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Where Have All the Officers Gone?


Police departments around the country are losing staff and struggling to recruit

After the police department in this midsize mountain city lost more than a third of its force to resignations and retirements last year, bringing in seven new academy graduates in December seemed like a small step in the right direction.


As its roster fell from 238 officers to only about 150, the department had to drop some community services and saw its response times climb. Department leaders gutted detective units to put more officers on road patrol. Officers were forced to triage calls, and they stopped responding in person to some they deemed low-priority.


Did someone break into your car or mark up your fence with graffiti? File an online report. Noise complaint? Expect a significant delay. Funeral escort? No longer a priority.


While the seven new officers clearly weren’t enough to restore the department to full force, adding them still seemed like a good way to start the new year. But nine months later, only one of them remains on the job. Some of the officers may have had unrealistic expectations, Chief David Zack explains. But others, he says, were unprepared for the on-the-ground realities of the current anti-police climate.


In the wake of George Floyd’s death under a Minneapolis officer’s knee last summer, Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) called local police “beyond reform.” Representative Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) compared cops to “slave patrols.” Even Joe Biden, during his campaign for president, said there is “absolutely” systemic racism in law enforcement. Young police officers and the people interested in being police officers digested it all.


“When you enter this profession, you want to be the good guy,” Zack says. “And suddenly, when you’re cast in this light of being the bad guy, that wasn’t the expectation.”


Police departments like Asheville’s are used to having new recruits in the pipeline to fill vacancies when officers retire, resign, or are fired. But now, in a city that endured nine days of sometimes violent protests last summer, “the pipeline is drying up,” Zack says. And, as he’s learned, even when he’s lucky enough to add a recruit to the force, that’s no guarantee the recruit will stick around very long.


The Asheville police department is not alone. Agencies nationwide are facing a recruiting and retention crisis, and it’s not limited to departments in big progressive cities, or in places such as Minneapolis and Portland, centers of last summer’s unrest, where rioters burned buildings, fought nightly with police, and threw rocks, cans, and bottles of urine at them. It’s also real in places such as Morgantown, W.Va., Fayetteville, Ark., and Aurora, Colo.


In Springfield, Mass., the police department set up a booth at a recent university career fair. The one person who stopped by did so by accident, the Springfield Republican reported.


In a June survey of 194 police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, midsize departments with 250 to 499 officers reported a 26 percent drop in their year-on-year hiring rate, while larger departments, with 500 or more officers, reported an even more dramatic 36 percent decrease. Some respondents saw 40 and 50 percent drops in applications.


Departments increasingly are turning to firms that specialize in recruiting police officers to help them to fill their ranks and out-compete neighboring departments. In years past, the folks at Epic Recruiting could count on getting three or four calls a month from law-enforcement agencies looking for help attracting job candidates. “I think I got three or four calls in one day last week,” says Alex Johnston, co-founder of the Scottsdale, Ariz.–based firm.


This all has many law-enforcement leaders and academics concerned that the profession could be pushed into a spiraling decline: As more police officers flee their departments and crime increases, the officers who remain face burnout, have less time to engage with the community, and are more prone to making mistakes, leaving department leaders desperate to fill positions. Some may relax hiring standards and bring in more unqualified cops who get into trouble, creating the next viral encounter, ratcheting up the anti-police climate, leading to more laws that make policing harder, prompting more officers to flee the profession, and on and on.


“Nobody wants that,” said Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the Washington, D.C., Metro Police union. “The way that you fix that is that you get better police officers who are better educated, and better trained, and can reason their way out of situations. They’re not always reaching for the tools on their belt all the time.”


But that approach takes money and patience. Instead, politicians and anti-police activists are “proposing to sort of destroy policing by taking away its funding, taking away its members, making it look like a terrible job,” said Pemberton, whose department hasn’t hired a new recruit since before the pandemic and has lost more than 300 officers in that time.


Last June, D.C. city leaders passed a sweeping police-reform law that, among other things, puts new limits on how officers can respond during a riot, prevents officers from viewing their own body-camera footage, requires that officers’ names be released to the public within five days in serious use-of-force cases, and requires additional training for officers on topics including racism and white supremacy. A proposal to eliminate qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that shields officers from some civil lawsuits — did not pass.


For all the recent headlines, the police-recruiting crisis is not new. Police departments have been struggling for years to attract educated young talent. And while the anti-police climate is a significant factor in the crisis — maybe the most significant factor recently — it’s not the only reason young people are increasingly turning their backs on the profession.


