathering you can do within local and/or state laws. In my state, Colorado HB 1262 makes it easier for agencies to share information, but not every state has the same options. If your state doesn’t have an information-sharing mechanism, you may want to evaluate the framework of CO HB 1262 and work with your local POST Board to create something similar.
2. Ask to see HR’s recruitment process. If your HR department handles recruitment and you have never been involved, get involved. You may find hiring practices that are not the most beneficial to your needs. For example, your HR department, without any malicious intent, may have a vetting process that eliminates some candidates before they get to you. If you are not the person who posts the job descriptions and receives the applications and resumes, verify that you are seeing all applicants. Otherwise, you may miss a candidate who could turn out to be the best officer you have ever had, but because they didn’t fit HR’s generic hiring requirements, you may have lost them to another agency—or law enforcement may have lost them forever.
3. Require a cover letter. This is such a simple and easy concept, but it’s often ignored. If the applicant provides you a generic cover letter that doesn’t fit the actual job specification, or could fit any industry, or they forget to update it with your department’s name or address or the specific position they are applying for, it’s an obvious sign that they will not pay attention to the type of important details required in law enforcement.
4. Scrutinize the resume. Too many people skim resumes under the auspice that they are all essentially the same. This is not true at all. If you look carefully, you will see absolute differences that can reveal signs of behavioral traits and decision-making capabilities. Are there numerous misspellings, missing words, inappropriate statements, etc.? Mind you, I’m not referring to simple grammar mistakes. Some of the most educated among us are terrible at punctuation. But if you find a statement or paragraph that makes you cringe when reading it, that is probably a red flag you need to pay attention to. And had you just skimmed over the resume, you might have missed the details.
5. Require at least three or four previous command staff as references. An applicant who refuses to let you speak to their current or former command staff is not an officer you want.
“But Greg, that’s not fair. What if he/she is still employed and worried about retaliation from the current command staff when their job search becomes known?” My answer to that is simple and two-fold: First, in over 20 years in risk management, I have never met a high-quality supervisor or manager in any industry who did not wish the best for their employees. Are they disappointed because they may lose a good officer? Sure. But if they truly want their staff to succeed, they wish them the best and offer quality information to the hiring department.
Second, how often do you find an applicant who has only one previous or current shift supervisor, sergeant, commander, etc., that they have reported to? Maybe the one they have now is not great, but what about the two previous? What about past employment? How many officers only have one current or previous department they have worked for? Odds are very high that most officers you choose to interview have worked at no less than two or three departments. If the applicant doesn’t want you talking to any of them—well, then that applicant is the problem. Sure, it’s possible that every place an applicant has worked has bad command staff, but let’s be a little more realistic!
6. Use your investigative training. If you don’t like #5 and you want to consider applicants who don’t provide references, use the interview process to gather more intel. Ask why they didn’t provide command references, and if they cast blame on their supervisors, prompt them to give you additional details. Few candidates will be able to successfully make up multiple storylines to back up their “bad commander/hostile workplace” accusations. Investigative 101 techniques will likely allow your interview panel to determine if the applicant is being truthful and really does have a problematic situation or if the applicant him/herself is the problem.
7. Use the National Decertification Index (NDI) offered by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). This is not a guaranteed solution as it won’t show an officer who is still in good standing, but it will eliminate those who aren’t.
8. Check social media. Don’t ask them for permission because you don’t need it (and never ask candidates to provide social media passwords). Agencies have a right to look at everything candidates post publicly and to use that information to make informed hiring decisions. Social media can reveal arrogance, narcissism, anger issues, unprofessionalism, recklessness and a whole lot more. Use it! Many agencies would have prevented legal troubles with a simple social media check. Note: To ensure your hiring process is legal, fair and just, it’s extremely important that no one directly involved in the hiring perform the social media check. If you can afford to hire a third-party service to do this, that’s best. If not, have someone in HR or another part of your agency perform the check. Also, only aggregate results should be given to those involved in the hiring decision—a pass/fail, for example. This prevents any appearance of candidates being eliminated due to protected class or characteristics. For example, if you discover a female candidate is pregnant, how can you be sure that won’t impact your hiring decision? It’s best if you do not know this information at all, but rather receive a pass/fail-type report from a non-involved party.
Odds are very high that most officers you choose to interview have worked at no less than two or three departments. If the applicant doesn’t want you talking to any of them—well, then that applicant is the problem.
9. Get creative on interview days. Ask applicants to park somewhere that requires them to walk past several windows from which you can observe. Temporarily post “applicant parking only” signs to create a controlled environment. Alternatively, follow them back out to their vehicle when the interview is over. Either way, gather as much detail as you can. What kind of stickers, markings and/or decals do they have on their vehicle? Did they take up two spots or occupy a “compact car only” space with a large SUV or truck? How do they behave before and while coming into your building? Do they throw trash on the ground? How do they interact with staff and/or citizens? These may seem like silly things to focus on, but they add up to a behavioral assessment. We all know the definition of integrity: Doing the right thing when no one is looking. Well, if they don’t know you are looking, you will see signs of their true persona.
10. Create a “database” of learning experiences, outcomes, behavioral signs, actions, etc. to guide future hiring. Update it after every interview or series of interviews. As we all know, learning from past mistakes is the key to future success. Train all staff, not just supervisors, on interview techniques, desired candidate behaviors and behavioral warning signs. Doing so will help to create future leaders while at the same time giving them the additional education to succeed as supervisors when/if their time comes.
Now, if you think even a couple of these ideas might help you, but you still can’t get past the “I have no time” hurdle, then you talk to your agency administrators. I don’t mean just the chief. I mean your agency’s risk manager, city manager, mayor, etc. Many times, once properly educated about the risk of hiring the wrong people—and what can be done to help prevent bad hires—these individuals can help you find temporary and/or permanent resources.
If that effort doesn’t pan out, or if additional resources are another budget cycle away, don’t give up! Look at alternative sources, such as retired officers or volunteer groups. If you are lucky enough to have a college with a criminal justice program, talk to the dean to see if they can help. These sources can make phone calls for you, check social media accounts, organize paperwork, etc.
As stated earlier, these are just some sample ideas. Please use what works for your agency. Revise and improve your strategies on a regular basis and never stop that review-and-continual-improvement process.
Even the best hiring system is not foolproof; a rare “bad apple” can slip through the cracks. However, if you follow these suggestions, if you collaborate with other agencies who have the hiring game down to a science, and if you make it understood within your organization that the time and resources spent on hiring practices are of equal value and importance as every other operational parameter, then your organization will become a place where great officers want to work. High-caliber individuals usually want to work with others like themselves. Over time, you’ll be hiring less because you will retain more. Eventually, you’ll have the best candidates seeking out your organization for open positions—improving the efficiency of your hiring practices even further.
Lexipol’s Law Enforcement Policy Manual and Daily Training Bulletin Service can enhance accountability in your agency and reduce liability associated with ineffective hiring, training and supervision. Contact us today to find out more.
GREG BARLOW, CSP, CET has over 18 years of risk management experience in the private and public sector. During his career he has consulted and/or managed loss control programs for city, county and affiliated municipalities in multiple states. Greg earned an ABET-accredited safety engineering degree in Occupational Safety and Health from Murray State University in 1998. He believes that, to ensure efficiency, productivity and overall success, risk management must be incorporated into every facet of organizational operations. Greg currently serves as the Loss Control Manager for the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (CIRSA).