Have license, will travel: Centralizing police applicants to increase mobility and retention By:

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This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

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The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

Explore this article to uncover insights on these issues:

  • Law enforcement faces recruitment issues; a centralized, state-licensed system could help.
  • Millennials and Gen Z value mobility and meaningful work; law enforcement must adapt.
  • Proposed system for peace officers includes a centralized hiring process and standardized background checks.
  • Standardized hiring could increase efficiency, transparency and officer retention in law enforcement.

By Lieutenant Chris Frederick

Jenni, a single 25-year-old nurse, is headed to her first shift as a contract nurse for a hospital in Palm Springs, California. She is excited to be living in a resort community and looking forward to the warm weather. For her one-year contract, she secured a wage 15% higher than average pay for the area based on the needs of the hospital. She just finished working a two-year stint in San Francisco, a location she chose for the incentive pay and relationships she built in the area. Nurses are licensed in the state through the California Board of Registered Nursing; because of the standardization in their field, they can travel throughout the state for pay incentives, lifestyle changes, affinity for travel or to find the right fit.

If the nursing industry can meet staffing goals through standardization and state licensing, how might it work for law enforcement? Imagine a system where a state-licensed peace officer could travel throughout their state to find the right agency for their employment needs, personal lifestyle or appealing pay incentives.

In an era where police staffing shortages are both chronic and critical, mobility for the workforce of the future may be an answer to retaining police officers in sufficient numbers.

The recruiting challenge

As law enforcement agencies struggle to recruit and maintain peace officers, they stand on the precipice of change. In a survey conducted in 2022, two-thirds of law enforcement professionals said recruitment and retention is the largest issue facing law enforcement. More than three-quarters (78%) of agencies reported having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates, and almost two-thirds (65%) reported having too few candidates applying. [1] A system that facilitates expedited hiring while expanding the pool of eligible applicants would impact those statistics in ways few might understand.

The police can continue their archaic system of competition for the same human resources or adapt to a system where peace officer candidates become a commodity drawn from a standardized, centralized pool. The result would be a cadre of state-licensed, employment-eligible peace officer candidates, all in a centralized digital database ready for recruitment anywhere in the state.

Led by each state’s POST office, the new model would seek to revolutionize the hiring process, infuse transparency like never before and introduce a new dimension of mobility to law enforcement careers. The need for change is especially evident as we seek to hire those who believe policing will be a career — a mindset at odds with police tradition.

Generation Z, millennials and workforce mobility

Gone are the days when an individual would spend a career with one agency. Millennials and Generation Z workforce participants value positive work environments, personal development, work-life balance and meaningfulness in their work. [2] Getting hired in law enforcement is a rigorous enough process, and then requires assimilation to department culture. Sometimes the culture shock for a young recruit becomes difficult if the culture does not meet the employee’s needs. [3]

Working a beat in Los Angeles is markedly different from a beat in rural Kern County. An officer struggling to adjust to police work in any particular locale may leave law enforcement if they fail training programs or fail to assimilate within the department they chose, not knowing another type of police department might perfectly fit their needs.

In a 2022 survey of 35,000 Generation Z employees, 56% said they would quit a job that prevented them from enjoying their lives. Two in five (40%) said they would rather be unemployed than unhappy in a job they didn’t like. [2] A 2023 study of Generation Z employees showed 35% were planning to change jobs within the next year. Businesses that can successfully manage and harness the potential of this job-hopping generation may gain a competitive advantage in today’s environment. [4]

Applying these statistics to young peace officers, the creation of a centralized hiring repository would create a process today’s applicants want. They could be hired for one agency, then transition to other departments across the state through an expedited process. This flexibility would meet more of this generation’s workforce preferences, encouraging them to apply, then retaining them and providing the growth opportunities they need to thrive. How, then, could we change what we do today?

The system

Applicants for peace officer positions traditionally seek openings like any other job. Whether through attendance at job fairs, online recruiting, word of mouth or by contacting their local agency, a candidate applies with organizations they wish to work for. If eligible, they begin the same process of tests and assessments, then background investigations separately for each department, often while agencies compete to provide the first offer of employment. Each agency pays for medical screenings, investigative costs and psychological examinations, then takes those results and stores them away in their personnel files. This model is inefficient, redundant and costly.

Governed by POST, these agencies use the same state-approved background investigation forms and conduct similar psychological and medical examinations for prehires, all intended for the same result. Some departments move quickly to hiring decisions; others take longer. Whoever the investigator, the length of time spent in the background process for any size agency can be a roadblock for applicants eager to work and for agencies eager to fill vacancies. [5]

As an alternative to speed the process, provide better outcomes and serve the goal of effective hiring, the same private background firms, psychologists and medical doctors could contract directly with POST or regional consortia of police organizations in a consolidated model. Applicants interested in policing who have not yet applied to an agency could complete the background process, including all standardized prehire requirements, before any job offer to become an eligible candidate for hire. The applicant is then an eligible agent, able to apply to any agency they feel is right for them or seek offers from across the state, much like a licensed traveling nurse.

