Improving Law Enforcement Hiring Starts from Within

In my first article in this series, I said the first step in improving law enforcement hiring practices is to recognize the problem.

That may sound simplistic, but think about it for a second: Improving law enforcement hiring cannot start with just the current and future candidates—it must start within the existing team. The law enforcement “hiring problem” is not simply a matter of the wrong candidates applying for the jobs, or the assessment process identifying the wrong employer/employee matches. These are issues, for sure, and I will touch on them in future articles. But the real change starts at a deeper level.

That’s why command staff must be willing to participate in the evaluation process—and be willing not only to scrutinize themselves, but also obtain and use feedback from subordinates, even if it is negative feedback. The reality is that in many cases nationwide, a lower-level officer may have caused a problem, but the root cause is command-level policies or actions.

Following are three takeaways that can help guide your organization with the evaluation of its internal culture.

Don’t Assume a Problem Doesn’t Exist
A lack of internal or external complaints does not denote a lack of a problem. Positive performance reviews do not mean areas of concern have been addressed. A strong camaraderie does not equate to a team of high-quality personnel.

To more accurately ensure all personnel are properly and consistently vetted after being hired, implement an “early intervention system” (EIS). Such systems use objective data to identify behavior patterns that we may not identify. No, they don’t provide all the answers and they’re not infallible, but they’re a start.

If you’re already using an EIS, scrutinize the data you’re collecting. Are you only tracking officers who arrive late or take too much sick time? Is it possible that only significant offenses or complaints are tracked? If so, you need to dig deeper. Events such as internal arguments, citizen conflicts that appear to be minor, and any other event that could be viewed as negative, should be evaluated.

However, make sure that the good behaviors/encounters are tracked as well. Nothing is worse than a tracking system that only shows events that may be construed as negative. Positive events present just as much opportunity to learn. If you want your team to be successful, use your EIS to track bad events, but also ensure you have processes in place to capture good behaviors.

Don’t Overlook the Small Stuff
Let’s say your EIS shows that a specific officer is routinely coming in late. You could look at that pattern and conclude that officer has a problem. But here’s where the “small stuff” becomes important. Maybe the pattern shows the tardiness occurring on the same day of the week or a specific time of the month. Is it possible that this officer is a single parent and has to coordinate transportation to/from childcare? Could this pattern be representative of the time each week or each month where the officer has custody of the child? Perhaps they previously explained the situation to a supervisor but didn’t receive any support.

If we can identify these types of personal issues—and if we’re willing to look into fair, corrective actions that allow the officer to improve while meeting their personal needs—we may be able to take a seemingly troubled or bad employee and return them to a good or great officer.

And remember this is about far more than coming in late to work: By addressing the officer’s work/life issue, we may have prevented the officer from releasing their frustration during a citizen encounter—a situation that could turn detrimental very fast.

When we learn to treat the small stuff equally as important as the high-profile issues, we significantly reduce or even eliminate the majority of the minor issues, allowing us to focus our efforts on the newsworthy events.

Don’t Rely Solely on an EIS
Yes, I just told you to use an EIS if you don’t already have one, but don’t rely on it as a sole means of evaluating an incident. This is especially true if you use spreadsheets or a software-based platform that only spits out numbers, graphs or percentages.

When an EIS detects an issue, chances are your personnel may not even know they did something negative. Stress and anxiety are just two of the many potential biological reactions that can cloud a person’s individual perception. Everyone has a different vantage point of each situation—and sometimes, each person may be right.

The best approach is to not immediately accuse someone of wrongdoing, even if it appears that is the only correct observation. Rather, give them a chance to explain their version. Talk to others who witnessed the event. Chances are, the reality of what actually occurred resides somewhere near the middle of all available vantage points—and that is likely where you will find your solution as well.

Face-to-face, open, honest and fair discussion is the only way to fully ensure all parties understand what may have gone wrong. Once a potential negative has been verified as factual, then corrective action plans can be developed to solve the issue for the long term.

Additionally, if your investigation results in the officer’s vindication, then use the positives as yet another tool for improvement: Ensure all other personnel know what was done right and what minor tweaks should be made to further improve the encounter.

The Ultimate Goal
Every agency will likely have different criteria to help them evaluate their internal conditions, officer perceptions and the corresponding total organizational culture. But the ultimate goal should be very similar for all law enforcement agencies nationwide: Every officer must recognize what being a good cop definitively means, how to continuously improve their community relations and corresponding actions, and how to use every encounter within their community as a learning tool for that individual and departmental continuous improvement process.

When we fix our internal system, we create trust and real camaraderie among the rank-and-file. And as we learn from our existing team—their mistakes and their accolades—we lay the groundwork for identifying the characteristics to look for in new candidates. But that’s for the next article!

Greg Barlow

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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