June 12, 2020


The Impact of COVID-19 on Police Recruitment and Hiring Practices

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many police departments and sheriffs’ offices already were having difficulty recruiting new officers and deputies.

Now, police agencies are facing almost unprecedented challenges, such as the cancellation of recruiting events at colleges, partial or full closures of police academies, and delays in group testing sessions. Police departments are addressing these challenges with creative ways of reaching out to community members for recruiting purposes, and adjusting the hiring process.

Agencies are also stepping up recruiting approaches detailed in PERF’s 2019 report, The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It, such as:

  • pursuing non-traditional candidates to enlarge the applicant pool;
  • emphasizing recruitment incentives, such as job stability; and
  • ensuring that recruitment processes encourage applicants, rather than thwarting them.

Today’s COVID-19 Report presents findings from a questionnaire that PERF sent on May 26 to persons who participated in PERF’s 2019 police workforce project. We asked them about the impact of COVID-19 on recruitment and hiring practices. More than 140 respondents completed the questionnaire.

In their responses, they emphasized that budget constraints and suspension of in-person recruitment and hiring events have been major setbacks in bringing new officers on board.

However, police departments are still managing to push hiring processes forward, and are reaching out to potential candidates through virtual interviews, smaller group testing sessions, active social media recruitment, and continuous recruitment periods.


Key Takeaways:

-- Police agencies have been forced to change their recruitment processes.  This includes:

  • Expanding the use of technology and social media,
  • Holding smaller testing sessions to meet social distancing requirements, and
  • Cancelling or adjusting polygraphs and physical fitness assessments.
-- Some agencies have changed their recruitment processes to mirror the private sector and increase efficiency, including:  
  • Open and continuous recruitment, and
  • “Headhunting” recruits.
-- Delays in academy re-openings and budget cuts will lead to reduced hiring and unfilled vacancies.
  • Some cities are leaving positions unfilled in anticipation of budget cuts.
  • Others agencies are freezing new hiring because of closed academies and the inability to hold training and testing sessions.
  • When civilian positions are cut, sworn personnel may need to take on additional duties.
  • Agencies that have funding for hiring but cannot hold academies are looking at lateral hires as a way to fill open positions.

-- During economic downturns, police jobs have greater appeal, due to the perceived stability of the job. However, agencies find it difficult to take advantage of this increased interest, because they face budget constraints.

Agencies are looking at how they can take advantage of the expanded pool of applicants during a time of high unemployment, without taxing their budgets.

-- Some agencies have found new innovations to be beneficial, while others are looking forward to resuming their normal recruitment processes.

For example, some agencies have found technology to be beneficial in reaching a wider applicant pool. Others find that the in-person components of recruiting are still an important part of the process, and are eager to return to in-person interviews and panels.


COVID-19 Related Changes in Hiring Processes and Recruitment

Social distancing has forced many police agencies to shift their recruitment approaches and to cancel or reduce in-person testing. PERF’s questionnaire found that almost 75% of responding police agencies have changed recruitment and hiring practices. These agencies are implementing physical safety precautions in hiring processes and relying on virtual recruitment through social media outreach.

Arlington County, VA Lieutenant Chad Ramsey:

We’re incorporating health protocols in the physical components of testing

We have continued hiring during COVID-19, with all phases of the process being adjusted for the safety of the applicants and our officers. All phases of hiring have specific guidelines to adhere to COVID-19 concerns. For example:

  1. Physical agility tests are still given at an outdoor field with strict social distancing and marked areas for each applicant. All shared items are wiped down after each use, and all officers assisting with the test are wearing the appropriate PPE. Applicants are closely monitored and follow all guidelines provided for them.
  2. Panel interviews are now done remotely. Applicants do not have to travel to the Police Department.
  3. Polygraphs are being administered.  The equipment is adjusted to give approximately six feet of distance between the applicant and tester. The applicant wears a surgical mask and our tester wears an N95 mask.

All our guidelines for testing have been approved by command staff and our county physician.


Chandler, AZ Lieutenant Melissa Deanda:

Continue active recruitment efforts, or competing agencies will step in

Normally we would conduct the physical and written portion of the testing process first, but because of COVID-19, we moved this to the last portion of the testing phase. When we finally conducted the physical and written testing portion, we screened the applicants with a questionnaire, temperature check, provided sanitizing materials, and adhered to social distancing throughout the process.

We also did not hold in-person oral boards, but opted for virtual oral boards using Google Duo. Our background interviews were conducted over the phone, as well as our Chief interviews for final applicants.

I think law enforcement agencies must continue to hire and modify their recruiting and hiring processes to fill vacant positions within their agencies, even during COVID-19 times. While each agency is doing something different, the need for police officers is still there.

If an agency idly waits out the pandemic and does not hire officers, they will find themselves in a difficult position with staffing. Normal attrition occurs, which will add to staffing issues.


Phoenix, AZ Commander Charles Consolian:

We have an online option for our written test

In May 2020, we began using an online testing system that allows applicants to take our written portion from anywhere in the world, as long as they have access to a computer and the internet.  This was in process before COVID-19.  It has enabled applicants who can’t or don’t want to travel to take the test without any risk of exposure.  It costs each applicant $35 to take the online test.