What about local rules and policies? Wouldn’t that impede a consolidated model? Not really.

For example, absent municipal codes, California law is the same across the state, and with continued standardization efforts, the practice of law enforcement will be the same throughout the state, and community service won’t suffer. Studies on the impact of medical care by traveling nurses show patient experience is unaffected. [6] The standardization efforts will translate to law enforcement as they do in the medical profession.

A central theme in police hiring is finding candidates with life experience and the maturity to handle the job. The majority of traveling nurses are below the age of 30 and single. With each new company, those traveling nurses gain knowledge and life experience. As these workers age, they seek permanency and stability in employment later in their careers. [7] Following the Public Employees Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) in 2013, the retirement age for law enforcement increased throughout the state. The way to ensure the fulfillment, engagement and retention of tenured officers who are working longer is to provide them with a system that creates mobility throughout their careers. This model allows them the freedom to find an agency that provides the most reward through each stage of their professional journey.

Moving forward

POST and police leaders should move quickly to standardize all facets of the peace officer hiring process. Unless adopted on a broad scale, the results would be far less effective, so they should also work with the legislature to require participation by all agencies in the state.

Police recruitment and hiring would begin with a licensure component for all peace officer candidates, and POST would be responsible for licensing for employment eligibility for every agency in the state. A critical step in this is the establishment of a centralized repository for all background data and license statuses of all current peace officers and applicants.

The applicant’s completed background investigation, physical fitness test, psychological exam and medical exam should remain in a repository, digitally accessible to all agencies through a secure interface once that person applies for employment. Applicants would provide digital waivers to agencies seeking to offer them a position to reduce prehire costs for small agencies facing budgetary shortfalls and recruiting staff shortages. Like a credit report, any query to the system would track digitally and allow agencies or independent background investigators access to information the applicant has shared with other jurisdictions in their quest for employment — an option that is limited in most cases today.

Any concerns regarding limited or stale background information can be alleviated by implementing a requirement for background information updates, like security clearances. Federal officers are required to conduct security clearance updates every five years; under this model, POST would require updates to all peace officer background files at specified intervals.

Employed officers or their hiring authority could log into the secure server, update their background changes and remain eligible in the hiring pool should they consider a move. These updates will also allow for greater transparency and oversight for POST should anyone need to investigate the officer’s license status.

A state-managed system would facilitate regional or statewide testing, so agencies wouldn’t have to do anything except go to the list, specify what they’re looking for and get a set of candidates to interview for a hiring decision.

Conclusion

The law enforcement hiring crisis necessitates innovative remedies. The establishment of a mandated centralized background investigation repository for all agencies, combined with strategic partnerships with vetted background investigation firms, offers a path to streamline the hiring process, foster efficient information sharing and secure the selection of these candidates.

This comprehensive approach addresses the current scarcity of law enforcement officers while enhancing the overall quality and integrity of law enforcement agencies.

Continue the discussion

Here are five questions for police leaders to address regarding a centralized, state-licensed peace officer system:

  1. How can we adapt our current recruitment strategies to incorporate a centralized, state-licensed peace officer system?
  2. What steps are necessary to collaborate with POST and other agencies to standardize the peace officer hiring process statewide?
  3. How can we ensure that a centralized hiring model addresses the specific needs and policies of local law enforcement agencies?
  4. In what ways can we engage and retain younger generations of peace officers, given their preferences for work-life balance and mobility?
  5. What are the potential challenges and solutions in transitioning to a digital repository for peace officer background information and how can we mitigate privacy concerns?

References

1. O’Connell G. 3 reasons for the nationwide police shortage. Brother Mobile Solutions.

2. Allcot D. (April 2022.) Gen Z & millennials would rather be unemployed than unhappy at work. Yahoo! Finance.

3. Stahl A. (December 2022.) 3 reasons why Gen Z is job hopping. Forbes.

4. TRC Global Mobility. Navigating the trend: Understanding Gen Z job hopping and its impact on businesses.

5. McCabe JE, O’Connell PE. (November 2017.) Factors related to police staffing. Sacred Heart University.

6. Faller M, Dent B, Gogek J. (August 2017.) A single-hospital study of travel nurses and quality: What is their impact on the patient experience? Nurse Leader.

7. Mackay C. (May 2022.) Digging into the data: Travel nurse demographics. Aya Healthcare. May 2022.

About the author

Christopher Frederick has served California’s Riverside County Sheriff’s Office for 21 years and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from California Coast University. His assignments within the sheriff’s office have included patrol, traffic, special team assignments, personnel bureau, training bureau and administrative assignments for contract cities. Frederick is currently assigned to the training and education bureau, is married and has two children.