Police recruitment: Challenges and initiatives

Author: Jo Faragher

We look at some of the initiatives that have been taken to boost recruitment in the police sector, and highlight what the police can learn from HM Prison and Probation Service's recruitment campaign.


The impact of budget cuts and rising demands on the police has been well documented. The picture is rarely positive: an investigation by The Times in 2017 revealed that police resignations had doubled since 2011. Home Office figures show that, in the year to 31 March 2018, forces in England and Wales had the lowest number of police officers at the end of a financial year since comparable records began in 1996.

Police forces face a tough challenge to change perceptions and attract enough high-calibre candidates. We look at the some of the recruitment initiatives that forces have taken to counter the difficulties.

Funds for more officers

In his Spring Statement 2019, chancellor Philip Hammond announced that he would make available an extra £100 million to forces in the areas in England and Wales worst affected by serious violence and knife crime to enable them to tackle it, with a portion of this to be focused on getting more officers on the streets.

In addition to this, a number of forces already have initiatives in place to tackle the skills shortages faced not just at officer level, but in leadership roles and specialist occupations such as forensics.

Essex Police, for example, ran a fast-track direct entry scheme whereby, after a year-long diploma, successful recruits could move into a trainee detective role.

Carers' return pilot

In early March 2019, the Government announced a pilot initiative across nine forces to help those who have left for caring responsibilities back into investigative roles.

Carers' return pilot

Participating forces:

  • City of London
  • Essex
  • Greater Manchester
  • Hampshire
  • Kent
  • South Wales
  • Surrey
  • Sussex
  • Thames Valley

In June 2018, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary's Annual Assessment of Policing in England and Wales found that there were 17% fewer investigators than were needed in England, so access to returners' wide range of skills and experience will be invaluable.

However, to be able to maximise access to potential returners' skills, there needed to be a change in regulations to remove the previous requirement that former officers must rejoin within five years if they want to retain their previous rank. Superintendent Paula Light, programme lead for direct entry at the College of Policing, explains: "Previously, if you wanted to come back after five years, you'd have to start as a police constable, with no way of using the knowledge and experience you'd picked up. Now you can come back at any point at the same, lower or higher rank than before. This has opened up a great deal of flexibility in recruiting that wasn't there before."

There are 10 "rejoiner principles", which set minimum standards for candidates coming back into the service but that also ensure returners receive enough support and guidance to feel confident in their roles. They go through the selection process like any other candidate, but forces are encouraged to advertise all appropriate roles as suitable for returning officers. Superintendent Light adds: "We have to look at the practicalities of people coming back, as well as the emotional intelligence and soft skills that sit behind the role - do they need flexible working patterns, for example? We don't want to bring them back and work them into the ground; we want to become an employer of choice and keep them."

We have to look at the practicalities of people coming back, as well as the emotional intelligence and soft skills that sit behind the role ...

Superintendent Paula Light, College of Policing

The aim is to recruit 50 people through the pilot, and the Government has issued guidance on how other forces can follow the lead of the initial nine forces, with many already expressing interest in launching similar schemes.


When it comes to bringing in officers at entry level, a number of forces now offer apprenticeship programmes, including Kent, West Midlands and Cheshire. These are not just for front-line roles: many offer training in business and administration, IT and vehicle maintenance.

There are also degree-level higher apprenticeship routes.

Police Now

One of the most successful initiatives at entry level has been the Police Now programme, which has partnered with 28 forces across England and Wales to improve their leadership pipelines by attracting high-achieving graduates. The programme recruits people who may not have previously considered policing, and there is a 20% target for recruits from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

The course lasts two years, and candidates must first complete an intensive, six-week summer residential academy programme before they are posted to a challenging community.

Once the two-year course has ended, participants can continue in an officer role, move into another area of focus such as the National Detective Programme, or leave policing altogether.

If Police Now graduates leave the force, it is hoped that they will become ambassadors for working life in the police service - helping it to challenge negative perceptions.

Bespoke solutions

While there are numerous recruitment challenges shared by forces in England and Wales, different police employers also face their own particular obstacles and have to build bespoke solutions to overcome them.

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Surrey Police, for example, felt it struggled to attract detective talent as it is "in the shadow of the Met", according to Laura Pope, managing partner at TMP Worldwide, a recruitment communications company that created a number of hiring campaigns for the force.

She says: "There's a perception that only detectives serving in the big city get the chance to work on big cases and solve serious crime. The perception is that it's quiet and boring. But the truth of being a Surrey Police detective is quite different. It's complex. It's challenging. And it's rewarding."

In a bid to attract experienced detective constables from other forces, TMP Worldwide created a video that challenged some of these perceptions, showing potential candidates that they could have the career and development they wanted, while also reassuring the public that they are well protected and that Surrey is a safe place to live.

There is the credibility of hearing a future peer explain the realities of what they do ...

Laura Pope, TMP Worldwide

The agency worked with documentary filmmakers to build a campaign: Be the detective you always wanted to be, involving real detectives and visuals that would convey the reality of working for Surrey Police in this role. The decision was taken to use video because "an emotive piece of film gives you the desire to be part of something," says Pope. "There is the credibility of hearing a future peer explain the realities of what they do - there are very few mediums that can so absorb a potential candidate or employee as powerfully as film."

