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Opinion: There are seeds of opportunity in the police hiring crisis

Changes to police training can create a more inclusive and responsive police force, expert writes. photo by Alixandria Chen.

By Karl Bickel

The writer is a retired U.S. Department of Justice senior policy analyst, previously second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, formerly with a major city police department and former assistant professor of criminal justice. He can be reached at [email protected].

It has been said “Within crisis, are the seeds of opportunity.”

The field of policing in Maryland, like policing throughout the nation, is in the midst of a crisis and within this crisis are the seeds of opportunity. The problem is twofold, the need to fill a record number of police officer vacancies and keeping the experienced officers we have, stemming the current tide of retirements and resignations. The seeds of opportunity can reshape how we recruit, hire, train, supervise and develop tomorrow’s police officers and their leaders while creating an environment that provides current officers with a personally fulfilling and rewarding career they do not want to leave.

As long as we continue to recruit police officers in the spirit of adventure, to be warriors fighting crime, instead of the spirit of service to the community they protect and serve, that of a guardian, then send them to a recruit academy patterned after a military boot camp, and turn them loose to fight the war or crime, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism we are not likely to improve the quality of policing or those who wear the uniform.

The current seeds of opportunity provide a chance to change that, to change the way we recruit, hire and train tomorrow’s police officers as well as providing a workplace environment that is predicated on the spirit of service and procedural justice for both our guardians and the communities they serve and protect.

The intense competition among law enforcement agencies to recruit and hire qualified candidates demands growth in the size of the applicant pool. This will necessitate reexamining and updating hiring standards — not lowering standards but making them more relevant in meeting actual 21st century policing needs.

The first step is a major change in the way we recruit police officers. We must reject the idea of the warrior cop and instead inspire a guardian mentality, with a spirit of service. Ad campaigns that serve up high speed car chases and tactical assault are not realistic portrayals of day-to-day community policing. In fact, what is often seen in videos and ads is against regulations in some of the very departments doing the recruiting.

Changing recruitment marketing to truly represent the work of professional police officers also plants the seeds for a force that welcomes diversity — by gender, race, creed, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Prospective candidates must see themselves as having something to bring to the table in public safety and service and see the opportunity to be welcomed.

The second step is an overhaul in recruit training. The military boot camp model is not preparing new officers for the world of policing in 2023. A national 2022 Washington Post-ABC poll found the lowest level of confidence in police training the poll has ever recorded, and a Gallup poll found only 45% of those surveyed were confident in the police, 3% fewer than the previous low of 48%. Training academy standards must be reexamined and updated; and again, not lowered but with an increased relevance to meeting actual needs. For example, there must be a closer look at physical requirements that wash out an inordinate number of female candidates. Nearly a decade ago, the Newark, New Jersey, police department found that 60 to 85% of their female recruits were flunking out of their academy even though they had outperformed their male peers on the entrance exams and background checks. The reason? Physical strength requirements that did not improve officers’ job readiness or safety.

Attracting and retaining female officers provides a heretofore neglected resource that can impact the current crisis and improve the overall quality of police services. Women make up over 50% of the population, yet decades after introducing women into routine police work, they still only represent about 12% of sworn officers and hold 3% of police leadership positions. This is despite a plethora of research showing that female officers have lower rates of using excessive force and fewer overall complaints than their male counterparts. They also tend to make fewer discretionary arrests, particularly among minorities, and inspire greater community trust.

The 30×30 Initiative housed at New York University’s Policing Project has a goal of increasing female representation in police ranks to 30% by 2030. They are “focused on collecting, processing, and redistributing accurate data on hiring and retention; providing evidence-based assistance to departments interested in hiring more female law enforcement professionals; identifying and removing barriers to entry for female candidates; and forwarding the academic study of women in law enforcement.” We have six years to go and a lot of work to do.

The issue of some previous drug use that eliminates many younger prospects also warrants review; particularly surrounding marijuana use that is now legal in many jurisdictions including Maryland. Policing and police training do not exist in a vacuum. Current and future officers live in a 21st century world of changing community mores; discussing how those changes affect training and policing is critical to hiring and training the best candidates and rebuilding community trust.

Local elected and public safety officials control their police departments. They don’t have to wait on anyone else to move forward. Who will seize this opportunity from within this crisis and plant the seeds of change?


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Opinion: There are seeds of opportunity in the police hiring crisis