Playing the Long Game: Law Enforcement Recruitment

By Timothy Karch, M.S.

A stock image of police recruits running in two lines.

Public perception of law enforcement has worsened since the highly publicized incidents of 2020. Unfolding on television and social media nationwide, the events brought forth political pressure to change the way agencies operate.

As criticism from politicians and cries from protestors to defund the police echoed throughout the country, COVID-19 changed the business world. The pandemic created multiple telecommuting opportunities that provided more flexibility, freedom, and, in some cases, money than traditional in-person office jobs.

These opportunities, combined with the negativity and lack of support surrounding law enforcement, have led to a record number of resignations and retirements. Younger officers have left the criminal justice field in pursuit of more lucrative, less scrutinized, and less dangerous occupations. Many of the more experienced members of the profession have retired, taking all their knowledge and expertise with them.1

A Police Executive Research Forum survey indicated that between 2020 and 2021, the law enforcement resignation and retirement rates increased by 18% and 45%, respectively.2 Four of the largest metropolitan police departments are collectively down over 5,400 officers during 2022 and 2023.3 Further, law enforcement is experiencing a drastic decrease in the number of recruits — 27% to 60%, depending on the area.4

Lieutenant Timothy Karch

Lieutenant Karch serves with the Brighton Police Department in Rochester, New York, and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 285.

Such challenges have created significant shortcomings for the profession.5 In business, understaffing might lead to less profit, decreased stock prices, or unfinished projects. For law enforcement, it means increased crime; a heightened risk to public safety; reduction in service; and overworked officers susceptible to fatigue and burnout, leading to poor decision-making and various mental health issues.6

With so many officers leaving and fewer people wanting to enter the law enforcement profession, how can leaders find qualified candidates to fill vacancies?

Short-Term Solutions

To increase the candidate pool, some agencies have reduced their hiring standards. They have eliminated or minimized college educational requirements, revised tattoo policies, become more lenient with prior drug use, relaxed standards on credit checks, and/or become more accepting of those with minor arrest records. Some departments have even dropped physical fitness requirements for recruits to be accepted to and/or graduate from their police academies.7

While these measures could increase the number of viable applicants, reducing the standards for potential officers also significantly increases community risk and agency liability.

Less educated officers are more likely to use force to resolve situations.8 The same holds true for those unable to meet physical fitness standards because they lack the strength and stamina to resolve situations in a tactically safe manner. Additionally, officers with subpar fitness levels have a heightened risk of injuries and health problems, leading to increased absenteeism and overtime and healthcare costs.9 Those with poor credit may have financial issues that could lead to corruption. Prior drug use may lead officers to continue using when job stressors emerge. Finally, those who have committed crimes may reoffend.10

These issues could lead to local or national headlines, putting an agency and the entire profession in the crosshairs of social reformers and prosecutors. Further, it may become more difficult to recruit new candidates.

Some agencies also attempt to fill vacancies by luring active police officers away from their current employers through signing bonuses, higher salaries, and/or other benefits.11 This technique may help departments with large budgets fill an opening, but it only creates a vacancy in another agency. Offering incentives to officers from other departments may be a temporary solution; however, these transfers will likely only stay until another organization offers a bigger signing bonus or better benefits.

Other departments focus their efforts on recruiting applicants at college job fairs. However, a college student likely already has their career aspirations in mind and course of study set. Of course, students may change majors or career goals before graduation, but it is a hard sell to make during a short interaction at a career fair.

Long-Term Investments

Lowering applicant standards, poaching officers from other departments, and recruiting college students may temporarily help fill vacancies, but these techniques will not build a sustainable applicant pool.

Agencies must play the long game by developing a recruiting pipeline that consistently creates positive interactions with the community’s youths and exposes them to the organization’s work, traditions, culture, values, and benefits.12 To that end, agencies can consider two external programs: Law Enforcement Exploring and Public Safety Cadets.

Learning for Life, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America, manages the Law Enforcement Exploring program. It partners with police departments to allow kids ages 10 to 20 to regularly interact with officers. Participants observe what the real world of law enforcement is like compared to what they see in the movies and on television. The program provides hands-on training and career preparation to give children a leg up on the competition in the hiring process. Explorers can engage in volunteer work and participate in ride alongs, community events, and competitions, all while developing leadership skills.13

“Lowering applicant standards, poaching officers from other departments, and recruiting college students may temporarily help fill vacancies, but these techniques will not build a sustainable applicant pool.”

