How can cities diversify their police workforce?
In collaboration with the Behavioral Insights Team, we worked in over 20 cities and counties across the U.S. to test different ways to improve police recruitment and applicant retention. We learned that while contexts vary by city, traditional messages that ask people to “come serve their community” or “answer the call for service” are not the most effective way to bring in new applicants. Rather, recruitment messages are more effective when they reflect other intrinsic and extrinsic reasons why someone may want to become a police officer. For example, emphasizing that policing was for people who thrived in a challenging environment or that the job was best for those who wanted a long-term career, significantly increased the likelihood that a person would apply and was even more effective for people of color.
Why is this issue important?
Attracting great candidates from diverse backgrounds is crucial to building a government workforce that can serve communities effectively and build trust among residents. This need is especially urgent in law enforcement agencies, where there has been a renewed focus on how to attract and retain candidates, especially those from backgrounds that are currently underrepresented within the police. Police forces are often working with tight budgets, strong unions, and political pressures. These factors make structural solutions, such as redefining job roles or changing pay and benefits, extremely difficult. To make an impact today, many agencies are in need of a different set of solutions that can correctly identify and convert latent interest from prospective applicants within the existing constraints of the job.
What are we doing?
In these projects, we ran a series of randomized controlled trials that tested communication strategies aimed at 1) increasing job applications from diverse candidates, and 2) increasing the number of applicants that make it through key steps in the application process. In the RCTs aimed at increasing job applications, we tested variations on how the job of a police officer was framed on targeted job ads and measured what frame was most effective at encouraging new and different people to apply. We also tested different job ad media such as postcards, emails, and facebook advertisements. Each trial typically involved a sample of approximately 20,000 people that were randomly assigned to receive different message frames. These trials were completed in Chattanooga, TN; Tacoma, WA; South Bend, IN; Washington, DC; Little Rock, AR; Fort Worth, TX; Scottsdale, AZ; and Los Angeles, CA. In the RCTs aimed at increasing applicant follow-through, we tested different follow-up message frames to people who started applications or signaled interest in applying in the past and measured what frame led to higher completion rates of application steps like scheduling, completing, or submitting scores on job exams. We primarily tested emails as the message medium but also the combination of emails and text messages. Each trial typically involved a sample of approximately 2,000 people that were randomly assigned to receive different message frames. These trials were completed in San Jose CA; Baltimore, MD; Chattanooga, TN; New Orleans, LA; Los Angeles, CA; and Tacoma, WA. We also surveyed current police officers and trainees to better understand their motivations for joining the police. The survey was completed by over 1,000 officers and trainees in 12 police jurisdictions— Charleston, SC; Chattanooga, TN; Chula Vista, CA; Gresham, OR; Independence, MI; Kansas City, KS; Little Rock, AR; Madison, WI; Scottsdale, AZ; Tacoma, WA; Tulsa, OK; and Wyandotte County, KS.
What have we learned?
Even small changes in how jobs are advertised can make a real difference to both the total number of applicants and the diversity of those applicants. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, we found that postcards asking “Are you ready to serve?” were no better at soliciting applications than never sending a postcard at all. In contrast, postcards that asked “Are you up for the challenge?” or “Are you looking for a long-term career?” attracted three times more applicants than the no-postcard group and drove a fourfold increase in applications from people of color. In South Bend, Indiana, we tested postcards that referred to aspects of a police officer’s identity at home and at work to show that there are many sides to being a police officer. This approach was powerful, with recipients of this postcard being seven times more likely to complete an application than those who were not prompted. While many agencies focus on drawing in new candidates, improving these procedural pain points in the application process not only makes recruitment more efficient but can also keep great candidates in the process. In Los Angeles, CA revamping the email candidates received inviting them to turn in their Personal History Statement and reminding them with a short text message increased the number of people who submitted the form by 15 percent and the number who submitted it in less than two weeks by nearly 40 percent. While police departments spend immense effort and resources in outreach to specific neighborhoods and colleges, sometimes potential recruits are not where we would expect. Reaching out to those who have already shown some interest in public service may be particularly effective, and reaching out to targeted neighborhoods may backfire. In Portland, OR, we targeted job ads to specific neighborhoods whose residents were underrepresented in the police force. We were surprised to find that the combination of targeted neighborhood outreach with a postcard including the line “Your Neighborhood, Your Police” may have backfired, soliciting no applications or National Testing Network (NTN) exam completions (a national test for frontline law enforcement) at all from its recipients. In contrast, emphasizing the salary and benefits associated with a policing job was more effective than a neighborhood emphasis in boosting applications and completion of the NTN exam.
What comes next?
TPL continues to work on how to recruit and retain diverse talent into government. We are now using these insights and approaches to consider recruitment in other parts of the civil service.