The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


John Middleton-Hope

John Middleton-Hope is the Chief of Police in Lethbridge, Alberta. This summary is based on original research he conducted in partial fulfillment of a Master’s degree at the University of Calgary in 2002. Chief Middleton-Hope’s unpublished thesis is entitled, Gypsy Cops: An Analysis of the Level of Conduct of Previously Experienced Police Officers. It can be obtained from the University of Calgary Library.


There is a growing trend among police services of hiring previously experienced police officers (PEO). These are defined as officers having undergone a recognized basic training program, and possessing street experience. The PEO, or “gypsy cops”, are characterized by their movement from one police agency to another. It is primarily an American phenomenon, but has become a practice in Canadian policing as a way of filling a growing number of vacancies. While gypsy cops often bring enormous strengths, they also bring behaviours and organizational identities that are different from the hiring police service.

The author examined the impact of the trend on the quality of police work provided by a major Canadian police service (“the Service”). Analysis of data on police-officer conduct in the Service showed that PEO who underwent accelerated training were the subject of a disproportionate number of public complaints compared to inexperienced recruits. While there are likely many causes for this, none of them fully understood, the consequences of hiring police officers with problematic behaviour is of concern to the Service because it takes its toll in organizational stress, investigative costs and law suits. It is therefore important to examine the practice of hiring previously experienced police officers, the length of training they receive, and where they are deployed.

The research undertaken addressed a gap in current literature on the subject of hiring previously experienced police officers. It focused on the relationship between gypsy cops (as an independent variable), accelerated training programs (as an intervening variable), and misconduct (as a dependent variable) as a way of explaining the higher number of complaints generated by these officers. The specific purpose of the research was to determine if the hypothesis could be proven that PEO hired between October 1997 and September 1999 by a large, urban police service generated a greater number of complaints against their conduct than inexperienced recruits and, if so, why. Furthermore, if the hypothesis proved correct, to identify the contributing variables and to explore the implications of the findings. The results of the study could then be used in attracting and training new recruits.


A. Recruiting and Training Practices

The current police recruiting market is highly competitive and about to reach its peak. This is the result of high retirement rates resulting from a hiring boom in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In addition to competition among police services, private and other government employers are also competing for dwindling human resources to replace their aging work forces. Since the late 1990’s, the Service has had a significant need for personnel as members complete the twenty-five years or more of their career cycles. The trend is expected to continue until 2006. In addition, as the city population grew, the authorized strength of the Service was increased, creating an even greater demand for recruits. The resulting vacancies and the relative inexperience of personnel is affecting the ability of the Service to police its city of one million people.

As a partial response to this competitive environment, police services have increased the recruitment of experienced candidates from other agencies. Until recently PEO were selected and trained alongside inexperienced officers in an effort to assimilate their skills into the organizational culture. Then, in 1997, the Service recruited two classes of previously experienced officers and accelerated their training. Officers were selected from a number of police agencies across Canada and the “very best” of the group were selected to be part of the process. The hired officers underwent the same selection process as inexperienced applicants. This included police applicant testing, physical fitness, life saving, driving skills, medical, vision, psychological and polygraph testing, together with background and reference checks, and a Board of Officers selection interview.

The first class, Group A, underwent a seven-week training program, while the second class, Group B, underwent a 10-week training program before placement on the street. Both programs focused on “hard skills” training to ensure the officers achieved appropriate competency ratings in subject control techniques, driver training, pepper spray, deployment training, and both handgun and shotgun proficiency. Another training component provided provincial statute training and a Criminal Code refresher. However, neither ethical decision-making nor reinforcement of organizational values was part of the curriculum. The accelerated training was expected to put trained officers on the street faster and more cost-effectively than under a full training program, and so would provide a relatively rapid response to the personnel shortage. It was assumed that previous years of service would allow the PEO to “hit the ground running”. This might be true, in part. Although there is no direct evidence, there are suggestions that PEO succumb less to intimidation and are more self-assured in their dealings with the public and in crisis situations. But these factors may also translate into more aggressive interaction with the public and the generation of complaints.

Other police agencies in Canada are poised to replicate this approach, and are enhancing recruitment with offers of location preference, and salary and benefits that are highly competitive. Such reliance on modified training for PEO may have a significant impact on policing in the long term and raises several issues including:

  • Whether police agencies are open about previous conduct when their officers are recruited by another agency;
  • Whether high standards of recruitment have been maintained;
  • The variables contributing to performance issues;
  • The liability risks that reduction of length and content of training may produce, and whether the risks of misconduct are outweighed by the benefits;
  • Whether all police agencies can compete for the same quality of candidate, or whether competition is setting up a tiered system of policing.

