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The challenge of recruiting public safety officers

One of the biggest challenges facing municipalities across the country is recruiting and retaining quality public safety personnel. Applicant pools for public safety positions are declining, hindered by low wages, a tarnished public image and limited opportunities for advancement.

Municipal officials need to consider more broad-based recruiting efforts, reaching out to students, former military personnel and the community at large, according to Jack Ryan with the Public Agency Training Council. Ryan will speak on the issue of recruiting and hiring public safety employees at the Association’s Annual Meeting in July.

Community-based recruiting is important, Ryan said.

"One of the complaints people make is that the police are like an invading army—they don’t represent the community," he said.

Police departments need to work hard to overcome negative perceptions held by some members of the public. City officials can help overcome this with effective outreach and communications and by displaying openness and accountability, Ryan said. Agencies also need to build up social capital in their communities.

"The way a particular agency treats people in the community every day—if they take time to talk to people and treat them with empathy—it pays dividends in a lot of different ways," Ryan said.

Reaching out to young people in schools is another good way to recruit, Ryan said. Many communities have Explorer programs, which give students a chance to explore a career in law enforcement by working with local law enforcement agencies. These programs are successful not only in creating a potential pool of applicants, but also in building relationships with the community and giving young people an awareness of the criminal justice system.

When hiring officers, agencies should look for people who have a level of stability—both in a history of employment and psychological stability, someone level-headed who makes good decisions, Ryan continued. A college education is good, but background history is the best indicator of a new hire’s potential. Individuals should mesh with their particular communities. Former military personnel make a good fit for law enforcement, but they should be trained to understand the differences in municipal policing and military operations, he said.

Adequate compensation is a problem, particularly in retaining officers.

"If we don’t pay them well enough, it causes problems," Ryan said. "We have officers who work second jobs to make ends meet, and then they’re coming to work tired. Or they jump ship for another job that may pay just a dollar an hour more."

The possibility for advancement is another way to help retain officers. If officers have the ability to move forward in their career, whether it’s joining an investigative team or a K-9 unit, it serves as enticement to keep them in their department, Ryan said.

"Officers need to be part of the community and treated with a level of respect. They need to have training and advancement opportunities," he continued. "Good leadership in an agency also goes a long way in developing good morale."

Police departments are not the only agencies struggling with a decrease in applicant pools. Fire departments are facing a shortage of volunteer firefighters, according to the South Carolina State Firefighters Association.

Training requirements have become more stringent, with volunteers required to commit to more than 250 hours of training to be certified. Other factors involved in the drop of volunteers include the increased call volume and the growing variety of calls departments received. They include hazardous material incidents, confined space and high-angle rescues, chemical and biological events, and active shooter situations.

Some fire departments are responding by making their stations more comfortable and attractive to volunteers, and by reaching out to students in high schools and technical centers.

Fire departments rely on their volunteers, and they serve as a talent pool for full-time hires.

"These volunteers are dedicated and have committed to training, without getting paid," Ryan said, adding that volunteering serves as a great way for a person to get experience and for the city to get to know them.