Bidding wars: Police agencies dangle incentives to attract new recruits, transfers

California

Last of three parts

It pays to be seeking a job as a cop these days in Southern California.

Throughout the region, law enforcement agencies — desperate to fill vacancies in sworn personnel spurred by an exodus of experienced officers and a lag in recruiting new ones — are dangling all kinds of incentives at job applicants.

Signing bonuses seem to be the most common enticement for both new recruits and so-called lateral transfers, experienced officers who are willing to move from one agency to another.

In Inglewood, for example, the city is offering a $40,000 bonus for lateral transfers, $30,000 for police academy graduates, $15,000 for candidates with a bachelor’s degree and $10,000 for military veterans.

Long Beach, Riverside, Pomona, El Monte are among several other agencies offering signing bonuses. And after some hesitation, the Los Angeles Police Department just recently jumped on the bandwagon as well. The LAPD also says some well-qualified recruits may be eligible for a rent stipend of up to $1,000 a month for up to two years.

Other incentives are being offered as well for those who want to wear the badge.

Torrance has been offering a $1,000 housing allocation, child-care subsidies and lodging for out-of-state candidates. Riverside gives new hires 40 hours of vacation time available as soon as they start. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department offers new recruits the benefit of going straight to work patrolling the streets upon graduating from the academy, bypassing typical stints working the jails.

More than 40 newly sworn deputies began patrol duty after graduating from the academy on March 9, said Sgt. Cathy Tabor of the department’s employee resources division that oversees recruitment and hiring.

“Historically, I don’t think there’s ever been a time we sent 40 people straight to patrol from the academy,” Tabor said.

All the agencies with significant numbers of vacant positions are anxious to resolve the same issues — stress, forced overtime, burnout and, for some, low morale among their sworn staffs.

But some national law enforcement experts and local police officials don’t like the idea of incentives, likening them to professional athletes shopping around for the highest bidder.

Do incentives work?

San Bernardino Police Chief Darren Goodman said his agency is not offering incentives, but notes they’re not off the table yet.

“The only thing that caused us to delay was needing to justify it to the city and our finance department that there’s actual evidence that it works,” Goodman said. “I don’t know if we’ve found that yet from some of the agencies we’ve queried. We don’t have evidence to show it gets more people in or more hire-ready.

“It becomes that type of scenario where one agency will do it because another is doing it. We want to stick with those things that are more effective in getting qualified candidates.”

Competition ‘problematic’

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, agrees that bonuses and other incentives aren’t the answer for strapped agencies.

“This isn’t a regional problem, this is a nationwide problem, and the reason that it is problematic is you have departments now competing with each other at the same time,” Wexler said. “When was the last time police departments offered $30,000 signing bonuses like they’re doing in Seattle, or $25,000 like they are in Washington, D.C.?

“That hasn’t happened in the 20-some odd years I have been working in this area. I have never seen anything like it.”

Lateral transfers can be especially problematic.

“It could come at the expense of one department gaining someone and another losing someone. It’s a zero-sum game,” Wexler said. “One department creates a hardship for another.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in a 2019 study on the law enforcement recruitment crisis, cited competition for the best-available recruits and transfers as a problem, especially in places like Southern California.

“Agencies in regions where multiple law enforcement agencies are geographically close often find themselves in fierce competition to attract and secure the best candidates in the area,” the IACP report said.

For recruits, as opposed to lateral transfers, finding the agency with the right offer – and the right fit – is only the first step toward wearing the badge. Awaiting them is a rigorous application, training and field evaluation process before they become full-fledged officers.

  • Riverside Police Officers Brandon Walker, Sergio Mercado, and Chris Moberg...

    Riverside Police Officers Brandon Walker, Sergio Mercado, and Chris Moberg interview a candidate to join the department at Bordwell Park-Stratton Community Center in Riverside on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Darren Bien, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department climbs...

    Darren Bien, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department climbs a chain fence for a physical agility test at Bordwell Park on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Micheal Valenzuela, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department, hurries...

    Micheal Valenzuela, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department, hurries to climb over a brick fence during the physical agility test at Bordwell Park on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

  • Alejandro Gongonz, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department hurries...

    Alejandro Gongonz, a candidate for the Riverside Police Department hurries to finish the physical agility test at Bordwell Park as he does the “dummy drag,” pulling a 165-pound dummy across a 32-foot-long path toward Officer Brandon Walker on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)

Rigorous training awaits

At a recent hiring expo in Devore, about 300 applicants interested in a law enforcement career gathered for the first step in the employment process — a test of physical agility.

“That’s a pretty decent number,” said Tabor, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s official who helps oversee recruitment and hiring for the agency. “Unfortunately, the number of candidates that don’t make it to the next step is pretty significant.”

Tabor said only about 10% of applicants make it through the background process, which includes a polygraph test, a psychological evaluation, a medical examination and an interview with a background investigator and a deputy chief.

Those who clear those screening hurdles and make it to an academy then face a rigorous six-month training process. “A lot of the ones we’re losing, we’re losing at the training level,” Tabor said.

At Bordwell Park in Riverside, 16 applicants recently participated in oral interviews and a physical agility test that called for them to run a mile-and-a-half in 15 minutes or less, drag a 165-pound dummy across a 32-foot-long gravel path, and clear wood and chain-link fence hurdles. About half passed.

“Just the physical and mental challenges are uncommon to people who didn’t come from the military,” Tabor said. “They fall out physically and mentally from the stress and the challenges.”