B. The Early Warning System

Generally, police professional standards sections (PSS), or internal affairs units, manage complaints against both sworn officers and police service policy and procedures. Personnel of such sections meet with complainants, assign matters for alternative dispute resolution and investigate improper and criminal conduct of officers. They also draft documentation for formal disciplinary hearings and senior executive review. In several provinces, the sections investigate firearms discharges, serious injury, death, attempted suicides during detention, and complaints of racial discrimination. Some provinces also have oversight bodies dually responsible for these functions.

Professional standards sections tend to have a primarily reactive function, but the PSS unit of the police service discussed in this case study acted proactively. It has developed an early warning system (“EWS”) designed to identify, monitor, track and address the behaviour of personnel identified as “high risk” before their misconduct becomes a pattern. The system developed by this particular PSS unit does more than identify difficult employees and impose sanctions; it provides a holistic approach to discipline as a corrective rather than a punitive measure. In addition to monitoring officers, the program identifies trends related to training, misconduct, and Service policy that may lead to liability issues.

The EWS identifies those against whom there are repeated complaints about their behaviour. The complaints are reviewed and common factors identified. A personal risk assessment (PRA) incorporating individual learning strategies is developed and provided to an officer’s commander, who then provides written feedback on discussions held with the officer and the course of action developed to correct the behaviour. Six-month updates, combined with probationary reports, provide a behavioural prognosis. The EWS also profiles classes of recruits. Complaints are analyzed to identify problems and formulate recommendations that are applied to resolve the problematic behaviours. Common themes are identified and tracked in an effort to predict at what point officers are most likely to misconduct themselves.

After its initial deployment the EWS expanded beyond citizen complaints to examine other symptoms of inappropriate behaviour such as use of force, victims of assault, and high-speed pursuits. The purpose of the system is to intercede early in an officer’s career so performance issues can be addressed before they become ingrained behaviour, and to assist recruiting and training sections with candidate selection and the development of training to improve performance. Again, the approach is voluntary and remedial, not disciplinary in nature.

C. Data Collection and Research Design

Data collected for the research came from EWS documents identifying frequency of complaints, type of complaints, prior agency and area of deployment. The source documents were designed in 2000 as part of the development of the EWS.

To test the hypothesis regarding complaints against PEO, four groups of officers were formed. Group A contained the officers of the first class of accelerated training for PEO recruits. Group B contained the officers of the second class. Group C, the embedded group, contained nine PEO who had completed the full, twenty-six week training along with inexperienced officers. Group D was significantly larger in number and contained only inexperienced officers from several recruit classes, who had also received the full, twenty-six week training.


During the early implementation of the EWS, it was found that one group of officers was responsible for a greater average number of complaints than other officers. They were all PEO and working within the same police district (District 1, which is the downtown core). The data further revealed that the officers belonged to all three of the research groups that included PEO. Although they were not the only officers with a large number of complaints, they had accrued sufficient complaints to come to the attention of the EWS.

By using multiple regression techniques a determination was made that there was both statistical significance and practical significance to the combination of factors: PEO, accelerated training, and deployment to District 1. Officers who fell within this category more frequently engaged in behaviour that resulted in complaints against their conduct. Of equal importance is the practical significance that officers sharing the same characteristics but deployed to District 5 were only slightly less likely to be the subject of complaint. There was a marked difference in the number of complaints between District 1 (and to a lesser extent District 5) and Districts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Officers sent to the latter districts were much less likely to be the subject of complaints, irrespective of the length of training they underwent, the agency from which they came, or whether they were a PEO or not.

The data additionally revealed that the agency in which the PEO gained prior experience had implications for their behaviour. Officers who had gained experience in national and provincial police services were practically, but not statistically, more likely to engage in conduct resulting in complaints if they were deployed to District 1.

Possible Explanations and Future Study Directions

By conducting an ongoing evaluative process, additional variables were identified that are believed to contribute to inappropriate conduct and will provide important information for future analysis. Both statistical and practical probability provides evidence that officers going to District 1 receive a greater number of complaints. It is safe then to assume that there is a greater probability of receiving complaints against an officer’s conduct if he or she is deployed from training directly to the downtown district. As an example of a potentially relevant additional factor, demographics in the downtown core are known to be significantly different from those of other districts.

