Police confront recruitment emergency
Departments seek solutions to resignations, retirements, and low morale
A large help-wanted billboard ad overlooking a busy highway and paid for by the Spokane County, Wash., Sheriff’s Office made the news last September. It promised a $15,000 hiring bonus to officers. The newsworthy part? The billboard was next to U.S. Route 183 in Austin, Texas, more than 2,000 miles from Spokane.
Staffing shortages heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a surge in anti-police protests and rhetoric, are draining police departments across the United States. As a result, departments have stepped up recruiting efforts and are searching for innovative ways to slow turnover. Some, like Spokane’s, are advertising in far-off districts, hoping to lure potential candidates to other parts of the country with large signing bonuses.
The Austin Police Department has its own staffing problems. Last July, Chief Joseph Chacon said the department was losing an average of 15-20 officers per month. By December, 231 of the department’s 1,809 positions were empty. A department spokesperson said in an email that the force continues to see fewer applicants and “rapid increases” in retirements and resignations.
In a June 2021 survey of 200 police departments around the county, the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that, on average, departments were filling only 93 percent of budgeted positions. The survey found a 45 percent increase in retirements and an 18 percent increase in resignations.
At 844 full-time, sworn officers, the Omaha Police Department has 62 fewer officers than its authorized strength of 906. Two years ago, the department reached an all-time high of 886, but instead of hitting its target of 900, numbers began to dwindle. “We’ve seen a more aggressive number of those leaving the Omaha Police Department or either retiring early,” Police Chief Todd Schmaderer told the Omaha World-Herald. “A lot of the exit interviews just center around burnout and loss of interest in the career. ... Fortunately, we’re not near the level that some cities are.”
Those cities include Durham, N.C., where police Chief Patrice Andrews has joined her officers to patrol the city. The department budgets for 627 officers and has 90 unfilled positions. In Seattle, more than 350 officers have left the department in the past two years. Now the department is missing 17 percent of its workforce. Since the beginning of 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department has lost about 300 officers.
Even if departments begin filling spots, they will still have months of shortages. In Texas, a candidate will spend three to four months on an application, followed by a three- to four-month hiring process. Then he or she spends about six months at the police academy and another six to 12 months on probation before becoming a full-fledged officer.
When James Dudley joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1980, the city would often receive 10 times more applications than positions, he said. A 32-year veteran, he served as a patrol officer, sergeant, inspector, lieutenant, captain, and deputy chief. He said that problems with recruiting have been 10 years in the making: Younger people want jobs that won’t tie them down, and they place less value on job security and retirement benefits. Current low unemployment rates promise more career choices. At the same time, many older officers have become eligible to retire.
Lars Trautman, a former prosecutor who works with the conservative criminal justice reform initiative Right on Crime, said police chiefs have raised the alarm for more than a decade about the need to improve recruiting. Low retention rates may partially reflect the fact that police are asked to wear too many hats and address issues like homelessness, addiction, and mental health problems. “The job itself often looks a little bit more like social work than war,” he said. “No person can do 12 different jobs perfectly.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 — and subsequent budget cuts at many departments — amplified those staffing problems. The “steady drumbeat” of an anti-police narrative has affected the way people look at the job, Trautman noted. Attrition rates accelerated as many officers who were eligible to retire didn’t see much reason to stay.
For small departments, a small increase in attrition has an outsized impact. Nearly two-thirds of rank-and-file officers in the city of Carlsbad, Calif., have served for less than five years, Jim Willis, president of the Carlsbad Police Officers Association, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “This high turnover rate here locally is devastating,” Willis said. “When we lose these veteran officers, we lose the institutional knowledge developed over years on the job — that knowledge specific to the community that can’t be trained.”
Police departments are offering incentives to gain recruits. In Durham, N.C., police officials provide a $5,000 bonus to new hires. Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz released a plan to recruit staffers and retain officers by offering more mental health support and a three-day weekend. The New York City Police Department eliminated its $40 application fee. The Chicago Police Department has lowered its college requirements for officers.
While departments should find ways to speed up the hiring process, they shouldn’t lower standards to attract applicants, argued Dorothy Moses Schulz, an expert on policing with the Manhattan Institute in New York and a former city MTA Metro-North Railroad Police captain. She said that’s especially true at a time when police are under criticism for not maintaining professional behavior.
Dudley retired from the San Francisco Police Department at age 55 and now teaches criminal justice at San Francisco State University. He is working to address recruitment challenges as a consultant for Interview Now, a company helping law enforcement agencies modernize their hiring processes. He suggested more police agencies follow the example of the Los Angeles Police Department and provide mentors to keep in touch with recruits throughout the hiring process and help with questions.
Anti-police narratives must be countered with “top-down messaging,” Dudley said. Cities need to support officers publicly, rather than dampening morale by supporting prosecutors who let chronic violent offenders off the hook after police work hard to get them off the streets. He said police need to know that “they are valued and we know they are taking risks.”
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