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The Ventura Police Department: The Mission and the People Drive Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Lavigna 
July 7, 2021

The vision of the city of Ventura, California Police Department is, “Great people, providing exceptional service.”

Consistent with this vision, department employees have an exceptionally high level of engagement.

In 2019 and again in 2020, our institute surveyed Ventura Police Department employees as part of a series of citywide employee engagement surveys. The 2020 results revealed that about 95% of department employees were fully or somewhat engaged, with only 5% in the “not engaged” category. These scores are substantially higher than the citywide results, as well as our institute’s national employee engagement benchmarks.

The Ventura Police Department’s percentage of fully engaged employees in 2020 increased by two percentage points from 2019. This is notable not just because of the department’s already high scores but also because the department maintained a 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 High?

The high level of employee engagement is driven by a strong connection to the department’s clear and concise mission statement: “To protect, serve and problem solve with our community.”

For example, about 96% of police employees agreed that, “My organization’s mission is important to me,” and, “I know what is expected of me on the job.” Moreover, 87% agreed that, “I would recommend my organization as a good place to work,” and 83% agreed that, “I am proud to tell others I am part of my organization.” For the latter question, no department employees disagreed (17% responded, “Neither agree nor disagree”). These scores are all substantially and significantly above our national benchmarks for both public- and private-sector employees.

According to Chief of Police Darin Schindler, the high level of engagement among department employees also resulted from a more flexible and inclusive hiring process.

When Schindler was Assistant Chief, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the department’s hiring process for officers. Candidates went through a 30-minute panel interview, each panel ranked the candidates and then only the top three from each panel advanced.

This process was missing some of the intangibles that contribute to a well-rounded police officer and did not advance candidates who reflected the diversity 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.

Applicants with minor drug use or traffic tickets are no longer automatically disqualified. Instead, the department reviews each candidate’s entire background, experience and qualifications¸ including driving records and any history of substance abuse.

The result, according to Schindler, is that 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 was to diversify the Ventura Police Department, including both visible and “non-visible” characteristics such as perspectives and attitudes. The department now strives to hire officers who understand the experiences and challenges the people in their community face; “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 applicants a first-hand look at how Ventura police operate and what they value. Officers who host these rides-along provide feedback on the candidates.

The department also now recruits police officers continuously. In the past, hiring was linked to the Police Academy schedule. Now, however, the department hires candidates as cadets until the Academy starts.

Because the department now has a good mixture of diversity in life experiences, Schindler believes officers are more empathetic with the people they serve, and customer service is better. In addition to improving “non-visible” diversity, the new hiring approach has also increased demographic diversity:

  • The percentage of female police officers has increased from 6% to 13%, which exceeds the national percentage of female officers. Ventura also now has its first female commander. Although Schindler said that he did not want to overhype this promotion and put pressure on the new commander, this sent an important message that, “Anyone can succeed and advance.”
  • About 28% of sworn officers are Hispanic Americans.
  • The percentage of African-American officers is approaching the percentage of African-American residents in the city.

The new hiring process has also improved retention. It’s not unusual now for all Ventura candidates to successfully complete the Police Academy program. New recruits also perform better in both the Academy and field training.

Moving away from rigid candidate assessments and instead evaluating the “whole person” can build engagement, diversify the workforce and identify candidates who can help sustain the culture.

The Ventura Police Department experience also shows why it’s important to survey employees to understand how engaged employees are, what influences their engagement and whether actions to improve and sustain engagement are working.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [email protected]

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One Response to The Ventura Police Department: The Mission and the People Drive Engagement

  1. Barbara Mather Reply

    August 1, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks very much for reporting this great article on Ventura Police. What a tremendous testimony to Chief of Police Darin Schindler–a true leader in every sense of the word!

    Bravo to the dedicated police of Ventura, and with tremendous appreciation!

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