Six Steps to Data-Informed and Diverse Police Recruiting

BY JANE WISEMAN • March 18, 2022

The policing and law enforcement sector is in radical need of transformation. In many American cities, the law enforcement hiring process is badly broken – too often reflecting the technology and cultural mores of the mid-twentieth century rather than today’s data and digital capabilities, human capital practices, and social climate. A few cities excel at modernizing hiring processes, but the majority lag and changes aren’t coming fast enough.

In light of the inequitable impact of COVID-19, high-profile murders of Black Americans, and the subsequent national cry for racial justice, the continuing gap between the diversity of police agencies and that of the communities they police makes this both an opportune and urgent time to look for new ways to attract and hire a diverse pool of candidates. Research shows that female police and officers of color are less likely to use excessive force against civilians, yet recruiting these groups into law enforcement remains difficult. Better use of data is the key to understanding these challenges and finding the right points of leverage to attract more —and more diverse – candidates and retain them through the selection process.

Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge across government, with many roles ineligible for remote work and with pandemic fatigue inspiring early retirements. Among the hardest hit in the public sector is law enforcement, which faced heightened scrutiny and record low confidence in the past two years. Large law enforcement agencies have seen applications or expressions of interest drop more 20 percent over prior years. Compounding matters, retirements in some agencies are outpacing even the most successful recruitment efforts.

And, while hiring is a challenge, the job is simultaneously expanding as law enforcement addresses new threats such as cybercrime and financial fraud, plus many officers are unprepared to provide social services to individuals struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. According  to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), today police agencies “need a more diverse set of officers who possess key skills such as interpersonal communication, problem-solving, basic technology expertise, critical thinking, empathy, and ‘community-mindedness’ along with the traditional law enforcement skills required of all officers.”

Here are six actions police and city leaders can take now to address their recruiting challenges and improve police conduct, based on research and best practices – many of which can help any government hiring manager improve recruiting in other sectors.

 1. Designate a team responsible for turning data into insights. 

Government data analytics teams can return up to nine dollars in value for every dollar of cost, simply by looking at existing data in new ways. Data teams provide objectivity and an outsider’s perspective and oversight along with skills and tools that, together with agency leadership, can drive significant value, examining the aspects of recruitment and retention that are most effective and applying analysis to identify triggers for attrition, such as patterns in which supervisors, teams, and shifts have higher attrition and so on. Given that a survey of law enforcement professionals shows that 30 percent did not know if their recruitment strategies were effective, data teams working with law enforcement agencies could determine which recruitment strategies are effective. 

2. Level the playing field for people of color and women in the hiring process.

Data teams can examine job postings, resumes, and other materials from an objective and evidence-based perspective. Data teams that are removed from the law enforcement structure can identify any statutory or policy changes required to attract top talent. For example, law enforcement entrance requirements have changed very little in the past half century and requirements such as education, fitness, residency, and others should be assessed on their connection to success in the profession. Agencies should remove unnecessary or outdated requirements, particularly tests that may have inherent biases, and consider ways to help high-quality candidates meet them.

One experiment in the UK was successful in closing racial gaps in test passing rates by modifying the language on the email inviting the candidate to take the test and “priming” them for success with an encouraging tone. Another example is in Baltimore, where 20 percent of applicants failed the fitness test, including 55 percent of women, in 2017. To address both the rate of failure as well as the disparate outcomes by gender, the Baltimore PD created a boot camp called “Fit to Serve” which brought recruits to the academy for regular workouts that current officers could join as well. This accomplished two goals – potential recruits improved their fitness, and they also had the chance to informally interact with officers, giving them insight into the realities of the job.

3. Analyze each step of the process independently to find patterns.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) examined each step of its recruiting process and noticed that one third of those who dropped out did so at the very same step – when it was time for them to write their personal statement. Working with the Behavioral Insights Team, a group of researchers who can help run mini experiments on a variety of approaches and evaluate what works best,  the LAPD used text message “nudges” to applicants to encourage them to continue at this step, and achieved a 15 percent increase in the number of applicants who completed the process.

