As a police chief for more than 30 years, I was able to observe a transition taking place gradually, but consistently, relative to hiring qualified police officers. When I started my career in 1977, a police department could place an advertisement in the local newspaper, and it was not unusual to have between 80 to 100 applicants. After preliminary screenings for age, citizenship, criminal record, education, physical fitness, military service record, drug testing, polygraph testing, and medical condition, there were typically 20 to 30 “good” applicants for a single patrol officer position.
Police administrators would set up oral review boards and interview multiple applicants, and then make recommendations on hiring. Law enforcement officers typically started and ended their careers in the same agency.
Standards for hiring were set high, and applicants were rejected for a past history of drug use and for criminal misconduct. If they had worked in another law enforcement agency, then a detailed review of their personnel file and interviews with supervisors was conducted. If they were not physically fit, then another fit applicant was hired. If they had a history of drug or alcohol abuse, then they were summarily rejected. If they had histories of extramarital affairs, domestic violence, or bankruptcies’ , then it resulted in exclusion from consideration. Even a general reputation in the community for dishonesty and causing neighborhood conflict could result in disqualification.
Over time, the number of applications started to shrink, as did the quality of applicants. By the mid 2000s, police departments were accepting applicants with questionable histories, and the competition for the limited applicant pool became intense. The departments that maintained their earlier standards found themselves with empty positions that they could not fill. Many departments were simply looking for warm bodies that could pass a basic drug test. The quality of law enforcement suffered as a result.
One of the most telling indicators of the desperation in hiring was evident from the departments hiring former police officers. Thirty years ago when an officer left employment with a law enforcement agency, this was considered to be a red flag. Why did the officer leave? Could he not get along with other officers? Did he have a problem with authority? What did he do to lose his job? Was there a misconduct issue that he avoided by resigning his position? Before hiring a former police officer, an extensive investigation was completed to assure that the department was not hiring someone else’s problem child.
As the applicant pool dissipated, departments became more and more desperate to hire police officers to fill positions. And due to the cost of training new officers, departments started prioritizing hiring former police officers who were already trained. It was the best financial solution for filling positions and reducing training costs. This trend was the beginning of a new phenomenon, creating a new term we now recognize as the “Rogue Cop.” This term refers to police officers who leave their departments, typically due to misconduct, and they are hired by another agency who does not know or does not care about the officer’s past misconduct.
For example, I am familiar with an officer that was terminated for intentionally initiating a federal lawsuit against his department and several individuals in the department. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the officer was terminated. Additionally, and during that same time, this officer was investigated for more misconduct. He was a married sergeant running the police department’s Explorer Program. He had a sexual relationship with one of the Police Explorers which clearly violated department policies. However, within months of his termination, he was hired by another law enforcement agency. That agency never contacted our department or requested any background information on this officer.
I could provide several additional examples of officers who were terminated for misconduct, and they were hired by other departments within weeks of their termination. And in each case, no one from the hiring department ever contacted our organization to get the background information. This is the pattern of the rogue cop. They get into trouble for misconduct, and they quickly get hired by a department who views them as an experienced, certified law enforcement officer. And, the officers continue their bad behaviors in new places.
Various law enforcement organizations have implemented new policies and procedures to address the problem with rogue cops. But, the problem continues to exist. Whenever I hear of gross misconduct of a police officer, I immediately seek the officer’s past history of misconduct. The vast majority of time, there is a past history of misconduct, and the officer should never have been working in law enforcement. In some of the recent high profile cases, there had been repeated allegations and determinations of excessive force in the officers’ past.
During the last ten years of my career as a police chief, hiring and retaining personnel was a constant challenge. I found that it was better to have a position open, than it was to hire an idiot to fill the position. I also found that it was better to terminate an officer for serious misconduct, than it was to keep them around until they did it again. Both of these views were controversial. By this time, we could advertise positions in the local paper, online sites, local colleges and universities, and larger media distribution outlets, and it was not unusual for none of the applicants to pass the background investigations.
