The Escalating Crisis in Police Hiring

Police officers in Memphis, Tennessee at the Veterans Day Parade last year.

Police officers in Memphis, Tennessee at the Veterans Day Parade last year. Shutterstock/Jim Williams Photography

COMMENTARY | As revenues drop and passionate debates over police mission, budget and purpose continue, cities still face the arduous task of recruiting top-notch candidates.

In its 2019 workforce survey, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found hiring police officers was the biggest public sector recruitment challenge. That was a year before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the mass protests that followed and a national movement to “defund the police.”

In the same year as the center’s workforce study, a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report labeled recruiting a  “workforce crisis” that affected “law enforcement agencies of all sizes and types—large, medium and small, local, state and federal.” A forum survey showed 63% of police departments had seen a decrease in applications. In addition, it cited turnover problems, particularly among young officers. PERF suggested that recruiters needed to change who they were trying to hire, suggesting that departments start looking for a different kind of candidate. Cities need “a more diverse set of officers who possess key skills such as interpersonal communications, problem-solving, basic technological expertise, critical thinking, empathy and ‘community mindedness,’” the report said.

One issue addressed in the PERF report was the lack of community trust in police exposed after high-profile police killings, such as the fatal shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. But the outrage and nationwide protests about the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have had a far broader reach than even that galvanizing incident. An uncertain political environment, racial tensions, and continued pandemic hardship, as well as a large drop in revenue and the movement to dramatically reduce police budgets, complicate recruitment and hiring much more.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” says Marvin Haiman, executive director of the Professional Development Bureau of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. While public and private sector layoffs this spring may have resulted in a surge in applications, the increase D.C. saw in applications in the early spring leveled off and then plateaued.

“We’re not seeing applicants dissuaded from coming into public service because of the pandemic, but we have heard applicants dissuaded because of the current sentiment on law enforcement,” says Haiman.  He worries about retention issues and burnout as workload increases in a police force that is likely to shrink by about 200 positions in fiscal year 2021.

“I’m struggling to understand how you recruit in this environment,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF. Wexler said it is difficult to see who would want to apply to departments in what he called “today’s very caustic environment.”

“Do you want to become the member of a profession that’s going through an identity crisis?” he asks.

Memphis provides a good example of a city that already was trying to change its hiring strategies, but now is experiencing new difficulties. Police recruiters in Memphis describe the impacts of the last four months on a four-and-a-half-year drive by the city to increase the police force and fill vacant positions that rapidly opened up after stagnant salaries, changes in health-benefit subsidies and pension benefit reductions led to an exodus of officers between 2011 and 2015.  

In 2016, with the arrival of a new mayor and human resource director, the Tennessee city dramatically stepped up recruitment. They improved the online application process, created a far more informative website, and teamed up human resource professionals and police recruiters to travel to other cities and job fairs in a nationwide hiring campaign.

The city also relaunched a Police Service Technician (PST) program that had been shut down in 2009 and provided entry-level jobs handling minor traffic violations and incidents. The program opened jobs to community residents who did not meet traditional qualifications but could earn college credits for free while working full time. One aspect of the program, dubbed “Blue Path,” is now geared to high school students who are recruited as seniors, admitted to a police training program during the summer after their high school graduation, and start community college and full-time police technician jobs in the fall. This provides these recruits with a salary, police experience and the ability to get the 54 college credits needed by the time they reach the usual qualifying age of 21 required to join the department.

According to Alex Smith, Memphis' chief human resource officer, Blue Path and other efforts that pull members of the community into the police force—as opposed to getting lateral transfers from other cities—is a strong way of building trust between communities and police. “It creates an opportunity for more representation from the community rather than picking up habits from other police departments and bringing them over,” she says.

Currently, Black officers make up 55% of the Memphis police force in a city that is 64% Black. A concerted effort is underway to increase the percentage of women and the city has been partnering with community organizations to raise the percentage of Latino officers. The city has also been working on shifting police culture, moving to “a guardian mentality versus a warrior mentality,” says Smith. It added a new behaviorally-based component at an early stage of the vetting process, exploring the reasons applicants wanted to become police officers and how they have demonstrated community service and commitment in the past.

But recruiting and hiring, particularly during this time, continues to be an ongoing challenge. Currently, the police force is still 248 officers short of its 2,300 goal. 

“The coronavirus hurt our recruitment efforts,” says Chris Allen, who heads up police recruitment for the city. “Since 2016, we’ve been working really hard, but then Covid happened and all the new things we were doing, we had to stop and regroup.” After Floyd was killed, and the protests and civic unrest that followed, applicants “started pulling out of the process. They begin ghosting us and becoming unresponsive.”

Tyler Stegall heads up Memphis police initiatives that are geared to high school students and new graduates who want to join the Blue Path program.

In 2018, the city missed its goal of a 20-person Blue Path cohort, ending up with about a dozen participants. As the 2019-2020 school year began, it dramatically stepped up recruitment with visits to 80 high schools before active recruitment shut down when the pandemic struck. Even so, applications jumped from 280 the previous year to 500.

But with schools moving to online learning, recruitment became more difficult and by late spring, negative news about police departments and ongoing protests further cut into the 2020 Blue Path class. From the 21 young people who were initially in the pipeline, the program now has six individuals. Some pulled out along the way and ten failed the psychological test that was given toward the end of the hiring process. Recruitment managers say that is a major jump in the psychological failure rate. Currently, the reasons for the increase are unknown.

Even after a contingent offer of employment was made, two new Blue Path recruits abruptly dropped out of the process—one simply stopped communicating with the department. The other explained that she was scared by television coverage of national protests and riots, mentioning media coverage of fires that burned at police precincts and businesses like Target in Minneapolis.  “She said she didn’t feel comfortable going forward with this career path,” Stegall says.

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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