Faced with hundreds of vacancies for police officers, the Honolulu Police Department is changing things up in its recruiting process in the hopes of attracting a more qualified and diverse pool of candidates.

Starting July 1, Honolulu police will do away with processing new recruits as a class and accept applications on a rolling basis. It’s also ramping up informational sessions, some of which target specific groups, and using new digital tools.

“Our challenge is trying to find quality applicants that would be suitable,” said Maj. Aaron Takasaki-Young, who heads the human resources division at HPD.

It’s not that there’s no one applying, he said, but that there are not enough who have what it takes to be a police officer.

Honolulu police are inviting potential recruits to work out with them in an effort to attract more qualified candidates. Sgt. Brandt Tsuha, center, leads a run near Magic Island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HPD has the capacity for 2,143 sworn officers, he said. About 270 positions are currently vacant, though about 50 of those would be filled when new recruits start in July.

Police officer shortage isn’t an issue that’s unique to Honolulu, Takasaki-Young said. Law enforcement agencies across the country face the same challenge, which makes it even more difficult to attract good applicants.

“We’re all competing for the same available workforce,” he said.

The Police Research Executive Forum, an independent research organization focusing on policing, conducted a survey of law enforcement agencies after hearing repeated anecdotes from departments about recruiting challenges, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director.

“The results were pretty striking in what they said to us,” he said.

Of the 400 or so agencies that responded, preliminary results showed that about 60% reported decreases in recruit prospects over the past five years.

The public’s changing perception of the police and what it takes to be an officer have made the job less appealing to the younger generation, Wexler said.

“Quite frankly, the narrative about police has not been good,” he said.

Videos showing police officers’ use of deadly force, whether they are from civilians or from police body cameras, have “shone the spotlight on the police.”

There’s never been so much scrutiny on the profession as there is now, he said. “And that gives people pause.”

The Honolulu Police Department has about 270 open positions for sworn officers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

On top of that, outdated policies that reflect the values of the previous generation may preclude younger people from applying, or even meeting the requirements to qualify, Wexler said. For instance, many departments have stringent policies limiting tattoos.

The hiring processes also tend to be quite lengthy and complicated, he said. That mostly has to do with extensive background checks, which could take months to a year.

“Departments are having to rethink how they recruit,” he said. “Traditional methods aren’t working. They have to be more creative, more proactive.”

‘We’re Trying to Get To 100% Strength’

The shortage in police officers has cost HPD about $8 million in overtime pay, said HPD Deputy Chief John McCarthy.

The department wants to keep the patrol staffing level at about 80%, as of January this year, he said. That percentage could not have been reached without getting officers to work overtime.

The deputy chief said the department recognizes that overtime work could lead to officer burnout and lower work production. “The alternative is not having policemen out there,” he added.

HPD wants to fill every vacancy, McCarthy said. “We’re trying to get to 100% strength.”

To do that, Takasaki-Young, the head of HPD’s HR division, said the agency is trying multiple approaches, including increased community engagement through informational sessions and workout programs, and developing digital tools that make the application process easier.

The police department now has a stand-alone website for recruiting, which includes an online chat function. Those interested in applying can instantly chat with a recruiter and ask questions.

Another program geared toward reaching potential recruits is HPDFit, a workout program that allows anyone to work out with recruiters at Ala Moana Beach Park and learn about the physical fitness requirements of a police officer.

“It’s also a way to connect, build a relationship with recruiters,” Takasaki-Young said.

Honolulu Police Recruiting Website
The Honolulu Police Department has set up a website in an effort to attract new recruits. The website’s features include a chatting mechanism to ask recruiters questions. Screenshot

HPD also wants to engage with people who may not have considered becoming a police officer. For example, it’s holding an informational session specifically for women, who he said may have preconceived notions about the job.

“We’re open to anybody, male, female,” Takasaki-Young said. HPD’s force is currently about 12% female.

An outside organization has also stepped up to help. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement runs a program called the Hawaiian Police Program through its trade academy, which walks Native Hawaiian candidates through the application process.

Going through the program doesn’t guarantee that an applicant will be accepted, Takasaki-Young said. But it helps people along the way.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard also wants to make it easier for police officers from other departments across the country to come to Hawaii, he said.

Takasaki-Young said the department is working on forming a lateral program that would reduce the time those officers would have to spend in recruit training before they can jump into the field, cutting training from six months to about three to four months.

Other departments have also come to Hawaii to recruit police officers who work here.

“Everywhere people are always looking for good quality employees,” Takasaki-Young said of lateral programs. “I really wouldn’t say they’re poaching.”

National Problem, Universal Ideas

In May 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum held a town hall in Nashville, Tennessee, where police chiefs from around the U.S. gathered to talk about what they could do to fix the police officer shortage problem.

“I realize we all draw our own version of the short straw in different ways, because processes for government hiring in general are not well suited to the demands we face in hiring police officers today,” Chris Magnus, police chief in Tucson, Arizona, and an at-large member of PERF, said at the town hall.

Police leaders talked about many ideas for attracting more people at the town hall, including checking for biases in department policies, considering family situations when recruiting laterally and offering incentives, according to a PERF report about the event.

HPD Recruitment Training as left, HPD Officer Ilse Pratt talks about sit ups and how many recruits need to accomplish in a set amount of time at Magic Island.
HPD Ofc. Ilse Pratt talks with potential recruits at a recent training session at Magic Island. HPD is one of many departments trying to attract more women. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One example is the Fresno, California, police department, which gives a $10,000 bonus for lateral recruits and increased time off for patrol officers. Police Chief Jerry Dyer told fellow leaders at the meeting that those things helped reduce the vacancy rate to just 1%.

Nick Metz, the co-police chief of Aurora, Colorado, said his department brings in not only the lateral recruits themselves but also their families to determine if Aurora is the right place for them. “We want the family members to be happy about moving to Aurora from out of state or from a different city in Colorado,” he was quoted as saying in the town hall report.

A common point brought up by many of the police leaders was to make sure the background checks on candidates are not excessive. Some departments, including those in California, are re-evaluating candidates’ past drug use or minor blemishes in financial history.

But law enforcement agencies must figure out how to balance softening stringent requirements and making sure that the applicants are right for their department, said Wexler of the Policy Executive Research Forum.

“You don’t want to make a mistake in hiring because if you do, you will feel it for the next 10, 20 years,” he said. “It only takes one bad police officer to wreak havoc in the department.”

Each department has a unique set of challenges in trying to hire the right people, he said.

A department like Honolulu may benefit from “grow your own” cadet programs, where recruiters create a pipeline to the department as early as high school, he said. That way, the department can attract more people who reflect the values and demographics of the community.

“They could get paid, learn about the police department and hopefully be persuaded to actually take the exam and become police officers,” Wexler said.

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