The Washington State Patrols Hiring Practices Criminology Essay

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WSP Chief John Batiste, a seasoned law enforcement professional, noted that the Washington State Patrol makes a difference every day, enhancing the safety and security of our state by providing the best public safety services. (WSP, 2012). However, the WSP as well as many other law enforcement agencies are having a hard time competing for qualified candidates. Over the years, the WSP has modified its hiring practices to attract good trooper cadet candidates but still struggles to keep up with losses to the commissioned force. The WSP's current structure and organizational control has had a negative effect on recruiting and hiring new officers.

The Washington State Patrol is a professional law enforcement agency made up of dedicated professionals who work hard to improve the quality of life of our citizens and prevent the unnecessary loss of life on a daily basis. They continue to work aggressively to enforce laws around the state while protecting the people of Washington from injury and grief.

The 600 or so troopers patrolling the highways every day are the most visible part of this agency, but there are also over 1,000 civilian employees who are less visible and just as important. They include those who work for the State Fire Marshal to help prevent fires in your home or workplace; those who work as technicians and scientists in our crime labs processing DNA samples to help prosecute criminal cases; and they include investigative support staff who maintain our criminal records and databases so that sex offenders don't end up working with children.

Nationwide, police agencies are experiencing increasing levels of staff turnover and difficulty in recruiting new officers. If agencies like the WSP are not able to address this issue, a serious imbalance will form in many departments between the number of experienced officers and newer recruits. As a result, the average years of experience for patrol officers will drop significantly which can cause many issues and create liability and officer safety issues. Over time, agencies with higher turnover and less experienced officers will suffer a reduction in productivity and lower quality of service. In an article in The International Association of Chiefs of Police, Orrick (n.d.) reported that "never before has the recruitment and retention of police personnel been as critical or as challenging for police organizations as it is today. To address these challenges successfully, law enforcement leaders must examine the process in an entirely different manner." (IACP). Additionally, larger departments often struggle to find recruits who can meet the customer service aspect of a modern police officer's role. Initial hiring standards and the demands of the job often turn people away. Kolkey (2012) recently reported that "to become a police officer, there is a stringent background requirement that eliminates many candidates, drug testing, criminal records check and beyond that, the nature of policing has changed." (Rockford Register Star). He also went on to say that nationwide hundreds of individuals submit applications but the growing demands, rigorous testing, high standards and lengthy hiring process can make it difficult for many people. Pearsall (2012) noted that "an organization's success begins with its recruitment strategies…and as the national demographics continue to change, law enforcement agencies need to make sure that their department staffs continue to represent the communities they serve, including the underrepresented populations by race, religion, and gender" (Police Chief Magazine).What specifically is it that makes candidates shy away from the WSP and go to other agencies? Is it the testing process, starting salary or other factors?

First, we must look at this issue from an individual perspective. Is money the driving factor here which the WSP must consider when attempting to attract candidates? Robbins & Judge (2012) showed that in a recent poll of college freshman, "becoming well off financially was first on the list of 19 goals ahead of choices such as helping others, raising a family or becoming proficient in an academic pursuit" (p. 81). Typically, people do not chose a career in law enforcement to become "well off financially" and are driven to public service, helping others and making a difference. That being said, trooper cadets with the WSP start at $3188 a month, well below other officers in other state and local law enforcement agencies. Once out of the WSP Academy, troopers can expect to start at $3892 and progress to top trooper pay within five years as noted in Exhibit 1. That starting salary is well below the starting salary of an Oregon State Patrol Trooper at $4048 month, a King County Deputy Sheriff at $5022 a month or a Seattle Police Officer at $5359 a month.


