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Pandemic restrictions and other factors, more than the defund the police movement after George Floyd's death, has forced police departments nationwide to refocus on how they reach potential candidates.
In Denver, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, commuters are driving past billboards that advertise jobs with hiring bonuses of up to $15,000—for police officers.
Meanwhile, Chandler, Arizona, is dangling incentives of up to $5,000 to attract officers and dispatchers, and Ocean County, New Jersey, has increased police salaries to as much as $130,000 a year. The national average is closer to $60,000.
Police departments across the country—large and small—are resorting to desperation-level tactics to recruit officers as a perfect storm of retirements, public scrutiny and fear has drained the pool of public safety candidates.
Even before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, police departments nationwide were hemorrhaging officers. Between 2008 and 2014, for example, California lost 6% of its police force, largely to a weak economy and budget cuts, according to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
A 2019 report by the Police Executive Research Forum called the struggle to recruit officers and the sharp increase in resignations and retirements among existing ones a “workforce crisis.” Some departments had seen as much as a 70% drop in job applications since 2015, the report revealed.
“It is not simply a matter of police salaries being too low, or other problems that can be addressed fairly easily. There seem to be fewer young people today who have any interest in policing,” Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote in the report.
After Floyd’s death, a push to defund police departments and the pandemic took its toll on police recruitment—a Forum survey of 194 of the country’s approximately 18,000 police agencies in May 2021 showed hiring was down 5%—with larger police departments struggling more than smaller ones. At the same time, resignations jumped by 18% over the year before, while retirement rates were up by 45%.
Among the reasons, according to the Forum report: “increased scrutiny and criticism” of police and widespread media coverage of police use of force. Plus, the report noted, protests calling for police reform have made it more difficult for departments to recruit minority officers.
"We are in uncharted territory right now," Wexler told NPR. "Policing is being challenged in ways I haven't seen, ever."
“A lot of the competent people who would make good police officers are refraining because they feel that they can go to prison for doing their job,” said Dr. Eugene Stefanelli, clinical director of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, who assesses candidates’ suitability for police jobs. “To be a police officer, you put your life in jeopardy. Now, [some feel] they’re not protected, that criminals have more rights than police officers today.”
Stefanelli pointed to another reason for the recruiting shortfall. The public’s increasing acceptance of marijuana use—even in states where it is illegal, for example, means that greater numbers of otherwise qualified potential candidates have been cited for using the drug and can’t join the force.
“They don’t meet the criteria,” Stefanelli said.
Shrinking Pool of Qualified Candidates
Some police officials who responded to the Forum poll agreed the quality of applicants is declining.
More applicants are "failing either the background investigation or polygraph,” one official wrote anonymously. “Minority hiring, a significant goal, has been considerably more difficult. Police accountability has been a source of conversation and concern among those who are hired, and those who left."
Another official, who also wrote anonymously, added: "The current rhetoric and negativity surrounding law enforcement is having a negative impact on the number and quality of applicants we recruit.”
The staffing crisis has hit Minneapolis hard, with an exodus of nearly 300 officers—to attrition, disability and retirement—since Floyd’s death. During roughly the same time period, the number of gunshot victims in the city rose by 90%.
In Philadelphia, 79 police officers last year announced their intention to retire within four years, up from 13 the year before, Mayor Jim Kenney’s office told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In early 2021, 26% fewer candidates applied for police jobs in Charlotte than during the same time frame last year, and Des Moines received 50% fewer applications, according to research by Axios.
More than 180 Seattle police officers quit last year and another 70 left this year, according to the 2021 Forum report. Some said they quit because they were afraid layoffs were coming or because of anti-police sentiment from the community.
Los Angeles, which boasts the third largest force in the country behind New York and Chicago, is dealing with the loss of 700 officers over the past year by restoring the Police Department’s budget. The city slashed the LAPD’s budget by $150 million last fall as a response to widespread calls to defund the police. The department did not lay off any officers, but was unable to pay to replace most of those who retired or resigned.
Capt. Aaron McCraney, the commander in charge of recruiting and employment, said officers who started their jobs during a hiring binge in the1990s are putting in their papers, upping the number of retirements.
The LAPD typically loses about 500 officers a year but lost 40% more than usual last year. But budget constraints allowed the department to replace only 79 of those departing officers in 2020, leaving the force—usually 10,000 strong—understaffed by about 600.
In June, the City Council voted to dedicate part of is American Rescue Plan Act money to restoring the LAPD budget, and McCraney said his team started hiring additional officers in July. The City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti went back and forth about the final police budget, which ended up at more than $171.1 billion.
Still, McCraney said, the pandemic has cramped the department’s usual practice of recruiting at military and university job fairs. Instead, recruiters have been participating virtually in fairs and seminars.
“Covid, more than anything—more than the ‘defund’ motion, more than the reallocation of funding—has really changed how we do business,” he said. “The pandemic restrictions [forced us] to refocus on how we’re reaching our candidates.”