Whenever police violence comes under national attention, better training is often advocated as a solution. Before the training even begins, though, departments have a major way to influence how they interact with their communities: who they accept as new recruits.
“The problem is we’ve been addressing the issues wrongly for years. We keep wanting to say it’s a training issue. It’s not a training issue,” Donald Grady II, a retired police chief who served for over 30 years, told The Atlantic. “This is an issue of who it is that we’ve decided we would allow to police our country.”
Grady mentioned that departments often prioritize recruits with aggressive personalities over those who are more docile. “Why are we hiring people to do policing because of their level of aggression?” he said. “I can teach you to be appropriately assertive. What I can’t do is pull unreasonably aggressive tendencies out of a person.”
Finding recruits with the right temperament is especially important now, as fewer and fewer people are seeking positions with the police force. In some parts of the country, applications have fallen by as much as 50 percent.
However, not all recruitment practices in the United States yield the best applicants. Here’s a list of some of the weaknesses with how departments seek out new officers.
Violent Recruitment Videos
Police recruitment videos often prominently feature high-adrenaline, high-risk situations that involve shooting and automatic weapons. These kinds of videos prioritize the more violent aspects of police work over community policing and public service.
“The emphasis [in violent recruiting videos] is totally on SWAT team, and shoot outs, and driving fast and all the militarized equipment, and nothing to talk about problem solving, dealing with the public, diverse skill sets, that can be helpful in policing,” Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, told CityLab. “Too many departments have completely emphasized the adventure-seeking aspects of the job, which are actually just a tiny fraction of what most police officers do every day.”
Dallas Police Chief David Brown has said that he doesn’t want to recruit “the person who wants adventure.” Instead, “We want to have people who have a sense of public service, who want to help, people who have a high moral standard. We want the model citizen who wants to go into public service and make our democracy work.”
Small Applicant Pool
Overall, police departments nationwide have experienced a recent decrease in applications. The smaller number of applicants has been attributed to the recent negative publicity regarding police departments, competition of new jobs in the security sector created by the war on terror, and millenials’ aversion to strict regulations in the workplace.
According to a 2014 report published in Law Enforcement Executive Forum, departments have experimented with relaxing certain criteria for recruits in order to expand the applicant pool. Each instance of lowering the bar, though, comes with its own repercussions. For example, some departments have eased their residency requirements, but this results in recruits who may be out of touch with the communities they serve. Other departments have become more tolerant regarding past drug use, poor credit history, or minor arrests, but this may weaken the community’s confidence in the police force.
In 2015, the New Orleans Police Department eliminated their requirement that new officers without two years of military service have at least 60 college credits, and the Philadelphia Police Department is preparing to strike their education requirement as well. Although this change presents the opportunity to accept more applicants, research suggests that the more college education an officer has, the less likely they are to be physically or verbally abusive.
Across the more than 12,000 police departments in the United States, there is no nationwide requirement for how to, if at all, conduct psychological evaluations. States may create their own standardizations, and as of 2010, a little over half of all states required pre-employment psychological screening of new recruits. According to a 2011 article published by the American Psychological Association, almost all police departments that serve populations of 25,000 or greater require some form of psychological evaluation.
Psychological screening is used, at minimum, to select candidates who are “free from any emotional or mental condition that might adversely affect the performance of safety-based duties and responsibilities and be capable of withstanding the psychological demands inherent in the prospective position.” Because the specifics of what a department looks for in the psychological screening of an applicant may vary department to department, hiring agency to hiring agency, psychology researcher M. L. Dantzker suggests that police departments ought to develop greater consistency in psychological screening.
In certain departments, applicants who are not cleared by the police psychologist can shop around for a second opinion. They have the opportunity to find another psychologist who will clear them for service, which creates the possibility that recruits who do not fit the proper psychological profile can still become police officers.
When police departments collaborate closely with the psychologists they can better identify reliable recruits. Grady said that when he sought to improve his department’s relationship with the community, he worked with a psychologist to help find applicants with a less aggressive mentality. “We found a psychologist that was willing to look for a more cerebral, more sensitive, empathetic, rational person than who was being hired as police officers,” he said.
Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.