Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

While a lot of people find their dream job in law enforcement, recruitment and retention of valuable candidates remains an issue for many agencies. This may be due to local issues including limited agency budgets or competition of qualified applicants from other agencies. The importance of attracting and retaining qualified staff combined with the needs of providing important law enforcement services to the community makes human resources an important element in the organization of a police department and any law enforcement agency.

law enforcement jobs recruitment and hiring process

Given the fact that the police officer recruitment process is quite complicated and only the best candidates make it to receiving a job offer, it is very important to have the necessary tools to attract and retain qualified people for the job.

Below, we have compiled a short guide on how to understand the police officer recruitment process, the peculiarities of the labor market in the sphere of law enforcement, and why recruitment and retention issues should be a priority for police departments.

Main recruitment problems faced by law enforcement agencies

Recognizing the problems a law enforcement agency has with recruitment and retention is the first step to solving them. Many law enforcement agencies admit that they face issues with finding and keeping qualified personnel, however they do not make this a priority. This is one of the main problems. The others are related to:

  • Lack of strategic planning for recruitment
  • Lack of understanding of the market
  • Lack of modern marketing and advertising techniques

In order to attract qualified candidates, you need to make the position appealing for them. This is right for any sphere and even more for law enforcement. Since the work at a police department, for example, is related to many responsibilities and potentially dangerous situations and interactions, the position needs to be advertised in a proper way.

One of the ways to attract more applicants for a given position is to advertise it in several places. You can use the agency site to post the vacancies but this is far from enough. There are many specialized sites that list job openings in the field of law enforcement and you need to take advantage of this option as well. Using local media such as radio, newspapers, magazines is also a way of announcing that you are recruiting. The more candidates you are able to get to apply for the position, the greater opportunity you will have to choose the best for the position.

Some of the agencies have issues with finding candidates because they are located in remote areas. In this case the position can be promoted by listing the advantages of working in a rural area, for example, or presenting the career growth opportunities in a sheriff’s department.

Another common problem is the lack of resources. As per the report published by The Rand Corporation, in California 74% of the local law enforcement agencies allocate less than $5,000 for recruitment on annual basis and about half have no recruitment budget at all. The problem, however, exists in almost every state and is not typical only for the Golden State. This, unfortunately is combined with the fact that about 70% of the police agencies nationwide have no specific recruiting team to deal with this lengthy process.

Given the problems above, it is obvious that certain measures need to be taken in order to improve the recruitment process in the law enforcement agencies.

Five tips to improve recruitment

One of the sources for inspiration on how to deal with recruitment issues can come from the military, since law enforcement and military agencies have a lot in common. In both spheres there is a hierarchical system and the new recruit enters at the bottom and gets promoted to higher ranks in due course. To that extent, some of the research and analysis done for the military, which are shared with police departments, can help establish patterns that will work for the law enforcement as well. There are many examples and good practices that law enforcement can take from the military, however there is also one main difference – as we mentioned above many police departments lack recruitment budget and personnel, while the military has an established system in the field.

Therefore, Nelson Lim of the Rand Corporation suggested five ways in which local law enforcement agencies can improve their recruitment process without allocating more resources to it:

  1. One person in charge of recruiting

The first suggestion Lim makes is to put one single person who is in charge of the entire process of recruitment, which should feature all elements. The person should be responsible for the marketing of the position, testing and background check of candidates, as well as about the academy training. Such a recruiting manager should have full mandate from the police chief and civic leaders in order to make the entire process coherent and with less to no omissions.

  1. More publicity about vacancies

According to Lim, there is insufficient publicity about the open positions and the fact that agencies are hiring. This needs to be changed in order to have a successful start of the recruitment process. In some cases, it is not clear that there are vacancies and even people sitting the test for getting into an agency are not sure whether there is a hiring process taking place or not. The agencies should use all options in order to attract more candidates. They can put adds on billboards, ask officers to spread the word, publicize in social media, the local press and sites listing law enforcement job openings. Putting HR contact details on business cards is yet another possibility. Lim also suggests that law enforcement agencies should make their websites more attractive. This can be done by providing more and detailed information about the entire recruitment process and its elements and even publishing a sample test.