I have covered some of the most entertaining applicants in a blog called, “The Idiot Parade.” Its purpose is to show the reader some of the characters who want to become police officers. As you will see, drug usage eliminates many applicants from consideration.
The present political and social environment is not conducive to recruiting potential police officers. The high profile cases of misconduct show police officers behaving badly sometimes going to jail/prison. This tarnishes the law enforcement profession for all who may be interested in it. Politicians and news outlets make up their minds and condemn police officers long before the facts are in. Whenever a white police officer shoots a person of color, the officer is treated as through s/he is guilty of some offense until s/he can prove his innocence.
For example, most of the American public knows the name Michael Brown. They also know of the allegations against the police officer who shot Michael Brown including the allegation that Brown was on his knees with his hands up surrendering, and the officer shot and killed him. Personally, I knew that there was something wrong with the news stories when they said that the officer pulled up in a patrol car next to Brown, and the officer tried to pull Brown into the car through the window. Michael Brown was 6’3” tall and 280 lbs. No one is dumb enough to pull up next to Michael Brown and try to pull him through a car window.
We saw “witnesses” making all sorts of allegations relative to poor Michael Brown being killed by the police officer. However, there was a grand jury investigation in which every witness was interviewed, and all of the physical evidence and video was reviewed. The grand jury found people who readily admitted that they fabricated stories and outright lied about their original statements. The grand jury exonerated the officer of any wrongdoing. And, they found that Michael Brown had initiated the contact with the police officer by reaching through the window and trying to take the officer’s police pistol. This was backed up by the physical evidence as well as statements.
However, I have never met anyone who has read the entire grand jury report. Sport figures and celebrities continue to believe the lies, and no one has ever apologized to the police officer for disparaging this honor and his reputation. The officer left law enforcement as a result.
The January 6, 2021 insurrection at the capitol has also been detrimental to the recruitment and hiring of police officers. Viewers have seen video where armed and organized civilians essentially ignored and attacked the law enforcement officers at the capitol. Officers were struck, disarmed, sprayed with bear spray, and otherwise physically abused by these people, yet there are those that still downplay the attacks and try to minimize them by calling it a peaceful demonstration. Officers were physically and emotionally damaged by this incident, yet even the people that they rescued have turned against them when discussing the insurrection. When potential recruits see this behavior, they can quickly determine that they don’t want any part of it.
When I was in undergraduate school, we were taught that police officers tend to be authoritarian, paranoid, and suspicious. We were told that personalities tend to remain constant once a person has matured, so we could conclude that authoritarian, paranoid, suspicious people must be drawn to police work. At that time, there were already people questioning this idea. They argued that when someone becomes a police officer, the job changes them and makes them authoritarian, paranoid, and suspicious.
There are a number of sources, including Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s work on Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Officers, that recognize that working in Law Enforcement changes people. Dr. Gilmartin’s video series and books describe the processes by which dedicated, grounded, well-meaning police officers can transform into ill tempered, aggressive, cynical officers who willingly violate policies, procedures, and even criminal laws. With this in mind, it is critical that we not only begin with emotionally healthy police officers, but that we address the factors that negatively influence officers to become emotionally damaged.
Clearly, there are some people who are drawn to police work because of flaws in their personalities. Some like the feeling of power when they have a badge and gun. Some believe that their official authority places them above the law, and as a result, they can violate laws without fearing repercussions. Sociopaths find the profession allows them to control and manipulate people which feeds their disorder. Obviously, these people should be screened out because they will hurt people and embarrass the department. Fortunately, most of these individuals can be readily identified during their probationary periods.
