Section 5.1: Recruitment, Selection, and Training

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

While the precise nature of every law enforcement agency is different, all agencies share human resources as the most expensive part of their budget.  The recruitment, selection, and training of high-quality officers should be a high priority. Recruitment and training are very expensive. The selection of candidates who do not complete the training process and high turnover rates among those who do cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.  Many people are drawn to police work for various reasons, including excitement, government pay and benefits, and the opportunity to help people.

For many, these job expectations are unrealistic, and they soon find that they are not “cut out” for police work.  Many good officers leave police departments to take on better-paying jobs with specialized state and local law enforcement agencies.  Some leave the profession altogether, finding more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Law enforcement agencies should carefully consider why an individual wants to become a police officer in the first place.

Bringing the right type of people into law enforcement is another major aspect of any effort to improve the police profession and address the violence issue. Most discussions of police reform have touched on the importance of recruitment and selection as a long-term strategy for improvement. Although this may be obvious, they are difficult problems in and of themselves and, in addition, also a source of conflict between the police and the community.

The source of conflict is disagreement over what type of person is best able to handle the responsibilities of a police officer. One continuing debate is the amount and type of education appropriate for a police officer. Another debate involves the police agency’s racial makeup. While there is general agreement on the need for a police department to reflect the makeup of the community it serves, there is considerable disagreement on how that balance should be attained. The courts have put to rest some of the physical requirements thought to be important for the police for so many years. But the question of the psychological make-up of an officer—and how it should be measured—has yet to be resolved.

Although there is a wide range of opinions on what type of person is best suited to handle the rigors of the job, three factors are considered vital in terms of violence between the police and the community. These factors should be incorporated into the overall process of recruiting and selecting police officers:

  1. The department should have a ratio of employees of color and national origin that
    reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
  2. Continued emphasis should be placed on bringing into law enforcement people
    reflecting a variety of college disciplines.
  3. Individuals should be psychologically suited to handle the requirements of the


Once an agency decides what type of individual it wants as an officer, it needs to develop a recruitment plan. Many departments limit their recruiting efforts to local newspaper advertisements when positions are open. This method will usually produce a pool of applicants. However, the type of individual sought may not respond to newspaper advertisements.

It is not unusual to hear in police circles that selection criteria are extremely rigid and that only 1 or 2 out of 10 applicants will survive the entire process and be offered a position.  One could also make a convincing argument that recruitment efforts are not very effective if 8 or 9 of 10 applicants cannot survive the recruiting process. Perhaps the effort devoted to processing applicants unsuited to becoming police officers could be redirected to recruiting the right type of applicant. The point here is that the recruiting method should be carefully designed to attract the type of applicant desired.

Law enforcement agencies use a variety of approaches to recruit applicants. Some send recruiting teams to “career days” on college campuses, while others send recruiters to various cities to look for experienced police officers. Still others concentrate recruiting resources on their immediate geographic area. Many departments have made use of the local news media through feature stories, public service announcements, and Internet job postings. Some have also used business and corporate assistance to develop brochures that provide accurate information about what the department offers. An agency may need to circulate its recruitment announcements using a number of methods, such as sending them to a diverse group of community leaders, setting up a table at community meetings, shopping malls, schools, colleges, and community gathering places.

A factor that has an immense impact but is often not addressed effectively in recruiting plans is the influence of existing members of the police organization. Negative attitudes of individual officers about their job and the department may cause potential applicants to look elsewhere for employment. On the other hand, positive attitudes may exist for the wrong reasons—for example, because the department has an image as a place for “macho,” TV-style cops.

Therefore, it is important that the recruiting plan and its underlying rationale be shared with all employees so they have a clear understanding of the department’s objectives. Employees can serve as excellent recruiters if they know these objectives and appreciate the critical importance of their jobs. Employees can also better discuss some of those issues often put forth as impediments to attracting high-quality applicants. For example, they can speak directly to issues such as low pay and the difficulties of shift work. They are in the best position to talk about positive as well as negative aspects of a police career.

