Section 1.4: Recruitment

Police Methods by Adam J. McKee

This article discusses the history of policing in the United States, and how it has evolved over time. It is important for Criminal Justice students to read this article because it provides a comprehensive overview of the evolution of policing in the United States, and how it has changed over time. This article is particularly relevant for students who are interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, as it provides a detailed look at the history of policing in the United States, and how it has evolved over time.

As students read this article, they should pay particular attention to the section on “The Rise and Fall of Traditional Patrol.” This section provides a detailed look at the history of policing in the United States and how it has evolved over time. Students should also pay attention to the section on “Purposes of Patrol,” which provides a detailed look at the role of patrol officers in law enforcement.

Overall, this article is an excellent resource for Criminal Justice students who are interested in learning more about the history of policing in the United States and how it has evolved over time. By reading this article, students will gain a better understanding of the role of law enforcement in society and how it has changed over time.

Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (task force) recognized that a police agency’s process for hiring new officers can be the foundation of effective, procedurally just policing. In its final report, the task force highlighted the importance of hiring officers who reflect the diversity and values of the community, and who have both the mindset and the skills needed to engage with the community. The task force encouraged states to establish high standards for who qualifies to be a police officer, and it recommended that agencies ensure that the officers they hire possess “the character traits and social skills that enable effective policing and positive community relationships.” 

The task force emphasized why the issue of hiring is so important to policing in the 21st century, but it did not go into great detail about how agencies can improve their hiring standards and procedures. That type of specific guidance was beyond the scope of the task force. However, as a follow-up to the task force’s report, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) organized a day-long forum titled “Hiring for the 21st Century Law Enforcement Officer.” Held on September 13, 2016, in Washington, D.C., the meeting brought together approximately 50 expert practitioners, primarily in the fields of police standards, screening, and hiring. The meeting was moderated by Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF.


  1. Hiring Candidates Who Share the Values and Vision of the Community and the Department

Traditionally, police agencies have used the hiring process primarily as a way to identify and exclude candidates who do not meet certain agency standards. Applicants who pass a basic written examination and other minimum entry requirements are put into a background investigation process that focuses almost exclusively on trying to uncover issues in the candidates’ backgrounds that would disqualify them from service. For some candidates, it feels as if they are being treated more like criminal suspects than job applicants.

Participants at the hiring forum did not discount the importance of weeding out candidates who lack the ethical foundation, moral compass, and basic capabilities to be a police officer. In fact, much of the discussion focused on how to improve systems and procedures to be more accurate, discerning, and efficient in identifying unsuitable candidates. 

However, many forum participants emphasized that in the 21st century, police agencies need to use the hiring process to do more than simply disqualify the negative. Agencies need to use that process to proactively identify and hire the positive—the candidates who possess the values, character traits, and capabilities that agencies are looking for in their employees. For many forum participants, that change in perspective about the basic purpose and ultimate value of the hiring process was seen as a critical first step toward improving the system and getting better outcomes.

What are those positive traits, characteristics, and skill sets that agencies need to hire for in the 21st century? And how can agencies measure and evaluate those qualities? While the answers to those questions will vary somewhat from agency to agency, forum participants offered some helpful suggestions. 

The first step is for agencies to clearly identify what specific traits and characteristics they are seeking in their officers. These are the qualities that go above and beyond the minimum standards that are established by many state Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies. Each agency’s list will be guided in large part by the policing philosophy of that agency. Still, forum participants identified a number of fundamental qualities that all agencies should embrace, which include the following:

  • Integrity
  • Service orientation
  • Empathy
  • Communication and human relations skills
  • Self-control
  • Team orientation
  • Problem-solving skills

Several forum participants noted that while the traditional approach to police hiring has skewed heavily toward the “warrior” aspects of the profession, agencies today need to focus attention on recruiting and hiring for the “guardian” role that police officers must be prepared to play. In fact, some forum participants argued that agencies should concentrate most of their attention on ensuring that applicants coming into the system have the necessary qualities of the guardian, because the warrior elements of the job can be taught. 

Identifying the key traits that applicants should possess must be more than an internal brainstorming session. Agencies should also solicit the input of community members. What are their expectations? What qualities and skills do residents, business owners, civic leaders, and others want to see in the officers who police their communities? After all, these are the people who are the primary recipients of police services, and they have a vested interest and a unique perspective on what constitutes effective policing. If agencies are not asking for the community’s input on the hiring process, they are not getting a complete and accurate picture of the workforce they should be looking to build.