The Public Safety Cadets program, managed by active and retired police professionals, also provides law enforcement career preparation through hands-on training and opportunities with local agencies. It is geared toward older children, ages 14 to 20, who are given volunteer opportunities to engage with their communities. Additionally, the program hosts local and national competitions and training conferences.14

Both programs foster positive interactions between law enforcement organizations and members of their communities. The positive results of these opportunities do not stop with the participants themselves. Benefits spread to their entire social network, both real and virtual, thereby improving law enforcement’s image. Further, when the kids age out of the programs, they pursue careers in the field they have been learning about, creating an applicant pool that already knows the culture, expectations, values, and traditions associated with law enforcement.

If an external program such as Law Enforcement Exploring or Public Safety Cadets is not the right fit for an organization, there is no reason not to start a department-specific training program. By using similar guidelines or developing new procedures, agencies can build their own cadet programs to reach community youths.

Successful in-house programs provide valuable insight into the world of law enforcement and train participants to become future officers. Other benefits typically include compensation, college credits, and/or academic tuition grants.15 Cadet programs help not only the sponsoring agency and the law enforcement profession but also the participants. By investing in and developing young people in their communities, departments build a positive reputation while creating the officers of tomorrow.


No matter what kind of youth outreach program an agency decides to use, law enforcement executives must recognize and invest in it long-term as the pipeline for future officers. The program needs adequate time, attention, and funding so the organization and profession can reap the benefits of having knowledgeable, skilled applicants who know what they are embarking on and are eager to serve their communities. Playing the long game with recruitment is the key to bringing positivity and a stronger, larger workforce back into law enforcement.

“Playing the long game with recruitment is the key to bringing positivity and a stronger, larger workforce back into law enforcement.”

Lieutenant Karch can be reached at


1 Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2019),; and Sharon O’Malley, “$15,000 Signing Bonuses and $130,000 Salaries for Police Recruits,” Route Fifty, September 6, 2021,
2 “PERF Special Report: Survey on Police Workforce Trends,” Police Executive Research Forum, June 11, 2021,
3 Ryan Young and Devon Sayers, “Why Police Forces Are Struggling to Recruit and Keep Officers,” CNN, February 3, 2022,; and Emma Colton, “NYPD Sees Largest Staff Exodus in Decades with Leaders ‘Refusing to Acknowledge’ Mounting Crisis: Union Boss,” Fox News, February 2, 2023,
4 Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis.
5 Ibid.
6 Dean Balsamini, “NYPD Exodus: Police on Pace to Quit, Retire in Record Numbers,” New York Post, June 11, 2022,; Colin Tiernan, “Applicants Scarce for Open Law Enforcement Positions,” Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), April 24, 2021,; and Steve Lynk, “Understanding and Combating Officer Burnout,” American Police Beat, September 19, 2021,
7 Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis; and Dave Collins and Lisa Maria Pane, “Police Loosen Standards for Accepting Recruits,” Police1, November 15, 2016,
8 Cedric Alexander, “Guest Post: Raise, Not Lower, Police Hiring Standards to Restore Public Trust,” Washington Post, April 29, 2022,; and Jason Rydberg and William Terrill, “The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior,” Police Quarterly 13, no. 1 (January 2010): 92-120,
9 Michael C. Harper and Matthew Wagner, “Enhancing Officer Safety and Survivability,” Police Chief, May 19, 2021,; and Sonia Quinones, “Physical Fitness and Wellness at the Hallandale Beach Police Department” (research paper, Florida Criminal Justice Executive Institute, 2009), 1-13,
10 Lynk; and Doug Wyllie, “Police Hiring Standards: Raise Them or Lower Them?” Police1, December 16, 2016,
11 Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis; and Kristin Thorne, “NYPD Officers Quitting in Record Numbers Amid Growing Issue Over New York City Crime,” WABC-TV, October 29, 2022,
12 Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis; and Wyllie.
13 “Law Enforcement Exploring,” Exploring, accessed February 27, 2023,; and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Center for Education and Workforce, “Boy Scouts Connect Youth to Career Opportunities,” From the Chamber Foundation Blog, August 23, 2016,
14 “About Public Safety Cadets,” Public Safety Cadets, accessed February 29, 2024,
15 For example, see “Metropolitan Police Department Cadet Corps,” Join Metropolitan Police Department, accessed February 29, 2024,; “Cadet Corps Requirements and Benefits,” New York Police Department, accessed February 29, 2024,; and “Police Cadet Program,” City of Boston, accessed February 29, 2024,