We also continue to have in-person testing opportunities three times a month in Phoenix.


Milton, GA Chief Rich Austin:

We moved toward online recruiting with a national scope

We reallocated funding for recruiting-related travel and events, redirecting it toward an enhanced online presence on job boards and other platforms.  The original plan was to move toward a broader national scope.  We kept that portion of the plan, but did so virtually instead of face-to face.


Fairfax County, VA Lieutenant and Asst. Commander Rachel Levy, Personnel Resources Division:

We’re doing virtual career fairs, and online sessions to help applicants with paperwork

Since the onset of COVID-19, we have shifted nearly all recruiting efforts to an online, virtual platform. Career fairs are being held virtually as opposed to in-person, and we are relying more heavily on social media messaging to get the word out about hiring. We are holding workshops and information sessions via teleconference to help applicants with completing the required paperwork, both in a group setting and one-on-one.


Seizing Recruitment Opportunities in an Uncertain Job Market

The economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic apparently has brought uncertainty to the police job market. PERF’s questionnaire found that police agencies have had mixed results on the number of applicants received, with 22% reporting a decrease, 19% reporting an increase, and 30% saying the number of applicants remained the same after the onset of COVID-19.  

Menomonie, WI Chief Eric Atkinson:

All our officers should be trained to think of themselves as recruiters

Now more than ever, it’s important to move toward a private-sector approach to headhunting good candidates, both in and outside the field of law enforcement.  All officers should be trained to have the mindset that they are employment/talent recruiters.  Any friendly contact with a community member is an opportunity to make a connection that could result in building trust and/or recruiting a new candidate.

We have streamlined our hiring process to be similar to the private sector.  We no longer hold lengthy hiring processes with an official open recruitment period. We now have continuous and open recruitment, regardless of whether we have open positions at a given time. We actively headhunt current officers, and persons with identifiable behavioral character traits that align with our mission/vision/core values. 

Our police administration meets with leaders from the civilian oversight and pick people to interview. Candidates are moved to the background process immediately upon a successful interview. This has reduced the hiring time by approximately 75%, and resulted in the hiring of some excellent candidates.


Irving, TX Chief Jeff Spivey:

The recession may bring us candidates who otherwise wouldn’t be thinking of a policing career

There’s a group of adults who are now unemployed and will be looking to find a way to feed their families. These may include people who would have never considered policing as a career before, but may be willing to give it a try because of the stability it offers.

Finding ways to promote our profession and our departments to these job seekers will be vitally important, and will look different from our traditional methods of recruitment.


Prince George’s County, MD Colonel Darrin Palmer:

Budget constraints limit our opportunity to recruit college graduates

The opportunities to reach college graduates at this time are significant, because job opportunities, especially in some of the social sciences, are reduced.  But the fiscal challenges for law enforcement budgets don’t give us the ability to take full advantage of this.


Budgetary constraints and academy closures force changes in filling vacancies

Chula Vista, CA Captain Eric Thunberg:

COVID has cut our recruit numbers by more than half

Due to the ongoing pandemic, we envision a reduction in the volume of recruits we are able to bring on board.  We use a regional academy that runs 4 sessions a year.  Without the ability to accept large numbers of applicants, we will find that we are only able to fill 2-3 slots in each academy, rather than the 6-7 we were filling before COVID-19.


Concord, MA Chief Joseph O’Connor:

We may shift to lateral hiring due to academy unavailability

For recruiting, we are dependent on our Human Resources Department and medical professionals to move our process along. We believe we are now in a position to fill positions with lateral officers. If we were to hire new recruits, we would have difficulty finding academy seats.


Beloit, WI Chief David Zibolski:

We’re holding positions open due to budget cuts

Budget shortfalls are already causing our city administration to hold positions open to offset the loss of revenues.  This puts us further behind in a race we have been continuously running, and reduces service delivery overall.  It was hard enough to recruit before, but with some cities, like ours, holding back, we will likely lose good candidates to cities that aren’t holding back on public safety positions.


Henrico County, VA Chief Humberto Cardounel:

Civilian duties may be shifted to sworn officers

Our sworn positions are not frozen, but civilian positions are frozen indefinitely.  This will have a ripple effect on sworn assignments, depending on how long these hiring restrictions last.  Sworn officers may need to assume additional support and administrative responsibilities in the meantime.


Recruitment and hiring changes may bring unexpected benefits

Agencies are finding unexpected benefits from having to shift gears and get creative with their recruitment and hiring strategies.

Huntington Beach, CA Chief Robert Handy:

The shift to online interviews has been less of an issue than we feared

There is no substitute for evaluating a candidate in person, but we will continue to use Zoom in some circumstances for selected interviews where we need flexibility.  I think it turned out to be less of an issue than we feared.  We will continue to require applicants to upload and manage their own data that they submit electronically.  The electronic system we deployed right at the start of the pandemic has been a significant time-saver.  We will continue to rely more and more on social media for recruiting.


Apex, NC Chief John Letteney:

Virtual interviews attract out-of-state applicants

We had a good experience with video conferencing for interviews.  We usually attract several out-of-state candidates for our open positions, and are discussing the possibility of using this system going forward for some candidates.  This reduces the need and expense for them to travel long distances simply for an interview.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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