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How Character-Driven Hiring Practices Can Help Eliminate 'Bad Apple' Cops Before They Join The Force

Mark Duncan
Protesters gather over the killing of Tamir Rice, 12, who was fatally shot by a Cleveland officer in 2014. Police didn't fully vet the cop who killed Rice before hiring him; there's no standard for how deeply departments should dig into recruits' pasts.

Most companies hire based on a set of traditional criteria. For police, it's often prior military or law enforcement experience, physical fitness and maybe some higher education. One department in Minnesota decided to prioritize recruiting a different kind of officer. 

On this week's episode of the Criminal Injustice podcast, host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris talks to Sheriff Jack Serier of Ramsey County, Minnesota.

A few years ago, Serier remade his department using officers' character as the centerpiece for local reform.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Your character-based recruiting model came from focus groups in your jurisdiction. What did the community tell you that they wanted to see in your officers?

JACK SERIER: They wanted to see police officers who showed openness, that showed tenaciousness, that were respectful, that were loyal to the community. They were looking for people with a heart of service that were committed to doing better in the community each and every day.

HARRIS: You streamlined those responses that you got from them into four core ideas: respect, responsibility, honor and truth. That whole idea runs counter to traditional requirements for folks applying to police departments: things like military service, prior law enforcement experience, toughness -- those are the things that are usually emphasized. So explain your new interview process with those four characteristics you're looking for.

SERIER: Our interview process starts with the question each and every time, "What have you done for someone less fortunate than yourself?" And by doing that we are setting the tone and the discussion for how people have served others in their lives. We're looking for people who volunteer. We're looking for people who have gone the extra mile for others, because that's what they're going to need to do each and every day. We are meeting people at the moment where they're most in need of the help of law enforcement or the criminal justice system. We need to meet them where they're at.

HARRIS: It's common to use credit checks in law enforcement hiring processes. But you have a very different way of looking at these things, don't you?

SERIER: Yes. We're looking for the context as to why somebody has either a low or high credit score, not just that they have one. If a person has cared for family members, has gone to college or has done all the things that we expect people to do in our society but then have circumstances like health events that have prevented them from working and has thus caused them to get behind in payments, we can look at that and say that person is trying to do all the right things and is still getting an outcome that is putting them behind the curve on paying for things that otherwise they would be able to take care of. We're looking to see if people have had trouble in circumstances in their lives that are beyond their control versus people who are just running up credit cards. 

HARRIS: How have the ideals that you're looking for in the character driven process changed your department? What do the metrics show?

SERIER: Metrics show a greater esprit de corps. They show improved performance evaluations, lower sick time and virtually no sustained complaints against deputies and officers in our organization. And it also is manifested itself in that our officers believe in the mission of this organization, and they help us to recruit new people.

HARRIS: Here in Pittsburgh and in so many other cities, we struggle with recruitment, especially recruitment of women and people of color. What about you in Ramsey County with this focus on character?

SERIER: We've had a tremendous response from the job market in really a full-employment economy here in Minnesota. You know, we see hundreds of people applying for just a few jobs, and we also see our diversity in our organization for women and people of color at over 50 percent in every class that we hire.

Criminal Injustice is a weekly podcast by 90.5 WESA. You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with Sheriff Jack Serier on this week’s episode of the Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcast app.

Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.