Educational Requirements 

Forum participants generally agreed there is value in police officers having attained some level of higher education, but whether that should be a prerequisite for hiring remains a much debated topic. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, just 15 percent of local law enforcement agencies in the United States required their officers to have some level of college in 2013, and only 1 percent required a four-year degree. The large majority of agencies do not require more than a high-school diploma. However, departments serving a population of at least 1 million are more likely to require some college education; 29 percent of those big-city departments required at least a two-year college degree, and another 7 percent required some college education.

Higher education can be especially valuable for those officers who work in diverse, multi-cultural communities. Sean Smoot, a police labor official and task force member, said that the educational value of college comes not only from classroom instruction but also from exposure to new people and diverse ideas and opinions. “Folks who go to college tend to get exposed to other students and professors who come from various backgrounds that they weren’t exposed to in the town they grew up in,” Smoot said. Tucson, Arizona, Police Chief Chris Magnus noted that while online degree programs are increasingly popular, they do not provide the same level of exposure to new people and ideas that traditional colleges do.

The hiring forum included officials from two agencies that have recently gone in opposite directions when it comes to a college education requirement: 

  • The Miami Beach (Florida) Police Department recently added a four-year degree requirement for new officers. Major Wayne Jones explained the change this way: “We feel that if we’re going to be calling ourselves professionals, we need to have a well-educated group of candidates to choose from.” The department has targeted its recruitment efforts at colleges and universities, and has been successful in meeting its numerical hiring goals and attracting high-quality candidates. Major Jones said that to bolster recruiting of female candidates, the department recruits heavily at universities with strong women’s athletic programs.
  • The New Orleans (Louisiana) Police Department (NOPD), on the other hand, in 2015 dropped its requirement that candidates have 60 college credits, and reverted to requiring only a high school diploma. The change was largely an effort to attract a larger and more diverse applicant pool, which has proven successful. Jonathan Wisbey, NOPD Deputy Chief of Staff, reported that after the change was made, the number of applicants increased five-fold, to 1,500 during a two-month period. The department discovered that 25 to 30 percent of the applicants they are currently processing would not have qualified under the previous requirements. Many had at least some college credits, just not the 60 credits required. NOPD also has brought in people with additional life experience and employment history, whose communications and human relations skills may be more developed than a 21-year-old who just graduated from college.

 While the NOPD no longer requires two years of college at the time of hiring, the department has sent a clear signal that it values higher education. For example, it offers access to free tuition programs and reimbursements for textbooks and other expenses.  

Physical Fitness Standards 

Requiring officer candidates to demonstrate a level of physical fitness is important to the agency and to the candidate, forum participants agreed. Being a police officer is a physically demanding job, and officers need to be prepared to engage in strenuous and potentially dangerous physical activity. That basic requirement has not changed for the 21st century police officer. 

However, forum participants noted that there is little consistency in the physical fitness standards from state to state and from agency to agency. With some exceptions, the basic standards that officer candidates must achieve today have not changed very much, they said. Importantly, forum participants also questioned whether the current standards were an appropriate measure of the tasks that officers really need to be able to do, and whether the standards are biased against certain candidates, especially women. 

For example, many states and agencies require candidates to complete a set number of push-ups during a one- or two-minute test. The push-up test is designed to assess upper-body strength and muscular endurance. But as COPS Office Director Ronald L. Davis pointed out, “What you really want to know is, do they have the strength to control somebody who resists? Why not test them on that? Test to see if they can take down a person and handcuff them. If they can do that, then why would I care about push-ups?” 


Several forum participants also said that fitness should not be viewed as simply a one-time test that officers need to pass at the beginning of their careers. Rather, agencies should make fitness—physical, emotional, and even “financial fitness”—a priority throughout an officer’s career. Some agencies are taking this shift in thinking to heart. 


Still Need to “Screen Out the Negative”

Forum participants said it is important for agencies to use the hiring process proactively—as a way to attract and retain those candidates who share the agency’s values and who possess the key character traits and capabilities that the agency is looking for. At the same time, it is essential that agencies use the process to identify and screen out those candidates who do not possess the needed values and character traits, as well as those who are unethical, explicitly biased, or otherwise unfit to serve. 

Traditionally, certain behaviors uncovered in the background investigation process have been almost automatic disqualifiers for many agencies: past drug use and financial problems, for example. But as the candidate pool has changed, and as social mores and even some drug laws have evolved over time, agencies have reconsidered some of their traditional thinking about candidates’ histories and prior activities. At the same time, agencies have also been forced to re-evaluate some of the tools, such as polygraph exams, voice stress analyzers, and psychological screenings, that they have relied on in the past. 