Most states provide a probationary period when a police officer is hired. During probation, the officer may be terminated at any time without cause. Of course, all Equal Employment Opportunity rules remain in affect, but this is the best time for a department to evaluate, counsel, and if necessary to terminate a problem employee. There are no arbitrators or unions involved. I recall hearing an employee with a number of misconduct violations bragging that he was working his last shift while on probation, and after tonight, they couldn’t fire him. At the end of the shift, they fired him.
When an officer first goes to work as a patrol officer, s/he is required to complete a Field Training Officer program which typically lasts about 14 weeks, although the timeframe varies in some departments. During this training, a trained field training officer instructs, evaluates, and tests the recruit every day. I am a firm believer in listening to field training officers. They provide definitive, specific evaluations of the recruit’s abilities, behavior and attitude. This is a great screening tool to weed out the recruits who have deficiencies in their character and abilities.
Once an officer has completed the field training officer program, the officer is allowed to ride by himself/herself. At that time, the shift supervisor will be able to evaluate the recruit’s progress including motivation, self-discipline, and decision-making skills. Is the recruit able to apply his/her knowledge to solve problems and enforce the laws? Does the recruit require prompting or is he motivated to perform self-initiated acts while on patrol? Is the recruit respectful and courteous with the public, or is he officious and curt? Does the recruit know and follow department policies and procedures even when it is not convenient? The recruit is on probation during this time period, and if there are problems, then counseling, remediation, or discipline may be imposed.
Once the officer is off of probation, the officer enjoys the full protections under the governmental policies and union contracts. Serious discipline is much more difficult at that point. There is one police officer in the State of Florida who was recently terminated for the eighth time. Each time he has been terminated, he has been reinstated... typically by an arbitrator.
In my professional experience, I terminated an officer for excessive force when he physically attacked and choked a handcuffed juvenile offender, and other officers on the scene had to physically restrain the officer. An arbitrator agreed that the officer had engaged in the alleged misconduct, and the officer was an embarrassment to himself, his department, and his profession. And then, the arbitrator reinstated the officer with full back pay and benefits.
When law enforcement department heads are no longer able to establish and maintain standards of conduct, there are going to be marginal and/or unqualified officers embarrassing their departments and their communities. And, these officers will also endanger the safety and wellbeing of the citizens.
Conclusions: Recruiting law enforcement officers is one of the greatest challenges faced by law enforcement agencies today. Senior personnel are retiring and taking a great deal of institutional knowledge with them. This leaves a void in the historical and developmental understanding of the community and the organization. Although it has been repeatedly demonstrated that officers with higher levels of education tend to be better law enforcement officers with fewer complaints and incidents of misconduct, they are less likely to seek law enforcement positions, especially at the patrol level. The people who are the most interested in working in law enforcement are not necessarily the most educated or the most qualified.
Policing was once looked upon as a honorable profession where people could move up in status and in pay. In recent years, the profession has been criticized and maligned to the degree that it has dissuaded many candidates from seeking positions.
However, there is hope! There are “sheepdogs” who will pick up the gauntlet and commit themselves to protecting the sheep. If you are not familiar with this concept, then I suggest viewing "Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman – The Expositor. I could paraphrase this article, but I don't believe that I could do it justice.
“Sheepdogs” recognize the dangers and the hardships, and they will willingly make the sacrifices and the commitments necessary to defend the sheep. There may not be enough “sheepdogs” to fill all of the positions, but they will do all that is humanly possible to fulfill their missions.
Law enforcement positions are still a step up for working class people in terms of pay/benefits and status. It is a stepping stone out of poverty, and the work is steady and reliable. For people seeking variety and social interaction, and for those who like a little adrenaline in their systems, law enforcement is a good opportunity for a career and for advancement. Instead of limiting recruiting to college graduates and middleclass applicants, we may be better served hiring people with desire, courage, commitment, and true compassion for their fellow man.
Sheep Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, races, education levels, genders, religions, and cultures, and they will do everything in their power to protect the sheep, and to keep the wolves at bay. As long as we have sheep dogs living among us, there is hope for the sheep!