From the initial campaign, there were 24 hires in nine months, as well as ongoing interviews and hires. The video has received 6,000 clicks through social media on channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

Prison and Probation Service campaign

An employer that shares many of the challenges faced by the police service is HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

It needs to recruit a high volume of prison officers each year, attract good quality candidates into senior governor roles, and source specialist skills for niche jobs such as forensic psychologists.

Emma Coleman, account director at recruitment communications agency Havas People, has worked with the Ministry of Justice on a number of recruitment campaigns, notably HMPPS' senior leadership scheme.

Taking on the public's negative perceptions of what it is like to work in the prison service was no mean feat. "We need individuals who are passionate about changing the prison service, so we set out to turn some of these perceptions on their head," she explains. They analysed what was being said across social media channels - coming up against unsubstantiated comments such as "How hard can it be to run a prison? Just lock them up and let them get on with it" - and took the decision to make these "armchair experts" the central focus.

If it was easy, we wouldn't need you

HMPPS/Havas People Campaign

Their campaign to recruit deputy governors led with the strapline "If it was easy, we wouldn't need you". Facebook was one of the main channels, where Havas placed highly-targeted, sponsored posts and sent links to those who engaged via Messenger. The agency also created a series of videos to give a more realistic picture of life as a governor for HMPPS.

A three-week campaign in September 2017 aimed to attract 400 applications but generated 516, and 24 were hired - four more than the original target of 20.

In January 2019, the organisation began recruiting for the second cohort. This included taking out full-page newspaper adverts in Metro where new governors wrote honest letters about their experiences in prison, covering themes such as "I'm a female governor and nobody expects that" and "How are we rehabilitating prisoners?". The organisation has also tweaked the campaign to target those with around four years' experience in a commercial environment.

"It helped that we'd brought in the first cohort and never shut that conversation down. We wanted to lift the curtain and show people the reality of working in a prison," adds Coleman. Governor training lasts between two and three years, where recruits are rotated around different sites so that they can immerse themselves in the differences between, for example, a women's prison and a high security facility. "We don't want them to get used to one type of environment - we want a diversity of skills and expose them to different challenges so they're able to adapt."

Representative workforce

Like any other public-sector employer, police and prison organisations are under particular scrutiny to bring in a diverse workforce that reflects the communities they serve, not least because of their obligations under the public-sector equality duty.

At 31 March 2018, Home Office figures figures showed that 7% of all officers in England and Wales were black and minority ethnic (BME), compared to 14% of the population. More than a quarter of new police recruits (27%) to the Metropolitan Police were BME, however, compared to 9% of joiners nationally. While those figures are encouraging, 14% of officers identifying as BME compared to London's BME population of 40% means that there is still some way to go in terms of being truly representative.

But there has been marked progress. As HR director of the Met between 2001 and 2011 - when he oversaw a significant increase in BAME representation from 1% to 10% - Martin Tiplady argues that increasing diversity was his biggest challenge in that role.

"Initially we were targeted with recruiting so that 25% of all officers were from BAME backgrounds but that was a mathematical impossibility and would have meant that every single appointment over a 10-year period would be from an ethnic minority. Wholly unachievable," he says. "So we concentrated instead on increasing the attraction and ways of attracting more BAME candidates and using innovative means to do so, into the application process so at least we had more candidates to consider."

Recruitment buses

One of the biggest campaigns the Met ran during this time was to hire a number of "recruitment buses" mainly in London where they would be seen by a concentration of people from ethnic minorities living in areas such as Brick Lane and Brixton. Tiplady adds: "We parked up the vehicles where there were onsite selection booths. Candidates went through mini-tests for fitness and work through real scenarios. If they had the credentials, we invited them to proceed to the formal application process. The scheme was hugely successful as was the subsequent work where we worked via locally based community groups to identify and nurture suitable candidates."

Later, the Met developed a scheme for special constables to become full-time police officers. Acknowledging that retention is an issue thanks to the pressures of the job, initiatives were put in place to offer mentoring and targeted career development opportunities for BAME and female officers.

Positive action

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However, many believe forces across the UK could do more. In February 2019, Sara Thornton, former head of the National Police Chiefs' Council and part of the 20 years on inquiry on progress since the Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, has argued that new laws should be introduced to enable forces to discriminate positively in favour of non-white candidates. She told The Guardian: "I think there's an argument that we could select on merit and put people into a pool [of recruits] and then appoint on representation."

Positive action in recruitment and selection is permitted (under s.159 of the Equality Act 2010) when (among other conditions) it is applied to two equally qualified candidates for a role. But it is not always so clear cut: Cheshire Police Force was recently found to have discriminated when it rejected a white, heterosexual male candidate despite him being a strong fit for the role.

Overcoming obstacles to recruitment

Placed under such a spotlight, any efforts made by police forces and similar services to boost their talent pipelines have more obstacles to overcome than most. But their innovative and practical responses to these recruitment challenges are bearing fruit, albeit slowly. Despite a slight fall in the number of front-line officers, the Home Office figures to 31 March 2018 showed the first yearly increase in police workers since 2010, and the highest number of BAME officers since records began.