These changes are adding further complications to a hiring process that, in many cases, was already cumbersome to begin with. The hiring forum offered a variety of new perspectives on these issues.

Of all the hiring issues confronting police agencies today, one of the most complicated and vexing is the issue of past drug use among applicants—in particular, past marijuana use. 

Part of the complication stems from the fact that Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana have shifted dramatically in recent years. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans think marijuana use should be legal in the United States, compared to 36 percent in 2005. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and another 21 states have legalized medical marijuana. Today’s police officer candidates are entering the workforce at a time when marijuana use is becoming increasingly normalized, even legalized, in the United States.

Given this changing landscape, some police agencies are confronting the issue of how to address past marijuana use among their officer candidates. The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and most agencies strictly prohibit its use by current officers and officer candidates. 

The challenge for police agencies is how to effectively screen out candidates whose performance would be impacted by past drug use, without pushing out otherwise strong candidates who may have used marijuana recreationally in the past but whose performance would not be affected. 

Traditionally, police agencies have addressed this issue by establishing numeric thresholds on past marijuana use for screening out their officer candidates. The thresholds typically cover either (1) the total number of times that a candidate used marijuana throughout his or her life, (2) how recently they used marijuana, or (3) a combination of the two. For example, in the State of Maryland, police applicants are automatically disqualified if they used marijuana more than 20 times throughout the course of their lives, more than 5 times since turning age 21, or any time in the last three years. Agencies can petition the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions (PCTC) for an exemption on an individual candidate, but they cannot obtain a waiver of the entire rule.


Dealing with bias—Explicit and Implicit 

Another issue explored in the hiring forum was the presence of racial or other bias among applicants and whether bias can be accurately singled out and measured. Forum participants agreed that explicit bias – attitudes and beliefs that exist on a conscious level and that control one’s judgment and behavior toward certain people – must be an automatic disqualifier. However, the issue gets more complex when implicit bias becomes part of the equation.

Implicit bias refers to bias in judgment or behavior that results from subtle attitudes and stereotypes that usually exist below the level of conscious awareness and which the individual does not intentionally control. Most social scientists agree that every person harbors various types of implicit bias, so finding officer candidates who are 100 percent bias-free is an unrealistic expectation. Rather, forum participants agreed, the key to effective hiring is to weed out candidates who display explicit bias and work to acknowledge and provide training for implicit bias.

Mark Kirschner of Behavioral Health Consultants said there is no accurate, validated test for measuring bias. He noted that the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) has a tolerance scale that provides one measure of an individual’s acceptance of different attitudes and viewpoints. However, neither the CPI nor other commonly used psychological tests provide a definitive measure of bias that police agencies can rely on. 

Forum participants said that background investigators need to look to other sources of information that may uncover bias. For example, a candidate’s biases often emerge through their social media posts, and many agencies are taking a closer look at applicants’ Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts for signs of explicit bias or other conduct that might call into question their suitability to be a police officer.

Other participants noted that the search for biased attitudes and behavior should not stop at the initial hiring process. David Rodgers, CEO of Tribal Public Safety Innovations, said all agencies should closely monitor the field training and probationary periods for any signs of bias among new officers. Sean Smoot of the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association said there should be specific criteria or metrics that field training officers should use in evaluating bias among their trainees.  

Providing Context for Financial Responsibility Issues

Until a few years ago, candidates who filed for personal bankruptcy, defaulted on a loan, or had other serious financial problems were often automatically disqualified from the hiring process. At the time, it was thought that personal financial difficulties represented a failure to follow through on one’s obligations and even posed a major integrity issue by making candidates susceptible to bribery.

However, following the Great Recession of 2007-09, which was the longest recession since World War II and was considered particularly severe, the number of people in the workforce or entering the workforce with a history of financial problems has grown markedly. Faced with these economic realities, some police agencies have adjusted their thinking on how personal financial problems should affect eligibility for hiring. Rather than treating these types of situations as automatic disqualifiers, agencies are now taking a more detailed look at the underlying issues and their context. Forum participants said that in the new economy, agencies need to be able to distinguish between unfortunate circumstances and grossly negligent or criminal activity when it comes to job applicants’ personal finances. 


