Police Recruiting: If You Build It, They Will Come

At the Field of Dreams near Dyersville, Iowa.

This week, my wife and I visited the baseball field featured in the film, “Field of Dreams.” Many know the saying from that film, “if you build it, they will come!”

As I wandered around, I thought of how that statement could help solve what I hear a lot of chiefs complaining about – a crisis concerning the lack of police applicants.

This saying could certainly apply to policing – if police leaders build the right kind of organization, applicants will come, they will want to join you because they see it is a rewarding job and a place where they can experience personal growth. So, what is the “right” kind of organization?

I have some ideas. A lot of them are in my book, Arrested Development and on this blog site. Here’s the “seven improvement steps” from the book:

  • 1 Envision. First of all, to build the right kind of organization means that the leaders of the organization must always begin with thorough understanding of the role of police in a democratic society and have the deep and abiding vision of what that will look like in their city. The leaders of the organization (and city) must share the values embodied in this vision. A suggestion: “Closer to the people we serve; quality from the inside out” was my vision for Madison. It meant true and deep community-oriented policing with a strong commitment to improving the inside of the organization as we went outside to the community. This inside improvement involved adopting systems improvement, quality, servant-based leadership, and listening to those inside the department whom we depended on to provide high-quality police services to our citizens. Remember, if you don’t know where you are going it’s going to be difficult to craft a roadmap. This may mean a vision of radical departure from what you are currently doing. The job of a top leader is to “sell” this vision and how it will better the lives of both officers and citizens.
  • 2 Select: In order to attract high-caliber men and women to the police department, police leaders must cease and desist from whining about the lack of applicants and how bad citizens are treating them. Instead, the chief must present policing as a noble calling that demands the best among us apply and serve. It was difficult to get college graduates to apply when I served, but I called for young men and women to join the “domestic peace corps” things changed. As Jim Collins wrote in From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, the job of a transformational leader is to get the wrong people “off the bus” and select the right people to step aboard.
  • 3 Listen: Police leaders must intently listen to their officers and members of the community. In the past, there has been a failure to do this. Listening to others (even those who do not agree with you) is one of the necessary tasks of leadership. Much this may be new and startling. But it shouldn’t be foreign to a modern leader who should be reading, watching and listening to what is happening in the world. The non-hierarchical pro-democracy movements around the world are really harbingers of the future. In order for us to attain the high level of excellence in policing that America is capable of, we will have to undergo deep transformation from what we are doing today. And that won’t be easy.
  • 4 Train and Lead: It’s about time we put military boot-camp style of police training to bed. It doesn’t work and it will not attract the kind of police candidate you are seeking. The same goes to top-down, coercive styles of leadership. Both boot camp training and coercive leadership are legalized bullying and should be eliminated across the board. Good leaders are good trainers and vice versa. I called it Quality Leadership. When I embarked on the huge task of transforming a police department from top to bottom, I began to realize the valuable role both rank-and-file officers and active citizen groups could play in being an active part of this transformation. It worked.
  • 5 Improve Continuously: Can’t police learn from their mistakes? That seems to be a number one problem among police agencies. When things go wrong there is a reluctance to admit a mistake and an even greater reluctance to change and improve things, so the same mistake doesn’t happen again (most notably deadly force incidents). Get acquainted with the theories behind system improvement and start implementing this important teaching. Being committed to improving the systems in which police work is good for them and for everyone: police will have more support from their community. They will also feel nobler about themselves and the work they do, and their workplaces will be more comfortable, gratifying, and engaging. Good people will want to work in such an organization.
  • 6 Evaluate: Police and citizens frequently complain about the lack of trust between them. Do we know if that is true? If it is, why don’t police measure it and then take steps to increase trust and then report on it? After all, a quality governmental agency is one that is able to critically assess, or have assessed, the crucial tasks and functions they are expected to perform – including how trustworthy they are. This should flow out of a good listening activity. Working on what citizens think is important and sharing how you are doing is worth a police department’s effort.
  • 7 Sustain: A quality police organization must then be able to sustain improvement efforts and continue to improve all that they do. A good leader always thinks ahead, scans and listens to others in order to sustain the good work and improvements that the organization has accomplished. Peter Senge had this idea in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization — great organizations are learning organizations. When I first read Senge’s definition of the learning organization I knew he was also talking about future police organizations: “Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together.” An organization that is always learning and learning together can sustain itself and be trusted and supported by the communities it serves.

Also remember that I list four major obstacles to police improvement in my book: Anti-intellectualism, Racism, Discourtesy, and Corruption. Each of them will keep your organization from the improvement it needs and the people you need to employ.

If your city is having trouble recruiting quality men and women to be your police officers you need to take a look at your police department and how it trains, organizes, assigns and supervises and follow the above steps (and don’t forget about the Four Obstacles.)

If you build the right kind of police organization with the right values and goals you will attract the right kind of police applicants — they will come.


Also read this contemporary report on the problem:

PERF Report on “The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It.”

“The workforce challenges and opportunities facing police agencies today are detailed in this report. The report begins with 12 key takeaways that police agencies should consider as they confront the challenges and seize the opportunities that lie ahead…

“The most effective law enforcement agencies of the future will be those that seek out and embrace the next generations of officers, and will adjust their organizational models and practices to adapt to the changing dynamics of policing.”


Fortunately, the 12th of the “key takeaways” involves what I am talking about – transforming the organization (including its training and leadership styles) to meet community needs and seeking applicants who are college-educated, have high emotional intelligence, and are excited and committed to this new way of policing!