In 2019, almost a year before Floyd was killed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed its members about their recruiting struggles. The association published the results in a report, “The State of Recruitment: A Crisis for Law Enforcement.” According to the report, even before last year’s riots and the January 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol, 78 percent of the responding agencies reported having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates, 65 percent reported having too few candidates, and 50 percent reported changing agency policies to increase the chances of getting qualified applicants.


In addition to a tarnished public image of law enforcement and often drawn-out hiring processes that can turn job candidates off, the report also noted generational differences that can make it hard for police departments to hire and retain Millennials and members of Generation Z. These younger workers put a higher premium on work–life balance than previous generations, according to the report, and are more interested in jobs with flexible hours and guaranteed time off (i.e., not police work).


Zack says he’s seen that dynamic play out in Asheville. When he was a young officer, he spent eight years on the midnight shift. Officers he came up with worked as many hours as they could to build their pensions, often to the detriment of their family lives.


“I missed the dance recitals and the softball games, and things like that, holidays, where I had to go in and work on Christmas Day,” he says. “I think for my generation that it was just understood that that’s just the way it is, and this was the career you chose.”


Young people today “see it differently.”


Bright, young, educated job candidates with clean criminal histories — the kind of people police departments are desperately trying to recruit — often have plenty of job opportunities. And there are, and always have been, good reasons to forgo a career in policing: the long hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays; the inherent dangers of the profession (more than 2,000 police officers have been killed in the line of duty over the last ten years); and the increased risk of suicide, divorce, and substance abuse — all for a public servant’s paycheck and pension.


Historically, the selling points of police work have been the ability to get out from behind a desk and the opportunity to make a positive contribution and be a role model. “With this constant carping, there’s an erosion of the level of respect for police officers, therefore one of the biggest motivators to become a police officer is pulled out of the equation,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.


Police leaders acknowledge that the recruiting crisis is multidimensional, but almost all point to the current anti-police climate — hyperpolitical efforts to de­fund police departments, end qualified-immunity protections, and make policing harder and more personally perilous — as the most significant factor at the mo­ment. Many look at the anti-police riots in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 as a key turning point in the way the public views police officers.


“I’ve devoted my entire life to the profession. I wouldn’t want to be a police officer today,” said Maria Haberfeld, who chairs the department of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “I wouldn’t want to endure the constant criticism and accusations of racism and excessive force.”


Jerry Granderson, director of the Oregon Public Safety Academy, has seen a drastic drop in the number of recruits coming for basic police training in his state. A National Review analysis of his academy’s recruiting list found that in the four years from 2016 to 2019, an average of 494 students attended either basic-police or officer-development courses at the academy each year. That dropped to 290 in 2020. They’ve had only 177 so far in 2021, according to data provided in late August.


Granderson thinks law-enforcement leaders need better messaging for potential recruits. “This is a profession that belongs to the people, and the people should be a part of it,” he says. “I think we need to do a better job to say, ‘Hey, please join our profession.’”


It used to be that law-enforcement agencies didn’t really have to market themselves to bring on quality recruits, says Johnston, the Epic Recruiting co-owner. Despite the longstanding downsides of the profession, “this has just been a career that, ‘Hey, you know what, I think it would be fun to be a cop. Or I’m in the military and I’m looking to transition my career.’” But that’s not the case anymore, at least for now.


Policing agencies need to take control of the narrative that’s emerged around their profession, and around their depart­ments, Johnston says. Depart­ments in­creasingly are competing with one another for local and national talent. Agencies that have built strong relationships with residents and city leaders have a leg up in the recruiting competition.


Epic works with agencies to develop a recruiting plan, and then sends in a crew to shoot, edit, and produce recruiting videos. The videos do show officers aiming guns, making arrests, and riding motorcycles, but they also show officers playing basketball with kids, meeting with local business owners, and simply engaging with people in the community.


It’s this community-service aspect of the job that Johnston said agencies increasingly are trying to sell. “People are not interested in SWAT teams throwing in flash-bangs and apprehending suspects,” he says. “What we need to tell people, and what needs to attract a new generation of police recruits, is, ‘This is an opportunity for you to make a difference.’”


Selling that opportunity to make a difference and to meaningfully engage with a community is one thing; affording new officers the time to do it is another. With a staffing crunch, community-engagement efforts can take a back seat to more pressing, immediate needs — responding to calls, making arrests, writing reports.


Zack, the Asheville chief, says new officers often don’t have the time they need to build relationships with neighborhood leaders, residents, and kids. Instead of being school resource officers — an increasingly in-demand gig — they’re patrolling the streets at night and encountering people who resent them.


“Suddenly, it’s like, ‘Man, I thought I was going to be building relationships,’” Zack says. “No, that other work still has to get done.”


Source: National Review      

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