CASE STUDY

Culture Change Takes Time - and the Right People

Background

The city of Ventura, California  is the county seat of Ventura County. The Ventura Police Department consists of 250 sworn officers, professional staff and volunteers serving a population of about 111,000 residents.

The Police Department’s mission is, “To protect, serve, and problem solve with our community.” Its vision is, “Great people, providing exceptional service.”

The Ventura employee engagement survey

Police Department employees were surveyed as part as of two Ventura Citywide employee surveys, in 2019 and again in 2020.

The overall response rate for all City employees was 74 percent in 2020. The Police Department rate was 72 percent (127 responses). Notably, the percentage of sworn and non-sworn Police employees who responded was almost identical – 73 and 72 percent, respectively.

As shown below, even more notable was the extremely high percentage of Police Department employees whom the survey revealed are engaged. The percentage of “fully engaged” Department employees in 2020 – 50 percent –is substantially above the Citywide results for all employees, and well above all of our Institute’s national benchmarks. In addition, the percentage of Department employees who are not engaged – only five percent – is substantially below the Citywide level and all of our national benchmarks.

Employee Engagement Survey Results (percent)

Fully engaged Somewhat engaged Not engaged
Ventura Police Department 50 45 5
City of Ventura – all employees 36 45 18
Government (federal, state and local combined)* 33 42 25
Local government* 32 41 27
Private sector* 36 39 25

*Benchmarks based on the Institute’s national survey of representative samples of each workforce

The Department’s percentage of fully engaged employees increased in 2020, up two percentage points from 2019. This is notable not just because of the Department’s extremely high scores but also because the Department maintained a very high level of engagement while the entire nation, including Ventura, was dealing with social unrest that often focused on police and policing.

Why is Police Department employee engagement so high?

Department employees scored high on the Institute’s engagement index – the six questions in our survey that predict the level of overall employee engagement. For all six of these questions, more than 80 percent of Police Department employees responded positively.

For example, 87 percent of Department employees agreed that, “I would recommend my organization as a good place to work.” This is 22 percentage points above our national sample of local government employees. About 83percent agreed that, “I am proud to tell others I am part of my organization” (19percentage points about our local government benchmark). For this question, no Department employees disagreed.

For other survey questions, the percent positive ranged up to 96 percent (“I know what is expected of me the job” and “My organization’s mission is important to me”) with very low levels of disagreement.

How has the Police Department achieved high employee engagement?

According to Chief of Police Darin Schindler, the high level of engagement across the Department is driven by two factors – introduction of participative management and a more flexible and inclusive hiring process.

Participative decision-making. For years, according to Schindler, the Department operated in a top-down fashion, consistent with how many police departments operate. Schindler was a Sergeant for twelve years and, during this time, he saw a clear disconnect between senior leaders, supervisors and front-line staff. The Department’s leaders told front-line staff that they were important, valuable and part of the team, but non-management employees did not always see these words translated into actions.

To address this apparent disconnect, Schindler started a conversation with Sergeants – the Department’s front-line leaders. The led to offsite team-building sessions that focused on how Sergeants could be better at driving  change.

These sessions helped change the way Sergeants, many of whom would eventually become the Department’s leaders, approached leadership. This conversation was consistent with the Department’s strong commitment to building leadership skills, including by sending all Sergeants through programs like the California Supervisory Leadership Institute.

Fast forward to six years ago when Schindler became Assistant Chief. In this role, he worked with Commanders – the Department’s senior leaders – to make decision-making more collaborative. This participative management approach filtered down to Patrol and other staff, who now feel like they have a say in decision-making. Whole not all decisions can be filtered down like this, doing so when possible reinforces the employee’s sense of worth and connection with the Department. The result is more buy in and support for decisions. And Schindler believes decisions are now more informed and therefore better.

More flexible hiring process. A few years ago, when Schindler was Assistant Chief, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the Department’s hiring process for Police Officers. Specifically, candidates went through a 30-minute panel interview, each panel ranked the candidates, and then only the top three from each panel advanced.

Schindler did not believe this was process producing the diversity the Department needed – and was missing some of the intangibles that contribute to a well-rounded police officer. The panels tended to advance mostly younger candidates with military or law enforcement experience or education. Plus, only the “squeaky-clean” candidates moved forward. As a result, the Department was not hiring enough Officers who reflected the residents of Ventura.

To fix this, Schindler changed the process to include a more comprehensive review of candidates’ qualifications – what he refers to as looking at the “whole bio.” He replaced the rigid ranking system with a pass/fail system (“can they do the job?”) that now allows more candidates to advance and be considered more extensively.

In addition, candidates with minor drug use or multiple traffic tickets are no longer automatically disqualified. Instead, each candidate’s entire background, experience and qualifications are reviewed, including driving records and any experience with substance abuse.

As a result, according to Schindler, the Department now considers, “People who have a lot to bring to this profession and their community that maybe we overlooked before. There is something to be said for a candidate that has learned from making some mistakes in their life versus a candidate that checks all the boxes but has limited life experience.”

A key goal of the new hiring process was to diversify the Police Department but the Chief emphasizes that diversity includes both visible and “non-visible” characteristics such as perspectives and attitudes. In particular, the Department strives to hire Officers who understand the experiences and challenges the people in the community face. According to Schindler, “Diversity is also about how people view the world.”

The Department also requires candidates to do a ride-along with a Patrol Officer. This gives the applicant a first-hand look at how Ventura Police operate and what they value. The Officer who hosts the ride-along is also expected provide feedback on their experience with the candidate. This provides the Department another chance to evaluate candidates.

The Department also now recruits Police Officers continuously. In the past, hiring was linked to the Police Academy schedule. Now, however, good candidates can be onboarded at any time. The Department can now hire them as Cadets until they can attend the Academy.

The new hiring approach has produced both visible and non-visible diversity in the Department:

  • The percentage of female Police Officers has increased from six to thirteen percent. The Department also now has its first female Commander. Although Schindler said that he did not want to overhype this promotion and therefore put more pressure on the new Commander, this did send an important message that “anyone can succeed and advance.”
  • Hispanic-Americans now represent 28 percent of Sworn Officers.
  • Because the Department now has a good mixture of diversity in life experiences, Schindler believes Officers are more empathetic with the public they serve, and customer service has improved.

The new hiring process has also helped improve retention. Now, it’s not unusual for all Ventura candidates in an Academy class to complete the program successfully. New recruits also perform better in both the Academy and field training.

Takeaways

Culture drives engagement – but takes time to change. Chief Schindler believes the Department’s culture has changed to now focus on customer service and problem-solving, not solely on law enforcement. The result is a highly engaged workforce. But it took a decade to drive this change.  

Hire right. Moving away from rigid candidate assessments and instead evaluating the “whole person” can diversify the workforce and also identify the candidates who can fit into, and help sustain, the culture. While diversity includes visible characteristics, it also means including a variety of attitudes and perspectives.

It’s about the mission. The high level of employee engagement also revealed that Police Department employees have a strong connection to the Department’s mission. In part, this resulted from a clear and concise mission statement in the new strategic plan – “To protect, serve, and problem solve with our community.”

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Bob (Robert) Lavigna

Mr. Lavigna is the Director of the CPS HR Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement™. Bob is a past Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of HR for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published author and national speaker. He has been recognized as a “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine, the highest individual achievement awards from IPMA-HR and NASPE, and the SHRM “Master’s Thesis Award.”

About CPS HR Consulting

CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country.  Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients.  We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.