To address police recruit shortage, raise standards

The counterintuitive solution to the falloff in police recruitment

POLICE DEPARTMENTS across the Commonwealth and around the country are concerned about declining numbers of qualified recruits. The Boston Globe reported two months ago that the number of officers who have “voluntarily resigned from the Boston Police Department in recent years ballooned from zero in 2018 to 36 last year, a trend that is exacerbating a shortage of police.” The pattern is also playing out elsewhere. In response, some departments are considering lowering their entry qualifications; instead, they should explore raising standards. 

Several years ago, a number of colleges and universities – including the University of Notre Dame, Bryn Mawr College, Rice University, Ursinus College, and the University of Richmond — were concerned about declining enrollments. They took what seemed like the counterintuitive approach: they raised tuition and fees (while also providing more financial assistance). In so doing, they played to a fundamental cognitive bias. As explained by the New York Times, families link price with quality, and so a tuition hike, when accompanied by discounts, “can lure more applicants and revenue.”

There is brain science that supports this idea. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, marketing expert Dorie Clark said, “Price is often a proxy for quality, and when you put yourself at the low end, it signals that you’re unsure of your value — or the value just isn’t there. Either can be alarming for prospective clients.” 

In the police case, it’s not about using tricks of neuroscience to lure customers. Standards should be raised because they 1)  misrepresent the actual character of the profession; and 2) are, as a consequence, too low as they currently stand.

How we describe policing in media from TV to police recruiting images is at odds with the complexity of the work. The job demands a great deal emotionally, physically, and intellectually from practitioners. But one would not get that from the way the career is presented.

Police departments are their own worst enemies when it comes to recruitment. Most departments present policing as a military-like career featuring images of shiny cars, trucks, motorcycles, aircraft, weapons, and other technical gear. It could hardly be worse if departments hired auto industry ad firms to conduct recruiting. Images rarely present the reality of police work.   

We should show officers thinking, probing, helping people of every description in every kind of situation, and using their ingenuity to do street-level, clever problem-solving. Lowering standards would reinforce whatever negative opinions potential candidates might hold about the police. The answer, then, is to make the career more attractive by raising hiring qualifications.   

These are some standards the profession should consider: 

Raise the minimum entry age to 24, from the current minimum of 21. This is not a profession for adolescent brains. Policing requires individuals to make hugely consequential decisions on their own. These include matters of life and liberty.   

Eliminate the civil service exam. It’s an outdated “reform” (designed to address 1880s problems), only given biannually, that serves as a disincentive to candidates who have career options. Let departments conduct their own hiring that probes for desired traits and competencies within the parameters of relevant state law.  

Diversity and Inclusion. Our society remains riven by racialization of civic life. To the extent allowable in a shifting legal context, the profession must recruit, develop, and hire individuals of diverse backgrounds. The push in the world of workforce diversity has been to shift from degree-based hiring to skills-based hiring. The focus here should be on understanding the actual skills, competencies, experiences, knowledge, and attitudes it takes to do the job and identifying pipelines and training that are likely to produce people who meet those requirements. 

Establish local police foundations to support recruitment. Such an entity could raise funds for scholarships to the policing school; capital for new school facilities; professional development for faculty; and other supports.    

Require at least one year of volunteer or employed civic or community-based service work. The most effective police officers have an instinct for compassion and service. A substantial time spent in service gives hiring authorities data to evaluate a candidate’s fitness in this regard. 

Require at least two years of job experience. The police profession should not be an individual’s first real job. Hiring authorities should be able to review a candidate’s willingness to accept and maturely handle work responsibilities. 

Make the police academy a professional school, not a tech school with a boot camp. Students should pay a tuition that covers a portion of the costs of the program. A two-year program would consist of four academic semesters and one practicum/internship. Physical education should develop students’ capacity to perform the kinds of physical challenges they will actually face on the job. For example, they should develop the fitness to run short to medium distances, such as running 50- and 100-yard dashes as fast as they can. Emphasis should be placed on lifelong fitness activities.   

As part of an introduction to managing the inherent biological and emotional stress of the career, candidates in the school should be exposed to a range of potential hobbies and outside-the-job interests. Research demonstrates that officers over the course of careers develop “hypervigilance,” with biological, emotional, and mental impacts. Learning how to have a healthy, full life outside of work is critical. This is especially important for younger generations, i.e., Millennials and Gen Z’s. 

The challenge is one of retention as well as a recruitment. “If departments have good retention, that is a real plus for marketing the job.  If they don’t, only addressing the front end of recruitment won’t fix the problem,” said Nancy Snyder, a Boston-based workforce development expert.  “Mentoring and professional development after the academy should help.”   

Increase pay and add benefits. Add a three-month sabbatical every seven years as part of policing’s health and wellness professional development benefits. Starting salaries should be raised to attract applicants, especially those with student debt. Sabbaticals and routine biological and emotional support should be made part of the system of personnel management. 

Eliminate the absolute veterans’ preference. Soldiering, a combat profession, and policing, a service profession, have very little in common. In my career, I worked with hundreds of exemplary police personnel who also were veterans, from Korea and Vietnam, to the Gulf and  Iraq. I deeply admired them for their service, while also concluding that they would have been great officers with or without their military service. Also, according to the Globe, White applicants are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of that preference. As it stands, the preference makes it harder to hire from a rich and diverse candidate pool. 

Recruiting should seek individuals who:

  • Are tough enough to keep going with a cool head and their core values out front after a subject bloodies their noses. 
  • Are mature enough and brave enough to manage the fear that is endemic in a universe of potential risk. Are grown-ups of sufficient character to take the steps necessary to protect themselves and their families from the effects of hypervigilance. 
  • Have the courage to examine themselves honestly and work on reducing the effects of racialization and other biases on their judgment.
  • Are courageous enough to respond to a call without really knowing what’s on the other side of the door. Have the breadth of character to de-escalate fear and rage while staying alert for danger.
  • Have the strength of character to remain semper fidelis to professed values when the situation goes full “fubar.” 
  • Can make the moral judgment to kill in the rare moments in which one must and to refrain from shooting whenever one can. 
Meet the Author
Our misconceptions about police work produce the misapplication of hiring standards. Making the hiring parameters congruent with the realities of the profession will boost interest by high-quality individuals. 

Jim Jordan is the retired director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and in training settings around the country.