The objective of a recruiting program should be to attract a large enough pool of desirable applicants to fill department vacancies. This does not mean that the only measure of the recruiting effort should be the number of people who complete employment applications. If a department needs a higher ratio of employees from different racial and ethnic groups to reflect the community, and the only people completing applications are not from desired groups or do not meet basic requirements, then the objective is obviously not being met. The recruiting plan must contain relevant and measurable objectives that are monitored to ensure every effort is being made to meet them.


Selection. After an individual has expressed an interest in becoming a police officer, most departments begin a process that involves a series of steps designed to aid in making the selection decision. The selection process continues to receive a great deal of attention. Arbitrary selection standards that were common in the past have been eliminated by courts and other actions. Further research should be conducted by the human resources department of a police department to establish a sound selection process.

The close examination of this process has underscored its importance. It has also helped focus attention on developing a better understanding of the police officer’s job and on including steps that measure whether a candidate has the potential for meeting those requirements. Even with these improvements, a number of selection issues have continued to generate considerable controversy. Two of these, educational requirements and psychological screening, are measures believed to have potential for reducing violence between the police and community. However, these alternatives obviously would take years to change the make-up of a department. In many departments, psychological screening and educational requirements cannot be imposed upon individuals currently employed.

Educational issues have been a long-standing topic of discussion in law enforcement circles. As early as 1931, the Wickersham Commission report noted the need for higher levels of education. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended in its Police task force report that officers should have a minimum of two years of college and supervisors and administrators should have four years.7 The National Commission on Police Standards and Goals established a standard in its Police report, published in 1973, that by 1983 a basic entry-level requirement should be a baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university.  It is now thought that a diversity of degrees is preferable to only criminal justice degrees to avoid similarity of thinking among officers and to avoid limiting the broad experience required for an effective law enforcement agency.

These reports were followed by many other calls for similar requirements, but the reality has been that few departments have actually made any changes in entry-level educational requirements. A 1985 report published by the Police Executive Research Forum, The  American Law Enforcement Chief Executive: A Management Profile, noted: “In 1976 the Police Chief Executive Committee recommended the immediate institution of a four-year college degree for new chief executives of all agencies with 75 or more full-time employees. Nearly ten years later, almost 50-percent of those officials still do not possess a baccalaureate degree.”

If it is not possible to make much progress at the top, the entry-level standards will be extremely slow to change. It is not within the scope of this publication to set forth all of the arguments for vigorously pursuing the upgrading of entry-level requirements. Regardless, many believe that an entry-level requirement of a bachelors’ degree would go a long way towards addressing a number of problems in law enforcement, including violence between police and the community.

The psychological fitness of police officers is also of major importance in addressing the violence issue. A police officer has considerable discretion in the manner in which day to-day responsibilities are fulfilled. This discretion extends to the use of force. One method to improve the prediction of whether an individual is able to handle police responsibilities is a psychological evaluation. Although many departments do not use  psychological screening in the selection process, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies has established the following as a mandatory standard for all agencies:

32.6.6 An emotional stability and psychological fitness examination of each candidate is conducted, prior to appointment to probationary status, using valid, useful, and nondiscriminatory procedures.

Commentary: Law enforcement work is highly stressful and places officers in positions and situations of heavy responsibility. Psychiatric and psychological assessments are needed to screen out candidates who might not be able to carry out their responsibilities or endure the stress of the working conditions.

The importance that the Commission on Accreditation has placed on this area by making it a mandatory standard is obvious. If an agency does not currently use this tool in the selection process, it will take a number of years for its adoption to have an effect on the organization, but it would be a positive step towards minimizing future problems.


Training can have a significant impact on all aspects of police service delivery and is of critical importance in the control of police-community violence. A Police Foundation study on the use of deadly force published in 1977 noted: “In the course of this study police chiefs and administrators were asked what steps they would consider most likely to bring about a reduction in unnecessary shootings by police officers. The most common response was to recommend a tight firearms policy coupled with an effective training program.”

While one can generally agree with this response, findings in the 1982 International Association of Chiefs of Police report, A Balance of Forces, also need to be considered:


In-service crisis intervention training as opposed to preservice training was associated with a low justifiable homicide rate by police.

Agencies with simulator, stress, and physical exertion firearms training experience a higher justifiable homicide rate by police than agencies without such training.

Marksmanship awards given to officers for proficiency in firearms training are associated with a high justifiable homicide rate by the police.

