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Recruiting for Paradise Honolulu Police Department Sees Payoff from Branding Blitz

September 3, 2004
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Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article, Staffing Management
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For decades, the chiefs of the Honolulu Police Department have talked about "ohana." The Hawaiian word for family, a central facet of Hawaiian culture, ohana has long been a reason why officers joined and stayed with the force.

    "We treat everyone like family," says Glen Kajiyama, the department’s acting chief until Boisse P. Correa was sworn in August 27 . "Even though Honolulu is the 12th-largest city [in the United States], we try to spread that culture and appeal to people who want to be part of that."

    But in the late 1990s, the police family found itself facing a crisis that in the coming years might hit private-sector employers in the mainland United States, where many companies have a large percentage of employees in their 50s and 60s. Currently, 164 of Honolulu’s 2,000 officers are eligible for retirement. Likewise, in the United States as a whole, the Census Bureau says, the percentage of people between 60 and 64 years of age will increase 51 percent between 2000 and 2010. Large numbers of baby boomers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, will start retiring in 2008, possibly causing labor shortages in some industries.

    Threatening its long-term stability as well as the safety of Honolulu’s residents, which number about 900,000 in the combined city/county, more than 100 officers left for other police departments between 1998 and 2003. This was significant for a force of about 2,000. Scores more were fast approaching retirement age. And after September 11, 2001, the department had to compete for recruits with fast-growing federal law-enforcement agencies.

    Meanwhile, the demand for officers on the beat remained high. According to FBI data, Honolulu sees little violent crime but higher rates of property crime than other cities its size. In 2002, the city had twice the national rate of car thefts per 100,000 people and above-average rates of burglary and larceny.

    In response, the department’s leaders crafted a massive recruiting campaign built around its family-style culture, an effort that also sought to change how young people thought about police work and one that reached well beyond Hawaii. The campaign took recruiters from the parking lots of college sporting events to heavily publicized recruiting events in Portland, Oregon.

"Never compromise"
    Human resources experts say the department’s actions, especially the decision to build the campaign around ohana, paved the way for its success. Lisa Samuelson is vice president of the communications firm Parker LePla in Seattle. "Candidates are drawn to companies that havestrong brands," Samuelson says. "Something about yourbrand promise sparks their interest and gives their head and heart reasons for liking your company."

    For the Honolulu PD, it was necessary to walk a fine line: expand the pool of potential hires without diluting the quality of the recruiting class. "We had to do something, but we would never compromise our standards," says Kajiyama. The department takes just 3 percent of the applicants into its training class and then sees some attrition during that six-month program. "We knew we had to accelerate our hiring or we would be in trouble as time went on," he says.

    Though the city has boosted pay for police officers with a contract that builds in 4 percent raises for each of the next four years, it still lags other departments. While Honolulu recruits earn less than $36,000 a year to start, the same position pays around $52,000 in San Francisco, according to Major Dave Kajihiro, who oversees the recruitment program.

    Recognizing that Generations X andY offered a limited recruiting pool to start with, the police department began to modify its message to would-be officers, emphasizing the public-service aspect over what Kajihiro calls the "rough and tumble" of police work.

    To find the physically fit young people, it targeted sporting events. Because Hawaii has no professional sports teams, college and even high-school sports draw large crowds. The department brought its recruiting van and occasionally some of its high-tech equipment to University of Hawaii football games and beach volleyball tournaments. Announcements during the games would direct those interested to the recruiting officers on-site.

    Another part of the effort involved recruiting forays to the mainland, especially the Portland, Oregon, area. Advertising campaigns would begin weeks in advance, highlighting the culture of the department and appealing to individuals with any ties to the island, such as military personnel who may have been stationed on Hawaii. The efforts paid off, with the first two recruiting days drawing scores of people from as far away as New York and Florida. Meanwhile, a dozen officers who left the department for Portland have returned after that city’s department was downsized following budget cuts.

    The department spent about $60,000 over the course of a year from its own budget on advertising and other media, including television buys. It also used federal grants to underwrite the off-island trips.

    Chief Kajiyama says the decision to dedicate funds to the recruiting effort was an easy one, even though the money spent could have been used to pay for a new cop. "We saw it as a necessary investment," he says. "It would have been a bigger regret if we’d never tried than if we tried and it didn’t work."

Honest up front
    The campaign is constantly being evaluated and tweaked. For instance, a centerpiece of the early drive was to appeal to people for whom the public-service aspect of police work was more important. "We wanted to appeal to people who were considering teaching or some other kind of public service," says Kajihiro. "We realize we may have gone too far to that softer side, and we’re emphasizing the rough-and-tumble aspects more."

    The department has also learned that explaining the downside of the job--such as the sky-high cost of living in Hawaii--to recruits and their spouses helps keep more recruits in the program to the end. The police department would rather be honest with candidates up front than surprise them later and have them quit; historically, about 30 percent of recruits drop out of the training within the first few months.

    Because the training program lasts more than half a year, the department is only now beginning to see the fruits of its labors. The department currently has 256 vacancies, but 174 recruits in various stages of training. That leaves a net uniform vacancy of 82. By comparison, the vacancy number was as high as 350 officers less than five years ago, according to Kajiyama. The additional officers will help the department cut down on overtime and extra duty shifts, reducing overall salary costs, especially in the long run, as younger officers replace those who may be putting off retirement until the department is fully staffed.

    "We intend to put more officers out in the field, out on the street," Kajiyama says. "When we do that, we’ll know it’s been worth the effort."

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