The entire process of becoming a police officer or sheriff’s deputy — from an application to the training academy to being sworn in — can take more than a year. An academy graduate then must spend time on the streets with a training officer, often four to six months, or work in a county jail before he or she becomes a full-fledged officer.

It’s a tedious process that can’t be hurried, no matter how anxious law enforcement agencies are to get more officers on the streets, which is why some agencies prefer coveted lateral transfers.

Should standards be changed?

Some wonder, however, whether standards should be modified.

Most agencies, for example, are easing up on some things that previously would have disqualified an applicant, such as tattoos, a history of drug use or convictions for minor criminal infractions. Whether physical requirements or psychological screenings should be changed also is subject to debate.

However, outspoken Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco is adamant about leaving such requirements in place.

“We will never lower our hiring standards, ever! I don’t care who tells me I have to, I will not lower the standards,” said Bianco, who also notes that his department gets plenty of applicants without offering any financial incentives.

Bianco insists character counts, and noted that many candidates are quickly weeded out after revealing unsavory information about their personal lives and habits during interviews.

“We really do appreciate that they’re being honest, but geez, parking on a hill and masturbating while you watch the high school girls track team?” Bianco said.

Indeed, the IACP study found that not only is the volume of applicants for law enforcement jobs down across the country, but “among those who do apply, the quality of the applicants is often poor.”

“It is not uncommon for applicants who appear to be strong candidates to fail a background check or divulge disqualifying information later in the hiring process,” the report said.

However, Dic Donohue, director of the RAND Center for Quality Policing and a retired sergeant with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, noted that “folks can mature and become good officers despite some things they have done in the past.”

“But it’s a difficult trade-off,” Donohue said. “The public wants people in law enforcement who do the right things, and deservedly so.”

Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum, says standards need not be lowered, only tailored for the times to make better officers.

“This isn’t about lowering standards, it’s about the changing nature of the standards,” Wexler said.

Changes to policies on tattoos, past drug use and physical fitness are one thing, Wexler said, but standards such as character, integrity, work ethic and a college background should remain intact.

“I do not believe a high school diploma is sufficient for the high degree of policing today — report-writing, decision-making. You’re talking about giving people life-and-death decisions,” Wexler said.

“I think our expectation should be more than just a high school diploma. But some, in order to increase the applicant pool, are dropping the 120-unit college requirement, or having them complete it after they’re hired.”

Updated training needed

Wexler believes that beyond just tinkering with hiring standards, it’s time for law enforcement agencies to reevaluate their entire training model for new recruits.

“Training is out of date and archaic. It hasn’t kept up with current thinking,” he said. “Training academies still have a militaristic perspective on how you treat people. That doesn’t work in 2023. It’s communication skills. It’s talking to people. … We believe the training is insufficient to meet today’s demands.”

Given the need to attract new blood, others say recruitment efforts need modernizing as well.

Donohue said police agencies needing new recruits in days gone by typically would place posters in local gyms to attract new hires. That type of approach way to employment fairs, but attendance at those is waning among a generation more inclined to use digital technology to explore career options.

As a result, he said, many police agencies are turning to hiring marketing firms to reach candidates through TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.

Jim Bueermann, a national policing consultant and former Redlands police chief, says new strategies and out-of-the-box thinking are necessary for law enforcement in 2023.

“Policing is still using antiquated recruiting messaging and policies and procedures. When you take this outdated view, mostly created by baby boomers, it is still the general way we recruit, hire and process people.” said Bueermann, a former president of the Police Foundation, renamed the National Policing Institute.

“What police leaders really have to do is get their heads around the perspective of the generation that they are trying to recruit, and the city and county hiring processes and policies need to reflect that reality,” he said.

New generation, new approaches

Attracting new generations of police officers — millennials and Gen. Zs — presents law enforcement with new challenges that call for new approaches to the recruitment process.

Along with a need for better work-life balance and more immediate gratification in exchange for a lengthy interview, background and training process, younger generations also tend to not want to remain in one profession for any prolonged duration.

“People don’t want to be in one occupation for 30 years. They want to move around,” said Wexler, adding that family-line traditions in law enforcement are even beginning to erode.

“For generations, a family might pass the baton to the next generation. That has changed dramatically,” Wexler said. “Today, if you walked into a room of police officers and asked how many of them would recommend this job to their son or daughter, or friend even, you’re not going to get the same number of hands raised. In fact, it’s just the opposite.”

Moreover, an unemployment rate of 3.5% now means more opportunities exist for young people, opportunities that don’t require them to undergo up to a year or more of interviews, background checks, psychological evaluations and six months of training at police academies.

“This generation wants information quickly, wants to be able to apply, wants to know whether they have a job,” Wexler said.

Terry Cherry, a fellow at National Policing Institute, a law enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C., said policing has to evolve – using new data, research and ideas – to keep up with the times and trends. And she acknowledges that evolution can be painful.

“They’re having to be innovative and creative, just like the private sector, in ways to recruit and retain,” said Cherry, an openly gay, tattooed senior officer and recruiter at the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina.

Plenty of qualified millennials and Gen Zs want to pursue careers in law enforcement, she said, but they are driven by different motivations and have different ideals.

“You have a whole generation of people who want to inspire, make changes and innovate in society,” Cherry said. “You just have to be able to communicate with them. I think police departments are lacking the inspiration part of it.

“Industry takes time to change,” she said. “Blockbuster didn’t change, and look where it is now.”

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