In-service training in the principles of “officer survival” is correlated with a high justifiable homicide rate by the police.

These findings clearly suggest that when it comes to training police officers, both the type of training and the approach to training police officers must be carefully examined. In examining this area, Herman Goldstein makes several pertinent observations on police entry-level training in Policing a Free Society:

The success of training is commonly measured in terms of the number of hours of classroom work. Eight weeks is considered 100 percent improvement over four weeks…those who have analyzed the status of recruit training have found much that is wrong…the programs are structured to convey only one point of view on controversial matters in a manner intended to avoid open discussion.

…there is an unreal quality in the training program in the emphasis placed on military protocol, in their narrow concept of the police function, and in their according-to-the book teaching of police operations.

…they tend to portray the police officer’s job as a rigid one, largely dictated by law, ignoring the tremendous amount of discretion officers are required to exercise.

…training programs fail to achieve the minimal goal of orienting a new employee to his job…failure to equip officers to understand the built-in stresses of their job…officers are left to discover on their own the binds in which society places them…

If recruit training is inadequate, in-service training is more so.

In Goldstein’s observations, one begins to understand some of the limitations of automatically turning to training to solve all problems. Perhaps it also suggests why some training programs may be associated with a higher rate of police justifiable homicides. A more recent observation in this area is made by Scharf and Binder in The Badge and the Bullet:

Our analysis suggests a framework in which to analyze training related to police deadly force. Few training programs have attempted to conceptualize the varied and complex competencies necessary to implement a responsible deadly force policy. Most training…focuses upon one or possibly two isolated competencies. Shooting simulators attempt to train police officers to quickly identify threats against them. Some crisis intervention training approaches focus almost exclusively upon the verbal skills useful in dealing with a limited range of disputes. If training is to be effective in reducing the aggregate number of police shootings, it must focus on multiple psychological dimensions, emphasizing those capacities that might influence police behavior in a wide range of armed confrontations. Also, such training should be conducted in environments simulating the complex, and often bewildering, conditions in which deadly force episodes usually take place. From our observations, this approach to shooting training is rare in police departments.


Scharf and Binder’s observations indicate a need to rethink the approach to firearms training and, at the same time, reinforce Goldstein’s observations almost 10 years earlier on training in general. Both observations, however, seem to suggest that the advantages to be gained from training will not be realized until programs go beyond teaching a single response to complex situations. The focus should be on training and developing a “thinking police officer” who analyzes situations and responds in the appropriate manner based upon a value system such as this publication proposes.

This is obviously a much different approach to training than has been used in law enforcement. It requires consideration of a total situation as opposed to focusing solely on the final “shoot/don’t shoot” decision. This does not mean that many of the components of current training programs should be dropped. They need to be tied together into a decision-making framework that causes officers to make decisions in earlier stages of responding to a call or handling an incident. This would minimize the risk of a situation evolving to a point where the use of firearms is required to protect someone’s life.  

In support of a new approach to police training, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department psychologists Marcia C. Mills and John G. Stratton reported findings in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in February 1982 that “The nature of academy training and type of services actually provided are often discrepant. Seventy to 90 percent of police training is devoted to crime control, laws, and police procedures, while frequently 70 to 90 percent of subsequent job duties are devoted to interpersonal communication and interaction.”

Law Enforcement Jobs Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), the median income for police officers and detectives in 2010 (the most recent statistics available) was $55,010 per year (or $26.45 per hour).  There were 794,300 such jobs in the United States, and the expected growth rate over the next decade is projected to be around 7%. Of course, this does not reflect the fact that local political and economic conditions are a major factor in any particular agency’s decision to hire new officers.  The prediction is that local agencies will do most of the new hiring, and that federal jobs will remain very competitive. According to the BJS, average starting salaries for entry-level local police officers in 2007 ranged from $26,600 per year in the smallest jurisdictions to $49,500 in the largest.  Overall, the average starting salary earned by entry-level officers was about $40,500. More than 90% of local police departments serving 25,000 or more residents were using in-field computers during 2007.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading

COPS Office (2023).  Recruitment and Retention for the Modern Law Enforcement Agency.


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  10/18/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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