Overcoming the Most Common Excuse for Poor Law Enforcement Hiring

By Greg Barlow, CSP, CET

So far in this series on law enforcement hiring, we’ve taken a broad look at some steps that can improve hiring outcomes and closely examined how poor hiring is often rooted in agency culture.

Law enforcement hiring - Lexipol

The true cost of hiring new officers is significant – yet many departments don’t have good measures in place to prevent bad hires. Photo credit: A Katz / Shutterstock.com

Changing your agency’s culture won’t happen overnight, but if you are thoroughly evaluating in-house conditions, making strides toward improvement and setting the examples for your existing team, then you’re ready to tackle the next challenge: overcoming the most common excuse that leads to poor hires.

Now folks, it might be necessary to check your feelings at the door for this one! Sometimes we all need a little tough love. So I’m going to ask you to be as objective as possible and ask yourself whether these excuses sound familiar—and then maintain an open mind about why it might be time to break the pattern.

No Time? No Resources?
“How did that officer get hired?”
“How did the department miss those behavioral signs?”
“How did the agency not know that he/she was released from a department just three towns over?”

Anyone who’s spent a few years in law enforcement will be familiar with these questions. The typical response we hear: “We don’t have the personnel resources and/or time to do the research, so we do the best we can.” I’ve heard this statement at least a dozen times in less than two years.

Is there truth to this statement? Only if you take into account one-half of the overall picture. Now wait. Am I, as a civilian, suggesting that those entrusted with law enforcement hiring are lazy and purposely don’t vet new officers appropriately? Absolutely not. Is this an issue that is so specialized to the law enforcement community that those of us on the outside simply cannot understand it? That is also a big no. Every technical and/or specialized industry has the same concerns when it comes to hiring—and many of those industries also have the same or worse potential outcomes should they hire the wrong person.

Here is another way to look at it: When you purchased body armor, did your research stop at the first acceptable material and plate? Of course not. You weighed the options of the various types of aramid and other fabrics available. Then you may have evaluated the need for Level III vs. IV plates. At some point you were doing all of this while evaluating the actual manufacturers—and oh, let’s not forget that you had to scrutinize the carriers to hold the type of armor chosen, and all the tools and equipment you would need to carry.

Now many of you out there just said to yourself, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can’t compare buying potentially life-saving body armor to hiring an officer.” Well ladies and gentlemen, if you think that, you need to spend some time listening to Gordon Graham or Jack Ryan explain how risk management decisions affect every single line item of your daily operations. But I digress.

Calculating the Cost
To get back on track: Not only is hiring a new officer equally or more important than something like body armor, but it is absolutely a decision that can and likely will have life-or-death consequences. This officer will be making decisions that affect the safety of other officers as well as community members—not to mention the effect such decisions can have on your agency’s reputation. Every hire you make is as important as obtaining the best body armor possible. In fact, you have a higher likelihood of a bad hire being the root cause or direct cause of a line-of-duty death than inferior equipment or a “bad” guy’s actions.

The reality is simple, even if it is not always palatable: When departments don’t find the resources to ensure proper hiring techniques are used and don’t make the time to do the research, it is not a matter of if you will make a bad hire, but when. More importantly, the realization that someone was a bad hire often occurs only after an adverse situation, action or complaint—a wrongful arrest, a preventable shooting, excessive force, multiple preventable driving accidents.

After the damage is done is too late. We know how bad the publicity can be. Good people can/will likely lose their jobs or, at best case, receive unfair demotions, all to satisfy the (fair or unfair) public eye and allow some politician to say they have addressed the issue.

Do you really know the financial costs of properly vetting officer candidates? If you don’t, I strongly suggest anyone involved in your agency’s hiring practices sit down together and run the numbers. Include the actual hourly wage and/or salaries of those doing the hiring. Ask for help from your finance department and/or clerk to help estimate a dollar value for every component you use in your evaluations. Add in every possible dollar you can think of. Once you’ve come up with a number, add at least 25% just to make sure you have plenty of overhead built in.

If you are willing to do this, the total cost you come up with to hire an individual new officer will barely make a dent in what it will cost your agency to remove a bad hire after a public incident and clean up the resulting political (and/or legal) fiasco. And that doesn’t even take into account the cost of re-filling the position once the bad hire is gone.

Self-Awareness Is Key
It’s not my intent to judge or criticize any agency. But we must be our own harshest critics. Being aware of our personal, departmental and industry flaws is paramount to improvement. In my next article, I’ll offer some specific changes or additions you can make to your law enforcement hiring practices to elevate the quality of your recruits and help you weed out those who spell trouble down the line.

Until then, I encourage you to think about the true cost hiring represents to your agency—and how some changes can help you make the most of your time and money.

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.

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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).

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