Mentoring 101: Being “Soft Recruiters” For Law Enforcement

“I bet you see a lot of crazy stuff.” 

“Can I ask what school you attended to become a Police Officer?” 

“Do you still enjoy your job?” 

“Is it like, you know, hard to become a cop?”

If you have even a few years on the job, you’ve undoubtedly been on the receiving end of these types of comments and questions.   Maybe, it’s a convenience store clerk who goes to school full time and works part time with a strong interest in becoming a cop.  However, when you visit his store, he becomes too busy to speak with you for any length of time or you’re suddenly called away (isn’t that the same hot dog on the warmer that was there last night?)   Perhaps, it was someone closer to you, wanting a few minutes of your time to discuss a potential law enforcement career – maybe a family member at a reunion you didn’t get time to talk to because you were too busy retrieving your nephew’s kite from the top of an oak tree.

While we’re at it, let’s be frank (which coincidentally, was the name of that hot dog).  Do you find these type of people and their inquiries somewhat annoying?  Do you mumble out a rushed response, then through either your tone or body language, give the impression you would rather not take the time to entertain their inquiries?  Most of us have done this at one time or another.

Still, it’s important we remember law enforcement is in need of new talent and plenty of it!  The economy has slowly been recovering these past couple of years.  This means the private sector is in a better position to hire for openings they may have put on the back burner for some time.  This has caused the number of qualified police applicants to quickly dwindle, nationally.  More baby boomers retiring only hastens the need for interested, well qualified candidates.  Sadly, our profession has also endured a rough past few years on many levels, all of which have been saturated in media coverage.    Undoubtedly, this has left many once, potentially solid candidates with second thoughts about entering the badge and gun business.

Awhile back, I decided to improve my interactions when I encounter those who take the time to approach me with questions about a potential police career.  Remember, no matter how busy we are or what kind of day we’ve had, it feels great when the public reaches out, thanks us for the job we do, and says, “Stay safe out there.”  Though more indirectly, the people asking the potential career questions are showing the same appreciation and respect as the person who thanks us, outright, for what we do.

Many interested individuals are somewhat bashful about their law enforcement aspirations.   I’ve become more direct with a simple question I politely ask when interacting with interested potential candidates – “Have you ever considered working in law enforcement, yourself?”  Usually, this will get them to smile, shrug, and say something like, “Well, I mean, I’ve kind of thought about it.”  You can almost see the light bulb come on.  Admittedly though, some are brighter than others, depending on who you’re interacting with!

Overall, law enforcement doesn’t do a terrible job of recruiting.  All reasonable resources are usually utilized, including job fairs, newspaper ads, internet job sites, the side of hot dog carts (not really), and even billboards by larger agencies.  Obviously though, experienced officers, who will take time to have a meaningful dialogue, are truly the best recruiters and representatives an individual department or the law enforcement profession can have (or the worst, if we offer a cold shoulder when approached).

If you’re exclusively assigned to patrol (as most of us are), you might still be puzzled why this occasional interaction with a hand full of enthusiastic individuals should matter to you.   Most agencies of any size have someone in charge of recruiting.  Smaller departments are likely to utilize their jurisdiction’s Human Resources Department for recruiting and application inquiries.  Therefore, in one regard, you’re correct – this informal recruiting isn’t technically your job.  However, patiently and accurately answering questions for an interested, possible future candidate provides us an invaluable way to represent our departments in a positive way.  And we all need to be doing more of that, especially these days.  No one is asking us to spend hours of our days in a recruitment mindset.  But truly, how difficult is it to interact with these folks for a few minutes, instead of simply handing them the phone number of your department recruiter, then disappearing faster than a parolee on pee test day?

So, with what wisdom do we enlighten potential applicants when we’re approached?   Remember, some will already know something about becoming a cop, but others won’t.  Be prepared to answer questions on many topics regarding getting in the law enforcement door.  Mostly, let them direct the dialogue.  For example,  some will inquire regarding what type of testing they will face during a hiring process.  Others, will want to know more about salary and benefits.  Still some, will ask you if certain little “hiccups” in their backgrounds, such as misdemeanor arrests, being fired from prior employment, or their back surgery last year, will prohibit them from earning a badge.

Speak openly with potential candidates about both the good and sometimes, not so good about becoming a Police Officer.  They need to know what they’re getting in to!  Other great advice you can give them is how to tactfully gain a potential advantage over other candidates.  For example, one time-tested way for someone to get involved with a police agency is to volunteer with the department in some capacity.  Probably, one of the best ways to do this is to become a Reserve or Auxiliary Officer with a department.  Not all departments utilize them, of course.  However, as we all know, many departments understandably like to hire their better volunteer officers for full-time positions.  Encourage potential applicants to explore this option and take time to explain the win-win involved with volunteering.  If hired full-time, at some point, the department gains a new officer, who is already vetted, shown dedication, and has become knowledgeable about the department and its procedures.  The reserve officer (or someone who has volunteered in some other capacity) wins by being hired as a full-time, paid officer!  And if you’re the one who first spoke with the new officer about entering law enforcement, you win by knowing you had a hand in bringing a highly qualified, new candidate to either your agency or perhaps another close to your jurisdiction!