Among agencies represented at the hiring forum, approximately half said they use a polygraph exam as part of their hiring process. Some states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, prohibit polygraph use in police hiring, while other states such as Arizona and Washington mandate it. Some forum participants expressed concern that use of the polygraph may be inappropriate because applicants may be offended by having to go through such a procedure, particularly for a position that increasingly is seen as requiring high-level skills and professionalism. Others defended the polygraph as an effective way to uncover issues with honesty and integrity, two of the key qualities the public demands of its police officers. 

Among major cities, Chicago and Los Angeles have adopted the polygraph within past decade. Other agencies, such as Morrisville, North Carolina, have opted for the voice stress analyzer (VSA) as an alternative to the polygraph; some have suggested the VSA has a better track record in detecting dishonesty.

Most agencies that use the polygraph do so in conjunction with a pre-polygraph personal information booklet. It establishes a baseline against which the truthfulness of a candidate’s answers can be measured.

Although the polygraph continues to be widely used in police hiring, Hiring Forum participants discussed a number of issues and concerns that agencies should consider when using the polygraph. One key issue is the science of the polygraph itself. Noting that polygraphs cannot be used in most criminal court cases, Tucson Police Chief Magnus expressed concern that candidates were being disqualified on the basis of science that has not been well defended or universally accepted. Other participants questioned whether the ability to pass a polygraph during the hiring process is an accurate predictor of integrity and honesty later on. They pointed to cases such as Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles police officer who passed a polygraph exam but killed five people in 2013. Forum participants said that agencies should not be lulled into a false sense that the polygraph immunizes agencies from misconduct or criminal behavior by officers later in their careers.

Psychological Tests 

Forum participants also discussed the role of psychological exams in the police hiring process. Experts at the forum emphasized the importance of ensuring that exams are standardized, validated, and normed for the particular population being tested (in this case, police officer candidates). Dr. Evan Axelrod, Director of Psychological Preemployment Evaluations at Nicoletti-Flater Associates, said that in recent years a growing body of research on tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and the California Psychological Inventory is helping to ensure the tests are empirically based and validated specifically for police and other public safety personnel.

Dr. Axelrod said the bigger concern is ensuring that psychologists who conduct tests for police agencies are adequately trained and qualified. He said there are psychologists who “hang up a shingle and say they can do psychological testing,” but often those psychologists are not specifically trained in police and public safety psychology. He urged agencies to scrutinize their psychologists carefully and ensure that they have the appropriate skills and training.

Reviewing Candidates From Other Agencies

For agencies that hire experienced officers who previously worked in other departments, there is a special concern: ensuring that the officer did not leave the first agency under allegations or findings of misconduct. The situation is not uncommon. An officer facing misconduct charges in one agency may be allowed to resign, and the investigation closed. This arrangement enables the officer to maintain state certification as he or she begins looking for other positions. Agencies that are eager to hire experienced, trained, and certified officers—and thus avoid the time and expense of conducting a complete background investigation and providing a full training program—may hire the officer, not knowing about the investigation or misconduct. In parts of St. Louis County, Missouri, for example, the practice is common enough that it has earned its own name: the “muni shuffle.”

To combat this problem, forum participants emphasized that agencies need to thoroughly vet all candidates, including licensed or certified officers who come from other agencies. This means doing more than relying on a phone call to the original agency to verify employment dates and other basic information. Instead, agencies should conduct a thorough follow-up investigation with the original agency to include, whenever possible, a site visit, a review of documentation, and face-to-face meetings with personnel who are knowledgeable about the candidate’s work history. 

Access to the candidate’s personnel files should not be an issue; in most instances, candidates who have an application pending sign a waiver that allows the employing agency to access the applicant’s personnel files. The problem, according to many forum participants, is that agencies don’t take the time to avail themselves of those records. 

However, forum participants noted that there are cases in which the original agency destroys the records of its investigation or refuses to disclose the investigation to another agency. In some cases involving employment disputes, the agency may be prohibited under terms of a legal settlement from discussing any investigation it may have conducted.


To help combat the problem on a national level, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) developed the National Decertification Index (NDI). The NDI serves as a national registry of administrative actions by the nation’s POST agencies related to officer misconduct. Original grant funding for the development and the operation of the NDI was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance. Currently, IADLEST funds the NDI from its own limited resources as a service for the law enforcement profession.