  1. Identifying potential markets that are not yet exploited

Lim suggests to improve the out-of-town recruiting trips by using some intelligence to identify potential markets. This can be areas with economic problems, where people are finding it difficult to find work or where there are no openings in the local law enforcement departments. This can be used even within bigger cities – to identify the neighborhoods where more eligible candidates could be found. Generally, there are not many people who are willing to move to a great distance in order to start a job. Many of the problems that agencies face with retention are also related to this factor – people returning to their home town after a few years at a given department. Therefore, hiring locally or from areas that offer no better alternatives is a smart move.

  1. Identifying viable applicants

Not all candidates are capable of working successfully. Therefore, agencies should be able to identify the most viable candidates and target them. Priority should be given to those applicants that have higher viability, which should also make the entire recruitment system work more efficiently.

  1. Introducing performance indicators for recruiters and background investigators

Recruiters and background investigators have different success levels. Local law enforcement agencies should introduce performance indicators that measure the success of those employees and respectively award and encourage those with higher rates. As we mentioned that there are budget restrictions when it comes to recruitment, the incentives offered to top performers may not be financial. There can be certificates for employee of the month or of the year and rewards in the form of dinner with the police department chief or the mayor (in smaller towns).

These are five simple measures that could significantly boost the recruitment rates in local law enforcement agencies without harming their overall budget. Implementing even one of them will lead to better recruitment results for the given agency.

How to improve retention

Retention is directly related to the recruitment process and it also needs to be improved in order to make the entire system work seamlessly. Often agencies recruit the best candidates only to lose them. Basically, there are two reasons why people quit a job and they are valid for law enforcement agencies as well:

  • External

The external reasons are related to the economic situation at the moment. In other words, officers may leave their job because they can find better conditions elsewhere or there are other related jobs that are paying better.

  • Internal

The internal reasons are usually prevailing. They can also be referred to as personal – lack of recognition, no possibilities for training and career growth, unmet salary expectations, unpleasant working environment. One of the main internal reasons is also having problems with the direct supervisor. It is often said that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.

In order to prevent these problems, law enforcement agencies should take the necessary measures. They need to identify the reasons that make officers leave but also the reasons that make them stay. Agencies can conduct interviews with officers who have been in the job longer to help them understand what makes a person stay and try to offer more such incentives.

By all means, offering adequate salaries and career growth options are among the best measures a law enforcement agency can undertake to retain its staff. Helping officers obtain recognition and meaning at their job is also very important. It can be achieved by offering career assessment and counseling.

Another way to improve retention levels is by making supervisors responsible for it. This is applicable in the larger agencies, though, and not in smaller departments with limited staff number.

The agencies should also try to offer varied work experience to its officers, so that they can see which part of the work they like better and pursue further development and/or growth. This can be achieved through cross-training or shadowing.

As a whole, there are various ways to retain qualified personnel, some of which are related to financial incentives, while others are more personal like growth and development. The combination of both makes a given law enforcement agency a desired employer and will help it retain its staff.

Most law enforcement agencies share the same problems related to recruitment and retention of qualified staff regardless of their location and size. Admitting the problem and actively working towards its resolution is a necessary move. The tips and facts above will help any agency minimize its attrition rates and find and keep the staff it needs. Becoming a law enforcement officer is a goal for many young people who keep browsing the job openings in order to find the most attractive offer. Therefore, each agency should find the best possible way to attract and keep those candidates. The guidelines given above can make the recruitment process much smoother and producing better results, while the budget of the agency stays intact.


  • “Police Recruitment and Retention in the Contemporary Urban Environment” by Jeremy M. Wilson, Clifford A. Grammich, published by Rand Corporation