Monthly Base Pay

0 - .5 years


.5 - 1.5


1.5 - 2.5


2.5 - 3.5


3.5 - 4.5


4.5 + years


Exhibit 1

Additionally, Washington State Patrol Trooper Association (WSPTA) Tommie Pillow supplied a salary comparison that was used in the last salary review. In 2007, the starting salary for WSP troopers was 17.5% below the average of the top 20 Washington State law enforcement agencies. Also, the WSP ranked 86 out of 100 total agencies reviewed a very poor showing. In addition to the pay disparity, once a trooper cadet is hired by the WSP, there is no guarantee that they will attend the academy in the near future. Academy classes are only authorized by the Washington State Legislature and based on the current budget. There have been cases where cadets stayed in their current position as long as 24 months before attending a 15 week academy. That is in stark contrast to an entry level officer with Seattle PD or King County Sheriff. New hires with those agencies go into a Field Training Officer assignment and perform police duties in a limited basis while waiting to attend the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission Academy in Burien, WA. So, unless a prospective trooper cadet candidate has a true desire to become a trooper, many who wish to go into law enforcement will be drawn toward other agencies and in some cases make as much as $1800 more a month. Over the last five years, the WSP has had four academy classes consisting of an average 45 trooper cadets per class. Even with those numbers, the WSP is having difficulty keeping up with the number of people retiring each month and prospective candidates are shying away based on the unpredictable trooper cadet classes. For other law enforcement agencies, the Criminal Justice Training Commission Academy holds academy classes several times a year. According to their official website, in 2013 alone they will be conducting eight academy classes. Granted, these classes are for multiple police agencies however for a person who wants to start into law enforcement quickly there are many other options than the WSP.

Initially, I thought the WSP hiring "process" was very long and cumbersome. However when compared to larger police departments the WSP seemed to be in-line with other larger agencies. Under the WSP hiring process, there are four distinct phases candidates must go through. According to the WSP website, Phase One consists of a written test, Phase Two is the oral board and is scheduled within the same month as Phase One, and Phase Three consists of a polygraph examination and extensive background investigation. If the candidate makes it this far, he is offered a medical examination, psychological test and interview with the department psychologist. This entire process, according to WSP LT Edward Swainson, could take up to six months depending on the number of applicants and the need to quickly fill vacant positions.

According to the Seattle Police Department website ( there are six different phases candidates go through and the hiring process can take up to one year. Their process consists of the initial application, the Civil Service written & video test, the Physical Ability test, Oral Board, an extensive background investigation, then the hiring process. After receiving a conditional offer of employment candidates will be scheduled for additional tests, including a polygraph, psychological, medical/physical exam and finally, an in-person interview with a Seattle Police Assistant Chief or his/her representative. Once a person receives a final offer of employment, they will be given an academy start date and employment orientation. The discussion so far has centered on an individual analysis of this issue and we must also consider analysis from an organizational perspective.

I had the opportunity to speak with two law enforcement professionals. First I spoke with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, a 20 year veteran. Appointed Sheriff of Spokane County on April 11, 2006 and elected in the fall, he oversees a staff of "593 personnel and is responsible for an annual budget of 68.4 million dollars". (Spokane County Annual Report, 2011). We spoke of the challenges of finding and recruiting new law enforcement officers. He provided a unique analysis. Knezovich said that the recruits, officers and law enforcement strategies of the "80's" have transitioned into a new force. In the 80's many of the people coming into law enforcement had prior military backgrounds, the law enforcement role was more "incident-driven" and the police function was to respond, control, and then go back in service. There was also a perception that officers were more removed from the community, but still had a passion for law enforcement. Now, over the last several years those Baby Boomers of Policing are now retiring and with that is a loss of valuable experience. The new breed or generation of candidates experience changing values about jobs, are better educated, and need to balance work & family. He also is concerned about this group as it relates to experience with drug use, obesity and debt. His mindset is not only driven by ethical behavior and standards but also realizing that the role of law enforcement is now based on a call to serve with the components of Prevention, Education and Enforcement. Knezovich also said that the recruitment effort must address community expectations. Additionally, new officers must be ethically sound and set the example. He said "if more people stood their ground when it comes to ethical behavior, we might not be where we are at in society right now".

I then spoke with WSP LT Edward Swainson, a 17 year veteran with the department. He has worked in many different divisions (detectives, field operations) and led a multi-agency auto theft task force before being promoted to lieutenant. He now works out of the WSP headquarters in Olympia, WA and one of his duties is to oversee the recruitment program. He indicated the challenges his department faces mirror those of other law enforcement agencies. One driving force has always been legislative mandates and the funding of not only the WSP, but the numerous other state agencies as well. He said that the history of the WSP is well founded on "tradition & service" and to our long standing motto, "Service with Humility". He said as society has changed so has its perceptions on what a trooper is and what their role is. Swainson said the trooper cadets hired 20 years ago really "wanted to be state troopers"; it was their passion, their desire. Now, the WSP is competing with other interests, other employers' and a work force that at times is less service oriented. Swainson said that over the last 10 years, upper management developed a strategic plan to address recruitment efforts. An active advertisement plan was organized and implemented, two troopers and a sergeant were tasked with monitoring and implementing the hiring process, each district in the state has at least two troopers who are "trooper recruiters". He said they had partnered with the many different military groups in the area and have even visited military bases in Japan, South Korea and Germany talking with military people who are leaving the military and considering other career fields. He did say that there are still areas which the WSP can improve the recruitment process. He said starting pay will always be an issue but needs to be constantly addressed with the legislature. He said two areas he would like to see improvement on is the hiring process which at times is long. The other area would be to better enhance the supervisor/management understanding of the changing workforce.