While the NDI provides a valuable resource for agencies looking to hire experienced officers from other agencies, especially from other states, the system does have some shortcomings: 

  • Only 40 states currently contribute to the NDI, and because the system is voluntary, there is no mechanism to compel the others to join. In Virginia, for example, police chiefs often support the NDI, but city attorneys and human resources personnel have resisted, largely because Virginia already has a state-level decertification system, according to Deputy Chief Patrick Gallagher of the Virginia Beach Police Department.
  • The minimum standard criterion for reporting an action against an officer to the NDI is revocation. Each state POST board determines independently what will be reported and how access to its records will be granted. Agencies can report more than the minimum standard. Consequently, the information can vary from only instances in which an officer’s license or certificate was actually revoked to instances in which officers resigned while under investigation or received lesser disciplinary sanctions and maintained their license or certificate. 
  • The NDI is not widely known or used. In a show of hands at the forum, only a small percentage of agencies indicated that they regularly used the NDI.  

Brian Grisham, Director of the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy and President of IADLEST, noted that the task force recommended that the NDI be expanded to include coverage in all states and territories, and that reporting be more standardized nationally.10 COPS Office Director Davis stressed that IADLEST, not the federal government, operates and maintains the NDI. The NDI must continue to be a “profession-wide database in which we can help 18,000 agencies make informed decisions when they’re hiring and hold the profession accountable,” Davis said.


2. Making the Hiring Process More Efficient

There was broad agreement among participants at the Hiring Forum that the process for hiring police officers in the United States is often plagued by inefficiency and a lack of urgency. Compared with most other professions, the police hiring process is slow, cumbersome, overly bureaucratic, and not very user friendly for the applicant. In some jurisdictions, it can be a year or more from the time an individual submits an application to when a successful candidate begins police academy training. 

For decades, police agencies have used largely the same process, and there has been little incentive to change, because traditionally, there were more applicants than there were vacant officer positions. Many of the people entering the policing profession came from families of officers who went through the same process themselves, so there was little expectation that things would be done any differently. Agencies were able to fill their ranks using protocols that had served them well for years.

Recently, however, those dynamics have shifted dramatically. Police officer vacancies have risen, with some large departments suddenly looking to fill several hundred positions. At the same time, the candidate pool has diversified beyond the core group of applicants who joined the profession over generations. Fewer candidates are coming from traditional “police families.” More are coming with college degrees that provide them with greater flexibility to consider other careers, especially if those professions can complete the hiring process more efficiently and get recent graduates on the payroll more quickly.

Perhaps the biggest change has been generational. Candidates entering the workforce today are largely Millennials and, now, members of Generation Z as well. These individuals grew up with technology that allows them to obtain information on almost any subject in seconds, or to purchase goods and obtain 30 Hiring for the 21st Century Law Enforcement Officer them overnight, rather than waiting days or weeks for delivery. Participants at the hiring forum said that these younger generations can be impatient, making them less likely to tolerate a police hiring process that can last months, is largely paper-driven, and can be frustratingly opaque to the applicant.


3. Advancing Diversity and Inclusiveness in Hiring

Police agencies are facing renewed pressure to hire and train more officers, and to get them on the beat quickly. Ensuring quality and efficiency in the hiring process is critical to meeting the needs and expectations of the community. At the same time they are improving efficiency, agencies must work to ensure their hiring systems are advancing the goals of fairness, diversity, and inclusiveness as well. These ideals are especially important as communities grow more diverse, and as relationships between police and residents remain strained in many cities. Residents want their police agencies’ demographics to resemble the community’s. They also expect their police officers to be able to relate to their community, to understand its strengths and its challenges, and to solve community problems.

Participants at the hiring forum explored ways to advance diversity and inclusiveness within the police hiring process. They also discussed how to ensure that elements of the hiring process itself—in particular, the selection and actions of background investigators—are compatible with an agency’s hiring goals and priorities. 

“Grow Your Own” 

Much of this discussion at the Hiring Forum centered on the notion of agencies “growing their own” talent. In other words, agencies looking to promote diversity and cultural competency within their ranks should focus on recruiting and developing officers from the communities that the agency serves. 

Being from a community does not necessarily guarantee that an individual can become an effective police officer in that community. And there is nothing to preclude someone who is recruited from outside a community from becoming an effective, community-oriented, culturally competent police officer. 

Still, hiring forum participants emphasized the value of “growing your own.” Officers who are from the community often will have more insights and perspectives about the community. And hiring from the community strengthens the community by providing opportunities for professional growth among residents, in particular young people. Both of these benefits can strengthen critical bonds of trust between police and residents.


Source:  COPS Office / PERF.  Hiring for the 21st Century Law Enforcement Officer


Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  12/03/2023

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