The research did not take into consideration the social demographics of the district to which officers were deployed, but this is possibly a relevant factor. District 1 is home to both inner-city low-rent tenements and upscale condo units, and contains some of the most austere office towers in North America as well as a large number of transients. It has a high concentration of liquor establishments that attract young suburban dwellers during the evenings and on weekends.

District 5, also high in complaints, constitutes a large homogenous ethnic community. This group generally has a good command of the English language, very strong community values, and is well represented politically. Its members are likely to complain about police behaviour if they regard it as inappropriate or putting a community member at a disadvantage.

District 4 has a very high immigrant population known to be significantly underreported in censuses. This population comes primarily from countries where police brutality is frequent and reporting of inappropriate conduct may have dire consequences, which may also lead to underreporting of police misconduct. The remaining suburban districts, Districts 2, 3, 6, and 7 all have distinct characteristics, but they are not dissimilar in terms of demographics.

Explanations for the higher level of complaints in District 1 could be related to the characteristics of the inhabitants or the activities that take place. It may be that a better-educated population or people who come from politically-aware communities are more inclined to complain about police conduct. It may also be that the high level of alcohol consumption in the district contributes to conflict between young people and the police, which then leads to complaints.

No examination was done of variances in district command, or the type of policing carried out in the district, although these could be variables that contribute to the high rate of complaints. Such variables could also have an influence on the conduct of officers assigned to districts 1 and 5.


Hiring PEO is a long-standing practice that police agencies will continue to pursue despite the disadvantages, because they need to recruit officers for positions that are increasingly difficult to fill. There are several strategies, however, that the Service and other police agencies in general could consider to avoid problems. The strategies are prescriptive rather than remedial.

More emphasis could be put on recruiting standards, psychological profiling and screening for ethics and integrity to obtain good candidates than on post-recruitment training, supervision and peer pressure to change any problematic behaviour that appears. Examination of the profiles of problematic officers could aid in identifying predictive indicators that could then be used for rejecting unsuitable applicants.

The recruitment standards must reflect organizational understanding of the current generation of applicants but not be compromised by the desire to recruit at any price. Also, the temptation to hire large numbers on the assumption that the poor ones will be weeded out by natural selection but that they will have been of some use in the meantime should be avoided. Such an approach tends to perpetuate the idea that retention is less important than recruitment. Continuous review of expectations will ensure that standards are relevant and appropriate for the job new officers are expected to perform.

It is equally important that recruiting staff represent the heterogeneous makeup of the community and the best and brightest officers in the organization. Their skills in selecting applicants will determine the future quality of the organization.

Full disclosure by an applicant’s previous organization is critical in identifying and rejecting poor applicants. While it is true that some officers may do well in another organization if given a second chance, the instances of this are few and far between. It is in the interests of professionalizing policing that mechanisms be found for documenting conduct of itinerant officers and making the information available. A process for certifying and decertifying officers, coupled with a national database, could identify, monitor and track the conduct of police officers and encourage movement for skills development or opportunity. Protocols to access personnel records, and protection for agencies that report reasons for termination would reduce the likelihood of officers fleeing from the consequences of their actions and reduce the tendency of some organizations to pass poor performers onto others.

In many jurisdictions, standardized selection and training are not yet a reality. This is felt more acutely by smaller police agencies and Aboriginal police services that must rely on previously experienced police officers because the cost of having their own training program is prohibitive. A national database would allow access to a pool of potential applicants whose histories could be verified. From an officer’s perspective, this approach could be used for marketing skills to a wide group of prospective employers, thus offering enhanced career opportunities.


By developing programs such as the early warning system, organizations could have a clearer picture of the conduct of its police officers. It is a tool to correct or learn from behaviour. This program is not a draconian method for police services to control their membership or circumvent legislation; on the contrary, it takes the position that many aspects of behaviour can be modified.

Changing demographics and an evolving job market are having an enormous impact on police departments. Rather than being an exception to the rule, gypsy cops are becoming the norm of a highly mobile generation. There are many reasons why officers leave one agency for another. It could be career opportunity, advancement or pay, or it could be to avoid discipline or termination. Without appropriate safeguards, however, including the determination to select only the best available applicants, police departments could snatch up experience at the expense of integrity. Caution and critical analysis combined with honest communication among agencies could help prevent deterioration of the ethical standards that the police profession has spent a generation developing. If police agencies remember that gypsy cops can bring baggage that is often better left behind, and have strategies to strip them of it, the officers can become well-functioning members of their new organizations.