Another common question you may be asked is where someone should seek further education to become a Police Officer.  The conventional wisdom is those interested should seek a college with a Criminal Justice program and major in it.  Let them know something they may not want to hear.  Education is important and definitely encourage potential candidates to pursue it.  However, when they ask what the best school choices and degree programs are to become a cop, don’t always jump to advising them to pursue a Criminal Justice degree.  While some departments require a degree or, at the very least, appreciate applicants with one, most don’t care that their degree is in Criminal Justice.  Instead, departments appreciate the mere fact that the applicant completed at least some college.  What they’ve majored in isn’t as important to agencies as most believe.   I’m not suggesting to talk someone out of a Criminal Justice degree if they’re determined it’s the only interest they have.  Rather, point out to them that tens-of thousands-of dollars on a Bachelor degree in Criminal Justice (way more for a Masters) is A LOT of money to spend, when most departments these days still require no degree, and the ones that do, usually require only about 60 hours of course work.  Let them know it’s not a bad idea to pursue education in something different than Criminal Justice if something doesn’t work out as a Police Officer.  Reasons could include incurring a career ending injury, being laid off or simply deciding after a few years on the job that they desire a different challenge.

Many young police applicants believe a “shotgun” approach is best when they’re actively applying and testing with departments.  It’s natural for someone to feel their odds of being hired are significantly better if they apply literally anywhere that will allow them.  Usually though, those who have applied at a dozen different agencies and are still looking, are likely on the wrong track.  Also, those who do eventually advance to a hiring process and have their background investigated, will likely be expected to answer for every department they have applied for and the reason (if they know) why they weren’t hired.  This becomes frustrating and exhausting for these applicants.  It can become difficult for them to explain, thus decreasing their chances of being hired.

A better approach when you are “soft recruiting” a potential applicant is to encourage them to apply for departments that “fit” their particular personality.  A more subdued applicant, who might enjoy (and excel at) interaction with the public -who doesn’t care so much about running around every shift with their hair on fire – probably shouldn’t apply for a large, very busy metropolitan department.  Conversely, a Type A potential officer won’t be content, nor well-suited, for a 4 stop light town, where half the shift is spent shaking downtown business doors (and maybe setting off some intrusion alarms, while he’s at it).  The world needs both types of officers, and the applicant should be encouraged to do some soul searching and self evaluation to determine what type of jurisdiction they are best suited to serve.

To keep enthusiastic potential applicants interested, there are a few things you can encourage them to do while they are applying for a position in law enforcement, whether it’s your agency or another.  First, advise them to set up a ride-along and briefly explain how to request one.  Most new potential applicants, especially younger ones, will want to ride on a weekend night for a potentially excitement filled shift.   That’s understandable.  However, explain to them that a ride-along is to get to know more about the department and determine if the agency is suited for them.  Explain that learning more about the department and its jurisdiction may give them an advantage during their oral interview.  Participating in a ride-along shows very good initiative!

Encourage eager potential applicants to get in shape for agility tests and medical evaluations if they advance in a process.  While you don’t want to give away anything confidential, discuss what types of questions they might face during an oral interview.  As we all know, the orals are where most candidates don’t make the cut.  There’s no question that departments lose some potentially excellent applicants when they find themselves in front of the interview panel.  Many have the false impression that there’s no way to prepare for an oral board.  That’s absolutely not the case!  Strongly encourage them to get to know more about the department they’re applying for and the community it serves, even if it’s not through a ride-along.  Knowing how the local government works and simple details, like the name of a Mayor or Chief, during interviews allows the applicant to stand out.  Also, make them aware that if asked a hypothetical question, regarding issuing their own mother a traffic citation, the answer is no!  The answer to any question about Mom is no – simply by default!

My five-year-old son, sometimes, gets so excited to go somewhere, he will put on shoes that don’t match.  Adults actively interested in pursuing a police career are often not much different.  I’ve always been perplexed by the number of candidates, who are far along in a department’s hiring process and don’t know for certain what the job pays, or what kind of retirement system and benefit package they will receive if they are fortunate enough to be hired.  It’s important that we let those who seek our input know there’s nothing wrong or annoying about consulting with their potential department to make sure they know what they are getting into, pay and benefit wise.  It’s their responsibility to themselves and their families to do so!  Another tip we can offer hopefuls is to key in on more than just the base salary a department offers, although it’s somewhat difficult to explain how a department with a starting base salary of $ 36,500 may put more money in a new officer’s wallet than one that starts off paying $ 40,000.  This is because the higher paying department might require a new officer to pay more out of pocket expenses for health insurance, retirement etc.  Also, many agencies may have strong pension plans, but their employees don’t pay Social Security. This means they will receive little, if any, Social Security benefit when they retire!   Many variables will influence how much money they take home while working and when they do finally retire.   Applicants must make salary and benefits their first “investigation.”  Let them know!

Make sure those who approach you with an interest in entering our profession realize they will need to be patient and not give up.  As we all know, the hiring process can be a “hurry up and wait” game.   Encourage and mentor these folks to the best of your ability.  They might be your backup on a call one of these days!   Take pride in the fact that, by giving a potential police candidate your undivided attention for 5 minutes, you’ve accomplished more for law enforcement community relations than some do in 5 years!

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