Police-Community Relations: The Importance of Hiring and Recruitment Practices to Achieving Success

Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services.”  —The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

The job of a police officer is extremely complicated: you have to switch gears on a dime – one minute you’re counseling someone, the next minute you’re making a split-second decision on use of force. Selection and training are extremely important, especially in today’s tumultuous environment.

Beyond the headlines, many police forces are working to disabuse the current of distrust running through their communities. According to police experts, improved relations are attributed largely to common-sense approaches that build on the philosophy known as community policing.

The practice of community policing has arguably existed since the 1970s. In the wake of violent clashes with police during the political protests of the 1960s, some departments took heed and amended their strategy to one of problem-solving and community partnerships, which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, “… proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder and fear of crime.”

Since then, the practice of community policing has gone through a series of notable highs and lows, appearing to be dependent on the amount of federal support departments received. In the 1990s, President Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) provided approximately 70 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide with community policing funding. As a result, the number of dedicated community policing officers tasked with building partnerships in their communities rose from 34 to 66 percent by 2000.

Then the budget for COPS was progressively slashed, starting in 1998, resulting in an over 50 percent reduction in dedicated community policing officers by 2008. With budget slashes — in addition to the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 —  came the adoption of much more aggressive approaches to policing, including “stop and frisk” polices and the controversial “broken windows” philosophy where low-level crime is aggressively targeted, in theory, preventing high-level crime from occurring.

Fast-forward to today and, in the wake of such tragedies as Ferguson, police departments across the nation are taking stock of the effectiveness of their approach to policing. Departments such as Columbia Heights, Minnesota — where the crime rate hit a 25-year low just four years after implementation of their community policing program – serve as models for community policing.

“All officers in [Chief] Nadeau’s department are required to perform at least 10 hours of community policing activities every year, though he said most devote closer to 40 hours to the work. Officers are encouraged to choose activities that match their skills and interests. There are many choices: conducting CPR trainings, answering questions at classes for recent immigrants, serving food at a church’s community dinner or holding ‘Coffee with a Cop’ open hours, where residents are free to speak their minds with officers.”  [“The Simple Strategies That Could Fundamentally Change How Communities View Their Police,” Huffington Post, Feb. 17, 2015.]

One of the big questions, given this fundamental philosophical and cultural change taking place in law enforcement agencies nationwide, then becomes: How important are our recruitment and hiring practices to the achievement of community policing?

According to a report issued in January 2015 by The U.S. Conference of Mayors Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs, titled “Strengthening Police-Community Relations in America’s Cities,” the following three items need to be addressed regarding recruitment and hiring:

  1. Police departments need to review recruiting and hiring practices to ensure they are reflective of the community they serve.
  2. Departments may need to use nontraditional means to attract recruits who are representative of the diversity in the community.
  3. At the same time, departments need to perform thorough background checks on all applicants to help ensure that those who are accepted will become good police officers.

“Effective screening and testing tools are essential to ensuring that quality recruits are hired,” said IPMA-HR Assessment Research Manager Andrey Pankov. “As law enforcement agencies make the fundamental change to their policing tactics, it’s more important than ever that the candidates they hire have the essential knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics of successful incumbents.”

In a discussion with a 20-year veteran patrol officer and current recruiter for his department regarding whether or not candidates could be trained to adopt the mentality of community policing — i.e., how much does screening of candidates matter in the success of a community policing approach — he said: “We get what we get, which is why we have to be highly selective.”

By Jenny A. Donovan, Freelance Writer and former Police Officer

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