In Sweden, a survey of 20,000 applicants (many of whom did not complete the process) gathered insight into bottlenecks and inhibitors which revealed that candidates wanted more options for how to apply. While officers work nights and weekends, the application process was conducted exclusively on weekdays. Another insight was that half of interested candidates failed to book an appointment to continue the process despite passing the first exam, one quarter of whom were afraid they would fail the next test. To address this, the Swedish police individually reached out to applicants who had not booked appointments to answer questions and encourage them to stay in the selection process.

4. Simplify the paperwork, with public input.

Government forms are notoriously complex and intimidating, sometimes asking for unnecessary, or worse, redundant information.  Studies show that qualified candidates may simply drop out of the process rather than continuing if it is too cumbersome or lengthy. Washington, D.C. created a fun and customer-centric way to get the public involved in simplifying some common forms with their Form-a-Palooza event, in which teams collaborated to make forms easier to understand and complete. This idea has already been replicated by other cities, and similar events could help police agencies make their application forms easier to navigate while encouraging community members to contribute to the process of rethinking applications, thus building goodwill and community ties.

5. Walk in the shoes of the candidate.

Looking at each step from the perspective of the recruit, with input from current candidates or recent hires, may help identify bottlenecks. For example, an experiment in San Jose asked recruits who had dropped out of the process to provide feedback and consider reapplying, and 125 reactivated their applications. Also, developing new models for police service with designated on-ramps and off-ramps may help attract a new generation for service and broaden the pool of applicants who may be uncertain of an entire career at one job.

It’s also necessary to understand how applicant perceptions and experiences vary by demographics; applying to work on an overwhelming white or male force will be a very different experience for a Black or female applicant. Listening to the voices of diverse officers and adjusting the candidate experience accordingly can go a long way toward on-ramping more diverse applicants.

6. Test various recruiting messages and focus on what works best. 

A number of cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities program were given access to the Behavioral Insights Team, who had designed “nudges” to encourage engagement in the recruitment process in Los Angeles. After working with a handful of cities on recruitment messaging, they reported that helping others was the most consistent, top reason to enter the profession. However, that was seldom an effective recruiting message alone, so multiple messages targeting recruits were more successful.

In South Bend, IN, the Behavioral Insights Team ran an experiment with the city to send postcards to potential recruits that referred to officer’s “identity at home and at work,” and found them seven times as effective as not sending a postcard at getting people to apply. Tacoma, WA, had a fourfold increase in applicants after adopting the “You belong here” message in its marketing, using personalized postcards. Postcards had simple, clear instructions and came from new officers or mid-management, not senior leaders, so that potential recruits would have an easier time seeing their future selves in the role.

Innovative approaches are sorely needed to address the diversity and hiring challenges faced by police agencies – which have cascading effects on community relationships and public safety. By accelerating and improving the precision and analysis of existing data about the hiring process, data teams can provide important insights and checks on the entire process. More ideas for increasing the diversity of hiring in law enforcement can be found here, and a detailed summary of research literature on the topic can be found here.


About the Author

Jane Wiseman

Jane Wiseman is an Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She leads the Institute for Excellence in Government, a non-profit consulting firm dedicated to improving government performance.  She has served as an appointed official in government and as a financial advisor and consultant to government.  Her current consulting, research, and writing focus on government innovation and data-driven decision-making.  She supports an effort to create a national network of urban Chief Data Officers to accelerate the use of analytics in local government.  She has advised the US cities funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies in their Mayors Challenge competition.  She has written on customer-centric government, data-driven decision-making in government, pretrial justice, and 311 for a variety of audiences. 

Her prior consulting work has included organizational strategy, performance management and eGovernment strategy work for Accenture and Price Waterhouse.  Selected clients include the National Governor’s Association, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Criminal Justice Association, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United States Postal Service, the State of Michigan, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Department of Commerce. 

Ms. Wiseman has served as Assistant Secretary, Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and as Assistant to the Director for Strategic Planning, National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice.  Ms. Wiseman represented the Justice Department on detail as a Staff Assistant for the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.  Ms. Wiseman holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Smith College and a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.