Ask the Expert: Leonard Matarese on Building a Police Force to Meet the Changing Environment

In a changing and often disruptive environment, police departments need to examine the way they recruit, screen, and train police officers. Public safety expert Leonard Matarese explains.

ARTICLE | Nov 16, 2016

Some of the biggest challenges local government leaders face in an era of disruptive change are in the law enforcement area. Leonard Matarese, co-founder of the Center for Public Safety Management, exclusive provider of public safety technical assistance to ICMA, crisscrosses the country working with cities, towns, and counties on police/community relations and other public safety issues. He shared some of his insights on making cities safer.

ICMA: How have the qualifications for law enforcement leadership changed in recent years?

MATARESE: It’s not about being the best detective, or the best investigator, or making the most arrests. To be a leader in law enforcement today you need to have a vision and strategic planning skills and be working strenuously to build relationships with all parts of the community before a crisis occurs. It’s important that leaders have developed ongoing relationships with various segments within the community and have the ability to communicate with and inspire officers.

ICMA: What do you do when you are asked to help a jurisdiction find a new chief?

MATARESE: We look at what specific challenges the new chief will face in that particular community. That means the search will vary from city to city. The entire selection process is built around core competencies for that organization and that community.

ICMA: Given the pervasive disruptive changes taking place in the U.S. today—from terrorist attacks like San Bernardino to the focus on police shootings of unarmed African American men—are local governments keeping pace with the attributes, skills, and capabilities needed for today’s police officers and leaders?

MATARESE: No, we have never clearly identified a model for a successful police officer candidate. Current criteria often revolve around areas like physical capabilities, written tests, and educational level, but no one has ever determined whether any of those things are predictors of success in today’s environment. We don’t know what a successful police officer is.

By using outdated criteria, it appears that we are screening out a lot of the people who could be good candidates with no evidence of a real correlation between the standards being set and an officer’s ultimate performance. Here’s an example: Some departments screen out people based on prior marijuana use. Well, a significant portion of young people have used marijuana, and it’s legal now. If we want officers who are representative of the communities they serve, how many teenagers have not used marijuana? The FBI recently changed its position on this, for example, and now considers applicants who have not used marijuana in the three years prior to application.

Another example is that data show female officers have fewer altercations and use of force problems than males, but physical performance criteria may rule them out for some jobs. The ability to climb a six-foot wall may have worked as a screen many years ago, but today, with the proliferation of guns, it’s not recommended that an officer climb a six-foot wall in pursuit.

ICMA: Can you point to hiring changes and practices that seem to be working in the current social environment?

MATARESE: One recruiting strategy is to hire “in the spirit of public service”—looking for people who are service-oriented rather than seeking an adrenaline rush and who will communicate well with the public. Some departments are actively recruiting people who worked in a service industry. Bartenders are a great example—they often deal with difficult people but sometimes don’t have the requisite two years of college so may be screened out. Another department has had great success hiring former high school janitors. They are used to dealing with young people in a non-confrontational manner. For entry-level positions, having college credits may not be the best requirement, although it becomes more important the higher you go in the organization. Looking for officers who still live in the neighborhood and have a strong connection to the community is another strategy.

ICMA: Any other best practices you can share?

MATARESE: We really like the idea of police cadets. This is a sort of internship where the cadet works alongside an officer and perhaps takes nonviolent calls. It gives the cadet a couple years of experience while attending college. The best predictor of future performance is past performance, and this “work part-time, go to school part-time” scenario gives the department an opportunity to learn how the cadet will perform as an officer and helps build the relationship. It also provides a ladder for low-income kids to earn money while attending college and have a full-time, well-paying job when they are ready.

Another trend is that a greater number of departments are using social workers to deal with domestic violence and child abuse issues. Many jobs don’t require the employee to carry a gun and make an arrest. Examples include crime analysis, victims outreach, and investigations of nonviolent crimes. Even at the command staff level there may be civilians better qualified to do jobs such as department administration, which requires good business management skills.

Departments are finding that communication—whether through the department’s website, social media, or other means—helps build relationships and trust with the community. Some departments post neighborhood crime reports on their websites. In Boca Raton, Florida, for example, the community follows the police chief on social media because they know he has a reliable presence there.

Finally, find out what the public truly wants. Use surveys and other data to set requirements. One department thought the public wanted an officer to show up at the door within 30 minutes of reporting a bike theft. In reality, all they really wanted was to be able to report the theft and go on about their day. That was taken care of by a telephone report—it satisfied the community need and was a lot more efficient for the department.

The Center for Public Safety Management, LLC (CPSM) is dedicated to improving local government performance (effectiveness and efficiency) through the identification, promotion, and application of leading practices. It is the exclusive provider of Public Safety services for ICMA. It has conducted 269 public safety projects in 196 localities in 39 states and provinces. Contact: 800-998-3392.

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