An initial analysis of my research has shown the WSP is experiencing the same challenges in recruitment as many other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. With the WSP, there is the re-occurring theme of starting salary, when compared to other police agencies. Another concern is the lack of staffing an academy class on a regular basis. However the WSP does have less control over this issue and must have a proactive plan to work with the citizens (stakeholders) and legislative body to keep this public safety issue on the front burner. Finally, the other area the WSP needs to address is how to best market and attract qualified trooper cadet applicants from a very diverse workforce; one that is much different now as addressed by Spokane County Sheriff Knezevoch and WSP LT Swainson. New challenges of the 21st century, including military call-ups, homeland security obligations, and increased competition, have combined to make the problem more acute. While many agencies are struggling, others are moving forward with innovative approaches.

Based on my analysis, I would recommend the following actions be taken by the WSP to address recruitment concerns: First, the WSP needs to be more engaged with the citizens. Community engagement can lead to a greater sense of trust in and respect for the law enforcement agency by citizens, while strengthening the organization's ability to identify and attract individuals who can serve as competent law enforcement personnel. While doing so those hired would more accurately reflect the ethnic make-up of the communities they serve.

Second, the hiring process must always be evaluated. The WSP should evaluate their hiring processes to assess if they are getting not simply the candidates they want, but also the candidates the community needs. They need to look at the relevance of traditional disqualifying factors, such as credit ratings, and height/weight standards to assess if they are unfair impediments to hiring quality police officers. It is clear that some police departments are often burdened with cumbersome recruitment and selection processes that can frustrate applicants and drive them to seek employment elsewhere. Based on my training and experience, the most effective recruitment and selection processes are those that are completed quickly and allow a candidate to move swiftly from application to employment decision points. If this means bringing in additional staff to process applicants on an ad-hoc basis, then that just might be the best course of action to take.

Third, the WSP needs to "tell their story" to the citizens. The WSP is full of traditions and history, all made by "citizens". Developing a marketing communication strategy that tells the true story of the Patrol, will offset media accounts of policing that could be negatively slanted or sensationalized. Telling factual stories of dedicated service by Washington State Patrol Troopers also values those who serve in the profession and increases the likelihood that potential applicants will be drawn to a career within the Patrol. Along with this the WSP executive staff should reach out to their media contacts to discuss the nature and scope of the police recruitment challenges. They already have a staff of public information officers who already have professional contacts with media, so this should be easy to accomplish. Proactive intervention with the media may rectify or blunt such criticism that officers are leaving the profession because of poor pay and benefits, low morale, excessive overtime, or officers' safety concerns, and that the citizens are being endangered because of police personnel shortages.

Third, the WSP needs to address diversity. One way of generating a positive perception is to ensure that all citizens hired by the agency, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or ethnicity, are faring well in promotions and high-profile job assignments. Women traditionally have had a hard time promoting above the rank of captain which is very unfortunate. A diverse and competent workforce is essential to the operation of a successful police agency.

Finally, to better serve many of the applicants by establishing some sort of personal relationship with the candidates from the start, by showing a welcoming and supportive attitude will pay dividends in the future. Supporting applicants includes accepting the fact that some may fall short at first, but they should be encouraged to continue involvement. A critical concept here is a promising applicant need not always be excluded from employment because of a deficiency that could be overcome with additional preparation. No one ever comes in 100% prepared or ready for employment and we should build on the applicants strong attributes and work on building any weaknesses the applicant might have.

Police recruitment and retention will continue to be an issue that police executives will need to address on a yearly basis. Being proactive and having a recruitment team backed by solid policy along interaction from the citizens will ensure for a more streamlined and successful recruitment program.